The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald (Allen & Unwin, 2019), 400 pp., $32
The blurb for this novel runs:
Tippy Chan is eleven and lives in a small town in a very quiet part of the world – the place her Uncle Pike escaped from the first chance he got as a teenager. Now Pike is back with his new boyfriend Devon to look after Tippy while her mum’s on a cruise.
Tippy is in love with her uncle’s old Nancy Drew books, especially the early ones where Nancy was sixteen and did whatever she wanted. She wants to be Nancy and is desperate to solve a real mystery. When her teacher’s body is found beside Riverstone’s only traffic light, Tippy’s moment has arrived. She and her minders form The Nancys, a secret amateur detective club.
But what starts as a bonding and sightseeing adventure quickly morphs into something far more dangerous. A wrongful arrest, a close call with the murderer, and an intervention from Tippy’s mum all conspire against The Nancys. But regardless of their own safety, and despite the constant distraction of questionable fashion choices in the town that style forgot, The Nancys know only they can stop the killer from striking again.
The old adage says you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but to be honest I was not sure what to make of this particularly lurid pink creation with its liquorice allsorts-style eyeballs. But once I cracked open the eye-watering cover it was immediately apparent I was in the capable hands of a storyteller:
Uncle Pike’s plane was late, and my hair was a sweaty mess thanks to the crimson anti-kidnapping jacket and hateful Santa hat Mum had made me wear. She thought the hat was hilarious.
It is a bold author who writes a crime fiction novel from the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl, but Rob McDonald has captured the essence and heart of his young narrator, and with it brought a view of her world that is illuminating, funny, bewildering, heart-breaking and determined.
Tippy Chan is truly a unique voice in crime fiction. The eleven-year-old’s perspective brings a filter of youthful innocence to the story. Her world has been turned upside down by the recent death of her father. When her mother needs time away, her Uncle Pike and his boyfriend Devon – a hairdresser and fashion designer – make the trip across the Tasman to babysit. The flamboyant gay couple is quite a departure from the usual inhabitants of Riverstone, a town whose only claims to fame are its distinctive six-arch bridge across the river and one traffic light. It is one of those quintessential New Zealand towns where the A&P show is the highlight of the year and the most important human drama revolves around who will be crowned Show Queen. It is full of slightly off-centre characters, is a hot-bed of gossip, and the nearest thing to a celebrity is the local real estate agent. For Uncle Pike, returning to his home town after a lengthy absence, it is the epitome of a backwater in a time warp:
‘… how long has it been, Pike?’
‘Long enough for your hairstyle to come back in fashion.’
‘Trust me, it’s never been out in Riverstone,’ she said, patting her short blond mullet.
Riverstone’s sleepy demeanour is shattered by the murder of a woman whose headless body is discovered near the traffic light – a woman who happens to be Tippy’s teacher. Having witnessed an altercation the previous night, Tippy feels invested in the case and is not one to sit by and accept the tragedy. She needs to know what happened, so she and the intrepid uncles decide to investigate the case themselves – and the The Nancys are born.
I confess I had not read the back-cover blurb before I embarked on reading this book, so the hit of satisfaction when I made the connection between The Nancys and Tippy’s heroine Nancy Drew was immense. The Nancys included so many of the features of a Nancy Drew novel: red herrings and dead ends, inept police, and that sense of personal danger and racing against the clock. As a reader of a certain age who devoured the books myself, I relished the references. I also chuckled over the many pop-culture references that infused the novel, courtesy of Uncle Pike and Devon – a sound and see-scape of my youth.
One of the greatest features of The Nancys is the dialogue. Rob McDonald has a gift for creating the kind of witty banter that is refereshing and entertaining, yet also pays homage and provides a vehicle to illustrate the underlying darkness of the novel. Although The Nancys has a child protagonist, this is very much a grown-up book. The humour is rather adult, frequently rude and laden with innuendo, most of which sails gloriously over Tippy’s head. And I think this is one of the reasons this book and Tippy are so endearing. Her youthful innocence shines through. So too does the determination of those surrounding her to protect her and preserve her optimism and faith in human nature in the face of her father’s death, the injury to her friend Todd, and the murder of her teacher.
Although The Nancys is an often laugh-out-loud read, has fabulous moments and is in some ways a parody of a Nancy Drew novel, it also addresses – in disarming and whip-the-rug-out-from-under-you ways – serious themes of grief, abandonment, acceptance of difference, domestic violence, guilt, resilience and courage. And of course, at its heart is a gruesome and dark murder, which has repercussions for so many in the community.
Rob McDonald has expertly negotiated the balance of light and dark. He has taken what could easily have been a clichéd parody and instead created an entertaining and satisfying crime novel with a cast of characters I loved and genuinely cared about. The Nancys was an unsettling, captivating, uplifting and thought-provoking read.
VANDA SYMON is the CWA Dagger shortlisted writer of the Detective Sam Shephard series, and the psychological thriller The Faceless. She is a three-time finalist in the Ngaio Marsh Awards for Best Crime Fiction. Vanda has been a judge for the NZ Post Book Awards, and is a judge of the Ngaio Marsh Awards for Best First Novel. She has recently graduated with her PhD examining the communication of science in crime fiction.