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Play it again, Sam

For a fair few years, it wasn't New Zealand literary fiction that made readers wince; it was the popular stuff. Our sparse scatter of romance, thriller, adventure writers were amateur night at best. Okay, Bob Jones still is, but in most genres, we've now got a decent list of achievers. Here's another.

All I knew of Vanda Symon before reading her first novel, Overkill, was that she's an ex-pharmacist, lives in Dune-din and looks very comely. I got that from the author photo and coy blurb.

The success of her murder semi-mystery is largely due to her protagonist. South Island small-town PC Sam(antha?) Shephard is stroppy, subversive, sexy. She's also stuffed up in the obligatory female sleuth manner. She can throw things with great

accuracy, and you know early on that this skill will be really important.

The killing is under way before chapter one even starts, and it reminds you that Symon is an ex-pharmacist. From there on, it's the pedal to Sam's mettle. A young mum is nastily terminated. The widower is Sam's ex-flame. The body is washed up, and the heroine seems about to be washed up as well. Dora the town gossip provides a clue. So does a forged prescription.

The place names scroll by: Gore; Winton; Queenstown; a rural settlement 50km northeast of Invercargill that may or may not be thrilled to find itself the home of a homicidal nutter.

There's room for a smear test, a bit of sexual blackmail, a suspension (it always happens), a pregnancy, three stitches in the head and cowshit in the hair. Shortish chapters and clear scene changes keep it brisk. The Privacy Act, Asian bird flu, CYF and an Indian GP keep it authentic. An explosive climactic scene features

unauthorised and injurious use of a mobile phone.

It's essential that a crime writer can overwrite, and Symon does so conscientiously. Clichés and set speeches

thrive, which isn't altogether inappropriate to the genre. Small-town decencies, bigotries and crises are neatly depicted. The threat of factory closure is nudgingly real. So are Toffee Pops served on Royal Doulton, and grass fires caused by incinerated possums falling from power lines. She doesn't always get the emotions right: a lot of reactions tend to be wooden or leaden. But she cares for her characters, which is always a bonus.

It's the first in a proposed series, so the final pages consist of that irritating add-on, an extract from the second book. But good on Penguin NZ for getting in behind its new author. And Dunedin, be warned: you're the next setting.

OVERKILL, by Vanda Symon (Penguin, $28)