Crimson Lake

Candice Fox


“12.46: Thirteen-year-old Claire Bingley stands alone at a bus stop
12.47: Ted Conkaffey parks his car beside her
12.52: The girl is missing…

Six minutes – that’s all it took to ruin Detective Ted Conkaffey’s life. Accused but not convicted of Claire’s abduction, he escapes north, to the steamy, croc-infested wetlands of Crimson Lake.

Amanda Pharrell knows what it’s like to be public enemy number one. Maybe it’s her murderous past that makes her so good as a private investigator, tracking lost souls in the wilderness. Her latest target, missing author Jake Scully, has a life more shrouded in secrets than her own – so she enlists help from the one person in town more hated than she is: Ted.

But the residents of Crimson Lake are watching the pair’s every move. And for Ted, a man already at breaking point, this town is offering no place to hide…”

Sydney born writer Candice Fox had what she describes as an ‘odd’ childhood. The daughter of a parole-officer father and a foster-carer mother who “fostered over 150 children, rehabilitated over 500 Australian native animals and was at one time writing to 20 prison inmates simultaneously”, Fox learned early that crime is just a part of the world we live in; something that can affect anyone at anytime. And so her fiction speaks to this truth, exploring what happens when bad things happen to good people, and when good people do bad things. Her first novel Hades - the first in her Eden Archer / Frank Bennett series - won the Ned Kelly award for best debut in 2014. A year later its sequel, Eden, took the major gong at the Neddies for Best Crime Novel. The third in the series, Fall, too, was released to critical acclaim. Not one to rest on her laurels, Fox collaborated with her best-selling American stablemate James Patterson on Never Never, a thriller set in the Australian outback.

With Crimson Lake, Fox brings us to the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, where she paints a mood not unlike the Louisiana of Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO series, True Detective. The Cairns marshlands of Crimson Lake provide a sinister backdrop for former drug squad detective Ted Conkaffey’s attempt to keep his head low after his life has fallen apart. Indeed Crimson Lake comes to life in a way reminiscent of Tony Cavanaugh’s similarly-located Darian Richards series, playing a python-like character that promises to suffocate secrets and swallow sin.

“Moss and vines grew on every surface they could manage. Along the rivers, broken-down houses with yawning doorways squatted in the bush, peering out, not a brick or patch of wood that composed them showing through their cloaks of lush leaves. This was a town where the bad things about a person’s life might be eaten up. The constant dampness, the regular rains, the rivers and lakes that swelled and grabbed at the roadsides could wash away histories, cleanse sins. It was a place that wanted to consume itself; a warm, green abyss. I fell into its arms.”

It is in Crimson Lake that Ted Conkaffey finds himself a reluctant leader of a family of geese and the unlikely investigative colleague of convicted murderer Amanda Pharrell. And it is this pairing of deeply flawed and antagonistic ‘outsider’ characters that is Fox’s key strength as a crime writer. Where Eden Archer (serial-killer-cop-with-a-moral-compass) and Frank Bennett (straight-shooting-homicide-detective) explored the grey intersection of revenge and justice, Conkaffey and Pharrell offer us a view on the fallout when ordinary people are accused of extraordinary acts. The conflict between Conkaffey and Pharrell delivers the reader some sharp banter, and their respective investigative styles allow Fox to explore all three intersecting plots from a range of angles. Fox’s cast of supporting characters offer access where required (the local coroner, a tenacious and sexy reporter), but none feel superficial; each offering a hint of something deeper to be explored if this standalone (hopefully) becomes a series.

Conkaffey and Pharrell investigate the disappearance and likely death of an internationally successful local writer, unearthing some creepy undercurrents in sleepy Crimson Lake. The narrative belts along like a humid steam-train, and apart from one key snappy element that felt a little too ‘unreal’ to this reader (so much so that it’s probably all too real), it’s fair to say this is an almost-perfect read. Amanda’s point of view towards the end really brought this galloping home and set us up for an enthralling second instalment.

What happened to Ted could happen to any of us. What happened to Amanda is what happens to the vulnerable. Where these two stories meet is where Fox’s insights into the lifelong damage brought by trauma makes this thriller stand apart from the crowd. One to read in a single-sitting and read again in anticipation of a sequel. I’m filing this one under ‘series’ in hope.