What Came Before by Anna George

‘My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.’

What Came Before Anna GeorgeThis is the dramatic opening of What Came Before, the brilliant psychological thriller debut by Melbourne writer Anna George. The rest of the novel reveals how the murder came to happen.

We see Forrester’s wife, Elle, before her death. She’s working in the film industry, having left a career in law. With one successful film behind her, she is busy directing another. This latest is about “limerance”, the early stages of romantic love.

Elle encounters Forrester, a high-powered lawyer she remembers from her legal days. She is immediately attracted. By what? His looks, the interest in art they share. Certainly not his sociability, as he proves indifferent to her friends. As they begin their relationship, she experiences an almost delusional infatuation – the “limerance” of her film’s title – which leads her to ignore warning signs that the relationship isn’t healthy.

Unknown to Elle, Forrester’s marriage has disintegrated, leaving him angry at his ex and missing his young step-daughter. He’s also a frustrated artist, a control freak and a very unhappy man.

Throughout the narrative, point of view switches from Forrester, as he dictates his “witness statement” and consults a retired QC for legal counsel, to Elle, as she lies in death – or the imagined transition that follows death. This dual narration, swapping tenses between past and present, makes for compelling reading as we are led inexorably to the inciting incident, Elle’s death.

One question often asked about women in abusive relationships is, “Why did they stay?” What Came Before answers this question. “Limerance” makes us idolise our partners, letting us see only what we want to see; tells us to forgive their failings, to look only at their good qualities; blinds us to the escalating “cycle of violence”. The longer we stay, the more we believe they are essentially “good”, that their character defects are a result of damage done in childhood, that we are connected to them in some essential way, the more dangerous the relationship becomes.

Anna George has drawn on her own experience* of “emotional abuse” to create the relationship between Forrester and Elle, and her experience shows. For me, though not for all reviewers, she manages to make Elle sympathetic, despite her irrational choices. George also conveys what it’s like to be the man who resorts to violence, his self-justifications, his belief that he was provoked. If I had one criticism of the characterisation of What Came Before, it’s of the moment when Forrester makes a transition from “emotional abuser” to “physical abuser”. For me, the transition appeared too abrupt. Thinking about his behaviour in terms of “narcissistic rage”, however, I can make more sense of it. Far from being egoistic, Narcissists lack the internal resilience that would allow a healthier psyche to take criticism, perceived rejection or opposition. In this light, George gets the psychology for Forrester right; the result is believable and frightening.

The publishers have described this novel as “literary”, and in the vein of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. What Came Before is clever, like Flynn’s novel, but the cleverness isn’t at the expense of its emotional truth. The characters come across as real, their motivations consistent, their delusions understandable. Does this make it “literary”? It’s a well-written psychological thriller which deserves to become a best-seller.

Anna George has been added to my already impressive list of “must read” Australian female crime and suspense authors. I can’t wait for her next book.

* Anna George mentioned this in an interview with Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling blog, here.

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This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley. What Came Before has already been reviewed for the AWW challenge by:

Author: Anna George
Title: What Came Before
Published:25/06/2014
ISBN-13:9780670077731
ISBN-10:0670077739
Publisher:Penguin Aus
Imprint:Viking

Blood Witness by Alex Hammond – Debut Aussie crime

hammond-blood-witness-male-authorDefence lawyer Will Harris is reluctantly drawn into a bizarre murder trial. A terminally ill man claims to have witnessed the brutal crime – in a vision. But the looming trial is more than just a media circus: it’s Will’s first big case since the tragic death of his fiancée.

With the pressure mounting, Will’s loyalties are split when his fiancée’s sister is charged with drug trafficking. The strain of balancing both cases takes its toll and Will finds himself torn between following the law and seeking justice.
(Source: Penguin website)

Although for the past couple of years I’ve concentrated on reading books by Australian women, my first love has always been crime. Male or female authors, Australian or international, it hasn’t mattered. I started with an early reading diet of Agatha Christie – my dad’s favourite – along with his beloved “true crime” pulps from the 1960s, with their deliciously lurid covers. As a teenager, I progressed on to Simenon and Arthur Conan Doyle, to Barbara Vine, PD James and Elizabeth George. In more recent years I developed a passion for Henning Mankell and other Swedish crime authors, as well as the novels of husband-and-wife writing team Nicci French. Before that I gravitated towards page-turning psychological thrillers from the US like those by Michael Palmer, and legal thrillers by John Grisham and Richard North Patterson. It’s into the latter category that Alex Hammond’s debut legal thriller fits, Blood Witness, as the publisher’s hook goes: ‘One man’s search for justice and redemption [which] plunges him into the violent world of Melbourne’s underbelly.’

Especially considering Hammond is a first-time author, the story doesn’t disappoint. The opening prologue, which sets up the protagonist Will’s character and motivation, is as exciting as anything I’ve read in a long time. It says much for Hammond’s story-telling skills and augurs well for his future writing. (Blood Witness is the start of a series.)

Apart from the engaging, anti-hero protagonist and insight into Melbourne’s social and criminal worlds, what particularly interests me about this book is the way Hammond weaves in an obscure legal precedent from Britain. Hammond uses the (fictional?) case of ‘R. v Lam’, which touches on the late nineteenth-century fascination with spiritualism, both to develop intriguing plot points and moments of suspense, and also to shed light on the workings of the Australian legal system. His insights, no doubt, draw on his own background as a lawyer.

Some readers might find parts of this story confronting, particularly Harris’ legal team’s defence of the indefensible, the sexual grooming of adolescents. However the book is not without touches of grim humour to relieve the tension. Some of the humour is generated by the protagonist’s relationship with his cat, Toby, whom he has neglected:

Silence from Toby was indicative of nothing. He could be content or plotting a furniture-oriented revenge.

Elsewhere, Hammond sends up the potential melodrama of his narrative by foregrounding it. This is his description of the dying psychic, Kovacs, whose unlikely testimony becomes pivotal to the defence’s case; Kovacs is being hauled by a pneumatic lift into the back of a van:

The driver turned on the mechanism and Kovacs slowly started to rise and rattle like a bad effect from a horror movie.

While the plot is page-turning and rarely flags, as it progresses it does stretch credulity. Still, Hammond’s ‘scientific’ explanation at the end, which makes sense of some of the wilder aspects of the narrative, should satisfy sceptical readers and justify their suspension of disbelief.

Likely to appeal to fans of Law & Order, Rumpole and Rake alike, Blood Witness is overall a very good read. I’m looking forward to Book 2 in the series.

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Title: Blood Witness
Author: Alex Hammond
Publisher: Penguin Australia / Michael Joseph
Year: 2013
ISBN: 9781921901492
Review copy kindly supplied by the publisher.

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