Australian journalist Katherine Firkin’s debut crime novel Sticks and Stones is a procedural with the works. Harried detectives juggling personal and private lives, hot button social issues, possibly a serial killer, and plenty of suspense.
The plot centres around Detective Emmet Corban who runs the Missing Persons Unit. The Unit takes on cases where the local police have failed to make progress. When the book opens he is investigating one case that he suspects may not be a missing person at all and quickly turns his attention to another case. When both missing women, seemingly unconnected, are found killed in the same way, Corban is not only asked to continue investigating the homicides but has to try and work out what is going on before more women are taken.
While Corban’s investigation forms the central driver of the novel, Firkin’s authorial eye ranges over a large range of characters. Corban has none of the tortured backstory of lone wolf detectives, he is just a hard working policeman trying to do his job while managing a team of flawed but recognisable workers. Outside of the police, Firkin alights on a number of characters to both deepen the main plot but also to flesh out her themes and issues. There are also the seemingly compulsory, killer’s backstory sections in a different font, that are interleaved with the action. She uses this wide range of characters to explore and expose a range of current Australian social issues. These include perceptions and expressions of motherhood, workplace power dynamics and #MeToo related issues and the placement of young people with disability in old age homes.
Firkin does a great job of setting up a number of potential characters as the killer as much of the non-investigative action of the book revolves around power games between men and women. The reader is constantly having to ask themselves, are these just men behaving badly, or the general result of a relationship gone bad, or is there something deeper behind their actions? Firkin uses this ambiguity to ramp up the tension by playing on reader expectations around some common crime fiction tropes. And to perhaps draw the conclusion that many men behave badly, even those without a distressing childhood backstory of neglect and abuse.
Bucking the recent trend of Australian crime fiction to head to more rural settings, Firkin sets Sticks and Stones firmly in urban territory of inner city Melbourne. She effectively turns her eye to the local communities, based around local schools and sports clubs, but also the newly developed spaces, the overpasses, high rises and hidden natural spots.
Sticks and Stones is an effective debut crime thriller littered with red herrings. And while the conclusion relies a little too heavily on coincidence, the solution of the crimes is not really the point. The crimes themselves and their impact on individuals and the community give Firkin a wide canvas to explore the city of Melbourne, its communities and a range of social issues.