Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Book review: The Ones You Trust, Caroline Overington (2018)

This snappy and intelligent crime thriller is one of the rare books – along with Bernard Keane’s 2015 novel ‘Surveillance’ and Michael Brissenden’s 2017 novel ‘The List’ – that deals in anything like an adequate fashion with the role social media plays in the contemporary public sphere. Overington’s novel is driven largely by dialogue and by a handful of main characters and very few of them come out of the drama looking very fresh. With the exception of a NSW Criminal Investigation Bureau detective, Paul Franklin, and two female uniformed constables named Panton and Sullivan (whose characters are not really properly used nor developed), by the end of the story everyone emerges looking somewhat dishevelled.

There is a lot that could be done in such a novel to increase the reader’s engagement with the story but that Overington hasn’t bothered with. There is not a lot of colour used to bring the sets used in the narrative to life, for one thing. And as mentioned before, a lot of the plot simply turns on conversations characters have with one another. If you’re looking for anything approximating poetry, this is not the book to find it in although there are topical angles supplied by people in the family of Emma Cardwell, the TV personality at the centre of the story, including her drug-using niece Airlie. There’s a clipped functionalism at the heart of this addictive page-turner, it’s ingenious in its design and engrossing in the reading. I’m going to use spoilers in what follows, so readers who don’t want to know what happens in the book should top reading this now.

The basic story gravitates around Emma, who fronts one of the country’s premier breakfast shows, and whose daughter has been kidnapped. The child is a girl aged about 18 months and her name is Fox-Piper. Fox for short. The strategy of the plotters was to have one of their mothers (Ellen Painter) pick up the girl from her daycare centre but the girl slips out of the lift she is riding in with the woman and goes missing in the multi-level shopping centre (shopping mall, for Americans) the daycare centre is located in. The woman eventually finds the girl after Fox has been stopped by a shopping centre security guard. They are caught on a closed-circuit TV camera mounted on the wall of the shopping centre. According to the plan, Brandon Cole, Emma’s American husband, is to discover the child has been taken from the daycare centre by an unknown person and is to raise the alarm. But he fails to go to pick up his daughter at lunchtime and it’s not until evening arrives and Emma comes home from work that the alarm is finally sounded.

Franklin and his constables set up an operations room in Brandon’s study in Brandon’s and Emma’s house and Maven (whose real name is Sally Hanson), the TV station’s communications head, arrives to handle the community response and to maximise the benefit to the network of the notoriety created in the community by the events as they unfold. Emma’s co-compere on the morning couch, PJ Peterson, fronts a special episode of the TV show to cover the investigation and the community backlash that erupts in support of Emma. Even the TV station’s main rival is giving wall-to-wall coverage to the story.

There are clever cameos set aside for Emma’s and Brandon’s sons Hudson and Seal. The police bring in child psychologists to interview them in order to find out if the people in Emma’s family are telling the truth and these scenes are handled by the author with aplomb. And feisty and self-interested Maven is a ubiquitous linchpin in the drama, forming part of the story at key moments when the plot is made to take its turns. A sudden swerve occurs when a paparazzo named John Meddow (nicknamed ‘Pap’) discovers that Emma’s driver Liam Painter had taken Fox to his house in Sydney’s west where his mother, a foster carer for many years, has been looking after the girl. Maven organises for PJ to drive in a convoy to the house and there Brandon kicks down the front door, storms through the house, and shoots Liam dead with his pistol as Liam is holding two ferocious dogs by their leashes.

In the end it turns out that PJ and a TV personality named Roxie Moore organised the kidnapping in order to lift ratings for PJ’s and Emma’s show. Roxie had gambled on Emma quitting the show even if Fox was found, and a conversation that unfolds between Maven and the network’s owner shows she had been correct in her assessment of the likelihood that the network would remove Emma from the breakfast couch. PJ had wanted to get a transfer to a news show the network operates called ‘Investigate’ and Roxie helped him put together the plan. Unknown to either of them, Emma had been told of the plan by Liam and had known Fox’s whereabouts all along. Once the special program that puts an end point to the public drama – featuring an interview conducted by Emma with Liam’s mother, Ellen – has gone to air, Emma tells Maven that she wants to be transferred to ‘Investigate’ along with a posting in London. PJ is stuck with Roxie, who has moved into his apartment and is fronting the morning show with him in Emma’s stead, and he doesn’t know how to get rid of her. So there is some justice after all. And Franklin still won’t let things lie, so you’re left wondering in the end if all of the available cards have been dealt.

Overington’s plot reminded me of the very good recent movie ‘Nightcrawler’ which starred Jake Gyllenhall as Louis Bloom, a stringer for a TV network who makes his living from covering grisly traffic accidents. In the end Bloom orchestrates a shooting, which he captures on camera even though it turns out to be fatal for his employee, and sets up a team of trucks to capitalise on his success. Like Dan Gilroy’s 2014 movie, Overington’s novel forms part of recent commentary on the media and how it thrives on excess and drama for ratings, and therefore for revenue. It is also critical, as have been Keane and Brissenden, of a supine Australian public that stimulates with constant feedback the media and the politicians who use Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. In this novel, the process turns out to be fatal for at least one man. Emma might be off to London but Ellen has to bury her son.

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