Black River by Matthew Spencer Review

Black River by Matthew Spencer, a blistering debut crackling with tension, is a clever, gripping, and fabulous read that doesn’t disappoint. Read my full review.

Black River Synopsis

Rose Riley #1

The elite neighborhoods of Sydney are becoming a serial killer’s hunting ground. But for a city—and a detective—on the edge, not everything is as it seems in a twisting novel of suspense.

During a stifling summer in Sydney, the body of a chaplain’s daughter is found wrapped in black plastic on the deserted grounds of an elite boarding school. Is it the work of the killer who’s been stalking the privileged neighborhoods along the Parramatta River? Gut instinct tells Detective Sergeant Rose Riley something even more devious might be at play.

Eager to find the so-called Blue Moon Killer before he strikes again, Riley forms an uneasy alliance with Adam Bowman, a journalist with a valuable, and unsettling, link to the school’s history. As Riley’s investigation takes her deep into the secret lives of Sydney’s prominent citizens, Bowman delves into the darkest places of his own childhood for answers. When their paths converge, Riley must use every bit of her cunning to stop another murder.

Excavating Bowman’s past might just be the key to unlocking the case. Or it could prove to be Riley’s undoing. Because clue by clue she’s being pulled into the sights of a killer.

Thomas & Mercer, 2023

Categories Crime Thrillers, Mystery & Detective

Matthew Spencer | Pub Date Jun 13, 2023 | ISBN 9781662510069 | 304 pages

Book Review

In Matthew Spencer’s debut thriller, Black River, set in contemporary Sydney, a sadistic serial killer that journalists have dubbed BMK (Blue Moon Killer) is on the loose. BMK has already targeted and murdered two women in separate Gladesville houses on the Parramatta River, when someone discovers the body of a third victim on the grounds of a posh boys’ boarding school. The first question for Rose Riley and Steve O’Neil, the lead detectives of the BMK task force, is whether the new victim is the work of the same killer. They discover there are many similarities to the first two murders, but also troubling discrepancies. A forensic psychiatrist on the task force feels the third murder is unrelated, but as team leader, O’Neil overrules the psychiatrist. With useful physical evidence from the other crime scenes scant, the team focuses on victim number three. Then we’re into the nuts and bolts of a standard police procedural for much of the remaining story.

Spencer crafted a cleverly plotted, pacy novel with a plausible premise and all the trappings of Australian noir storytelling. He also displays a flair for dialogue that’s in keeping with the genre. Also, Spencer generates a genuinely foreboding atmosphere based not only on cops struggling desperately to catch a predator who is escalating their violent behavior, but on the overarching threat of what might happen if they fail. And there’s nothing more terrifying than that. The mind can imagine anything. The unrelenting tension produces anticipation for the reader, which keeps us turning the pages.

The characters, from the dedicated but cynical detectives to staff members at the boarding school to some of the more unsavory support members of the cast, are realistically drawn. While the publisher bills Black River as the first book in the Rose Riley series (named for Detective Sergeant Rose Riley), I’m unsure she is the sole protagonist in the story. Adam Bowman, a newspaper journalist, gets about as much play in the novel as Riley. We spend a lot of time inside Bowman’s head, get the benefit of his perspective, and learn much of his backstory. Bowman, coincidentally, attended the boarding school and grew up there as the son of a resident teacher. He is a hackneyed journalist at a dying local print newspaper who gets a new lease on his professional life when the police feed him tidbits of information on the crimes and killer that helps grow his stature with his editor and peers. Of course, the cynical cops are only using him to draw out BMK or force the killer to make mistakes. Bowman realizes that, but still uses the arrangement to his best advantage and he plays a significant role in the story.

The fun part of Black River for the reader is the struggle to work out the whodunit part. Spencer offers us an array of suspects and leads us down a few blind alleys that we follow willingly. He uses Riley’s suspicions to almost convince us to believe a character we have already found likeable and developed empathy for might be BMK. And just when it seems the cops have learned something that eliminates the character as a suspect, Spencer tosses us another twist that makes Riley and us suspect the character all over again. I found that technique brilliant, allowing Spencer to keep us in limbo, and that added much tension and suspense.

Having spent time in Sydney and being familiar with the climate, geography, and many of the notable Sydney landmarks Spencer uses in the novel, I found the book satisfyingly atmospheric. However, readers who have not traveled to Australia might not get the same impression. But if you love crime fiction and choose to read this book, you’re in for a treat. With lots of twists and turns along the way, based on originality, readability and Spencer’s ability to keep us on the edge of our seats, Black River ticks all the boxes for a superbly crafted and gripping crime thriller.

I received an advance copy of the book for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★

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