Leah Giarratano, Black Ice

Black Ice (A Detective Jill Jackson Mystery #3)Black Ice by Leah Giarratano

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Leah Giarratano’s Black Ice is a crime novel that portrays a clash between the glitz-and-glamour of the Eastern suburbs and the underworld of Sydney’s west. It follows the exploits of undercover detective Jill Jackson (“Krystal”), her super-model-good-looking party-girl sister Cassie and single mother Seren, a woman with a heart of gold who got mixed up with the wrong people and ended up doing a jail sentence while her ten-year-old son Marco was farmed out to DoCs. Together and apart these women face the threats posed by hot-shot lawyer Christian, thug drug-dealer Nader and their hangers-on.

Sounds unlikely? It is. But Giarratano is an experienced forensic psychologist whose work has given her an entree into the seedy side of Sydney’s life, so at one level we have to trust that her characters and plot scenario are authentically portrayed. Yet there was little here I recognised here about the city I grew up in. Much of the language, characterisation, plot and setting came across to me as if they could easily translate into a Hollywood movie.

Maybe to critique Giarratano’s book for its lack of distinctive “Australianness” is unfair. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that when the author did go for local colour – like her description of the underground food court off Dixon Street – it brought the narrative to life.

There were flashes, too, of edgy, lyrical writing: “Right now, just eleven o’clock in the morning, thrumming beneath the city was Saturday night, waiting to be released. It pulsed and throbbed, biding time, emitting sub-threshold vibrations that caused apprentices to focus for once, to hurry to finish their morning shifts. Fifteen-year-old schoolgirls drilled each other on the elaborate fairytales they’d created for their parents, about who was sleeping at whose house, and what to do if the oldies actually checked. The beautiful people sipped coffees in cafes, waking slowly, apparently languidly, but Saturday night waited beneath them and the beat started an itch they knew would not be scratched until the dark came…” (p207)

While not exactly a page-turner, the novel didn’t drag. Part of my problem with it might be because Giarratano’s main character, the detective Jill Jackson, is a character regular readers will have met before. That crucial set-up, where a reader is introduced to a character and a bond of empathy is formed, was missing for me. I didn’t know enough about Jill and her background to really care what happened to her – until some of her backstory was revealed halfway through. Even then, though, her conflict with her sister and its denouement which could have been – should have bee, an emotionally moving scene – coincided with the plot climax in a way that both seemed unlikely and an odd choice by the writer. (Who has an epiphany – and *talks* about it! – at a crime scene?)

The one character I did feel empathy for from the start was single-mum Seren. But I found myself resisting this empathy because I felt the author’s manipulation: Seren’s character, the naive ex-con, didn’t ring true to me. The scenes of her pre-release from prison, however, were among the books most vivid, frightening and memorable. Here Giarratano’s background really gives us an insight into a world most of us – thankfully – will never have to know firsthand.

Giarratano chose to distance her main character from the thick of the fray before the climax, a choice which surprised and disappointed me. But maybe that was because, by then, I was expecting her story to adhere to the narrative conventions of Hollywood: I wanted the main character to have something more at stake, something I could get worried about. The ending, while satisfying, didn’t deliver that extra bang that such stories usually contrive to create, either. But why should it? There were some neat twists.

Despite the shortcomings and reservations expressed here, I enjoyed this book. Maybe it was always going to be a tough call, reading and reviewing a simple crime novel after having just finished Charlotte Wood’s brilliant – though flawed in its own way, too – novel of small-town Australian life and family, The Children.

Read as part of the Aussie Author 2011 challenge, this review first appeared in GoodReads.

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