Australian crime fiction suffered two body blows in 2018 when the two great Peters – Temple and Corris – died within months of each other. While they can never be replaced, there is, thankfully, a younger generation stepping up to the plate, and Candice Fox (left) is in the first rank of these. No-one needs to be reminded of the great detective duos of the past, but Fox has created a partnership for the 21st century in the persons of Ted Conkaffey and Amanda Pharrell.
Conkaffey is a former Sydney cop whose life has been consumed, chewed up and spat out by the media after he was wrongly accused of sexual offences against a teenage girl. His former colleagues have dropped the case, but mud sticks and, like Sisyphus, Conkaffey is doomed forever to push the boulder of public memory up the metaphorical hill. He has, however, earned a serious reputation for solving crime as a PI in the distinctive company of Amanda Pharrell.
Candice Fox is a Sydney girl born and bred, but she has picked Ted Conkaffey up and set him down 1200 miles further north in the steamy tropics near Cairns in Queensland. Conkaffey is brought in by the local police who are baffled by the disappearance of a young boy from a room in the White Caps Hotel. Richie Farrow’s mum had been down in the restaurant along with the parents of three other boys, with the lads apparently safe upstairs together in room 608, watching DVDs, playing computer games and larking about, with the parents taking turns to check up on them every hour. When Sara Farrow takes her turn, she is horrified to find there are only three boys in the room, and it is her Richie who has gone.
A frantic police investigation ensues, but there is neithr sight nor sound of the missing boy, and Chief Damien Clark reluctantly calls in Conkaffey to help with the search. Conkaffey agrees, but only if his partner is involved. He’s aware that Pharrell is held in greater disregard by the police than he is, but she is a formidable talent despite her unconventional manner and appearance.
“There is something deeply wrong with Amanda Pharrell.
Whatever it is, it defies logic. It’s a slippery indefinable thing that arms her with an eternal supply of social confidence, while at the same time preventing her from doing anything except horrifying, disturbing or annoying people everywhere she goes……I was only mildly surprised to see her there in the doorway, materialised out of thin air, in a gold sequined minidress and six-inch stiletto heels painted with red flames.”
Richie Farrell’s disappearance is less of a conundrum than a downright impossibility. There is no obvious motive, no forensic evidence, and no sign of him – or his abductor – on the plentiful CCTV footage in and around the hotel. When the solution does come, it is extremely ingenious, and owes its surprising nature to the characters in the story – and us readers – making the kinds of assumptions that the great consulting detective of 221B Baker Street was so good at avoiding.
Before Gone By Midnight concludes dramatically in a crocodile infested mangrove swamp, Candice Fox has us suffering in the fierce Cairns humidity, wiping the sweat away with one hand while swatting the predatory. ‘mozzies’ with the other. Conkaffey’s determination and decency as he tries to keep his personal life together combines with the extraordinary perceptive and observational skills of Pharrell to make an intriguing narrative. Yes, the diminutive and feisty investigator is considerable larger than life, but this is crime fiction after all, and crime fiction right out of the top drawer. A beautifully devious plot, memorable characters, a totally authentic setting and cracking dialogue. What more do you need? Gone By Midnight is published by Century/Penguin Books and will be out on 24th January.