Benjamin Stevenson delivered one of the most compelling Australian crime debuts of 2018 in Greenlight. That book introduced documentary film maker and cold case chaser with issues Jack Quick. While the structure of Greenlight reflected documentary film making, his follow-up Either Side of Midnight takes readers into the world of late night celebrity TV.
The book opens with what can only be described as an open and shut case. Media star Sam Midford, known as Mr Midnight, takes his own life a few minutes into his live-to-air current affairs show. In the aftermath the police find pornography on his laptop and the case is well and truly closed. Sam’s twin brother Harry, approaches Jack, still in prison after the events of Greenlight, and asks him to investigate. Despite all evidence to the contrary Harry believes Sam was murdered. Jack does not agree and does not care, but once out of prison he realises that he needs the money that Harry is offering. While Jack does not agree with Sam he starts to go through the motions and soon his investigative senses are twitching as he finds that maybe there is something suspicious going on after all.
While Jack’s investigation is at the centre of this book it is his own battle with mental illness that informs much of the action. And while it is a subplot, the relationship between Jack and his father and the decisions that they have to make with regard to Jack’s brother Liam, form an emotional core of this story. And Jack’s use of television and movie metaphors and analogies to explore certain aspects of what he sees adds an engaging tweak to his point of view.
But this book should come with a trigger warning. Much like Michael Robotham’s Ned Kelly Award winner Shatter, it centres around suicide and the power of words. Stevenson includes transcripts from actual circumstances where people have encouraged or goaded others via the internet to commit suicide. At one point he touches on the controversy over the final episode of the first season of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why which some believe may have led to an increase in teen suicide. It is a tough but important topic, particularly given the ubiquity of mobile devices and social media but while it is handled well, this could be difficult for some readers.
In Either Side of Midnight, Stevenson does not try to copy the elements that led to the success of Greenlight. Rather he takes his well-drawn character and throws him into a totally different situation, having learnt from experience (Jack certainly does not want to go to jail again). This is a page turner in the true sense of the word – able to read in one sitting, building to a tense (if slightly far-fetched) finale after establishing and resolving a tantalising, impossible “locked room” style mystery.