While the idea of interpretation and interpreters as a way of exploring culture has had a successful run in science fiction (cf: China Meiville’s Embassytown and Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life) and fantasy (RF Kuang’s Babel) it is not one that has yet been overused in the crime genre. And with authors always on the lookout for a new way into crime fiction, UK-based Australian author Brooke Robinson successfully leans into this role in her debut crime novel The Interpreter.
Revelle is an interpreter who works for a service that contracts to the British legal system to provide translators for police interviews and in court cases. Her job relies on her being completely neutral, to translate the words of the person she is representing without judging what they are saying, their guilt or innocence. But Revelle is a bit of a mess. She is in the middle of trying to adopt Elliot, a six-year-old boy, lives right on the edge of her finances and still carries the scars of a mistake she made while doing a job for the child protection service. And when she finds herself making judgements of the people she is translating for and slightly mistranslating to secure her version of justice, her life starts to veer more out of control. None of which is helped by the fact that there is possibly someone out to destroy her.
The Interpreter is tense and disturbing from the outset. The opening scenes have Revelle leaving Elliot with a court security guard so she can go in and do her job (because she desperately needs the money and has no other support) only to have trouble finding him when she emerges. So that much of the tension in the first half of the book revolves as much around the pressures in Revelle’s life as it does around any overarching plot. One way Robinson tries to keep readers hooked into that broader story are the tried and true short italicised chapters from another, malevolent point of view and later the slowly emerging backstory of Revelle’s early failure.
The Interpreter is a tough read often because Revelle herself is a little hard to like, particularly once she decides she should not just interpret but can somehow be an instrument of justice. While this makes Revelle a little unlikeable it also reveals a complex character who wants to make a difference and does, through learning hard truths, slowly finds out how to do that. So when the web around her starts to tighten just as she is trying to do the right thing, it is only a hard hearted reader who will not get behind her.
The Interpreter is the promising debut of another unique voice on the crime fiction scene. It is an intriguing, tense novel that takes an interesting slant on the criminal justice system and yet another way in which it can fail the people caught up in it.