ARC courtesy NetGalley – release date 7 July 2021 in Australia.
There is a great and abiding darkness in Catch Us the Foxes by Nicola West which belies its setting in the bucolically sunny climes of the NSW South Coast, specifically the popular tourist town of Kiama, known most famously for the Blowhole which attracts sightseers from around the country, and in pre-COVID times, the world.
The darkness is readily apparent almost immediately with Marlowe “Lo” Robertson and her friends seemingly at edge on what should be a fun outing to the town’s annual show.
What you might think would be a typically riotously fun and escapist jaunt from the banal tones of the everyday instead feels suffocatingly inadequate with Lo clearly not happy that she is still living in the town, and dissatisfied with her relationship with her father, the local police chief, and with her internship at the local paper whose limited reporting outlook the nascent journalist is eager to escape.
But wanting to escape and actually getting away are two completely different things, and when Lo’s childhood bestie, Lily, is found murdered at the show’s stables, it becomes apparent that the protagonist’s inner darkness might in fact have an outer manifestation stalking the town.
Quite that this is best left to the reading of brilliantly thrilling novel which keeps unsettling you just when you think you know where it’s heading and that its outcome will be, proof that West is not inclined to simply tell a quietly unassuming mystery that goes from A to B with only a few mild bumps along the road.
“Already, the crowd was slowly filing out of the grandstand, making their way towards the exits. I struggled to think that Lily’s killer could be among them. While Kiama was a tourist town, the show was predominantly attended by locals. It was our way of reclaiming our home after spending the summer holidays being swamped by strangers. Which meant, as unfathomable as it may have seemed, that I likely knew the culprit. I quickened my pace.” (P. 21)
In fact, what you get with Catch Us the Foxes, which takes its title from the Bible book The Song of Solomon 2:15, is a narrative that builds up to one supposedly clearly evident point before whisking the tablecloth out from under your feast of mystery and tension and heading in an entirely different direction before switching back again until you don’t know if you are coming or going.
In the context of a thriller, this is an exceedingly good thing given the propensity of many mysteries to build and build to a certain point and finish there, a resolution pleasingly reached but with minimum fuss or sense of upset.
There is nothing wrong with this Agatha Christie-ish approach and indeed, there are many occasions where clearly-reached and fully-sustained justice is an intoxicatingly reassuring antidote to the chaotic uncertainties of life.
But by constantly upsetting the mystery-solving apple cart, and taking immersively compelling deep dives into the dark places of the human soul, and there are many in evidence here, West gives us in Catch Us the Foxes, a mystery thriller that sustains the tension endlessly and with only minor breaks while still reaching a fantastically unsettling conclusion.
For all its pell-mell hurtling into the blackened reaches of the world around us and the inner depths of people with whom we share it, Catch Us the Foxes isn’t populated by one-dimensional characters simply put there to service the plot.
In fact, there is a pleasing complexity to the likes of Lo, exiled gay artist Jarrah Walton whose relationship with his hometown is complicated to say the least, Lo’s best friend Dan, whose holding tight to a secret of his own, and Lily’s father Michael Williams, the local psychiatrist who it is alleged might be the mastermind behind something diabolical and terrible that lies of the very heart of Kiama’s seemingly innocent town life.
It is the richness of characterisation and the time West takes to build the world of the town and its people that alleges a pleasing amount of substance to the story.
So, while we get our thrills and spills, our ever-building sense of something wicked this way comes, we are able to enjoy it more fully because the people who bring it to life (and, of course, death) are so fully and engagingly realised.
One of the central themes that emerges from the book is the way people react to being in small, easly-known environments.
Some residents, like Michael and Sharon Williams, who have been in the area since white people arrived in the area, are wholly subsumed into and consumed by the town, happy to stay put for the full extent of their lives and never look further afield.
By way of stark, narrative-propelling contrast, however, there are those like Lily, who has just won a cadetship at a major newspaper in Sydney, Jarrah, whose art career has sent him far from the town that treated him so badly, and Lo who will do whatever it takes to get away to somewhere that is not where they grew up.
“But then I head a voice – a man’s – coming from the other side of the stables.
‘Fuck, man. What do we do?’
And then, another. ‘Get the bloody cuffs off, now.’
I knew who it was before I rounded the corner. And yet, I could never have anticipated what would be lying at his feet.” (P. 173)
In the context of a book like Catch Us the Foxes this comes with a tremendous cost.
For Lily, it is her life but for Lo, it is her willingness to sell out her soul to break what could be a career-establishing story, one whose full ghastly extent is suggested by strange symbols on Lily’s back which her father swears she will never mention to anyone.
Quite why that is, and the secrets that their revelation might unleash, forms the darkly alive heart of Catch Us the Foxes which is unrelenting brutal in its depiction of the terrible things people will do to realise their particular version of a good and successful life.
The novel thus spends much of its engrossing time beneath the pretty surface of a tourist town, happily exposing how far people will go to build their lives and to protect the secrets that inevitably sustain them while taking on a nerve-wrackingly vibrant dash from one beguiling set of possibilities to another.
Catch Us the Foxes is a seamlessly good mystery thriller that goes dark and goes there hard and without hesitation, crafting a story that weaves in and out of the seen and the not seen, constantly playing with what we think and what we see, to the point where, when it reaches its captivatingly unsettling end, we are left wondering just what it is lies beneath and whether we even want to raise the reassuring rug of familiarity to see.