I Shot the Devil by Ruth McIver was the winner of the 2018 Richelle Prize for emerging writers. Entrants must submit the first three chapters of their work and a synopsis of the rest. While the prologue of this book is a little disjointed and confusing, just the first chapter has enough style and hooks to keep readers going. And the whole book does not disappoint.
Erin Sloane is a true crime journalist working for a small New York publication called Inside Island. She is asked by her editor to write a story about the Southland Three – three teenagers involved in some killings that happened on Long Island fourteen years before. One teenager was beaten to death in an apparent satanic ritual by four others, the ringleader known as Ricky Hell, was then shot by the police. Only what her editor does not know, and what Erin does not reveal to her immediately, is that while she was not there she was intimately involved in a number of the players in that drama. So that going back to investigate will require Erin to face many of the demons from her past.
This setup is reminiscent of Gillian Flynn’s debut Sharp Objects – a journalist having to confront the darkness in her past while investigating both current and past crimes. But that is as far as the comparison’s go. McIver has her own style and sensibility that she brings to the story. For example
I felt the sense of snow in the air, the same way you anticipate a bone breaking.
The fact that the plot involves goth, satan worshipping teenagers in the 90s and police corruption helps set the scene. This milieu is thrown into sharp relief when Erin travels to the glitzy, surface brightness of Florida for the final third of the book.
Erin herself is a damaged. She carries the wounds of her childhood and teenagerhood, which included the death of her mother and sister and the descent of her cop father. She is self-medicating and in some ways self-destructive but also has a stubborn will to get to the truth of the killings that partially shaped her life even where this means putting herself in the line of fire. Her first person narrative is broken up by her own memoir and the highly unreliable, more impressionistic ramblings of one of the perpetrators of the original crime. This second comes across as a slightly contrived device to give Erin clues that she could not have found on her own but suspect enough to not necessarily give her the solution to the puzzle.
Erin investigates her way through a well-constructed plot that also brings in a separate but related cold case of kidnapped children. Only the some of the final twists, while wrapping things up, sit a little jarringly with the rest of the narrative. But for the most part this is a taut noir thriller from an exciting new voice in Australian crime fiction.