Desert Isle Keeper
N.R. Walker’s Tallowwood is a darkly atmospheric and expertly crafted police procedural/romantic suspense novel in which a Sydney-based detective who specialises in cold cases is suddenly confronted with startling new evidence which may enable him to at long last bring to justice the person responsible for a string of murders of young gay men – one of them his own boyfriend. The story takes place over a fairly short period of time, yet nothing feels rushed; the author builds the suspense superbly, especially in the last third or so, and at the same time develops a credible romantic relationship between the two leads which is touching and full of understated sensuality.
For the past eight years, Detective August Shaw has been trying to get someone to take seriously his belief that a serial killer is responsible for a number of unsolved murders of young gay men. Each of the victims was posed to look as though their deaths were the result of suicide, and each was found with a piece of paper bearing a line from a Robert Frost poem and a small silver cross on or near the body. It’s frustrating that nobody he works with is able or willing to make the connection, but he continues to work the case – alongside all the other cold cases that cross his desk – in the hope that one day, he’ll be able to get justice for these sons, brothers and friends, and to bring some sort of peace to their families. He sees this as something he owes to every cold case victim; they’re not merely names on a piece of paper, they were people, loved ones who deserve to have their stories told. As someone who has suffered a similar tragic loss, he knows only too well the pain and sorrow of such an open wound on the soul.
When August is contacted by Senior Constable Jacob Porter of Tallowwood, a small town in the middle of the rainforests in northern New South Wales, August is prepared to turn down his request for help – until Porter tells him they have found human remains up there that may be related to one of August’s cases. The victim was gay, the death was made to look like a suicide – and there was a note and a silver cross in his pocket. August makes arrangements to fly up to Tallowwood the next morning.
Visiting the crime scene the next day, August is impressed with Porter’s efficiency in preserving and documenting it and with the way he directs his fellow officers and the other personnel who have been called in. He and Jacob are preparing to leave when the younger officer makes an unexpected discovery; there is a second set of remains near the first – together with a note and a silver cross. The body count has risen to ten – and given the distance between Tallowwood and Sydney, this opens up the distinct possibility that there may be more victims to be discovered between the two locations – and they could be looking at the work of Australia’s worst ever serial killer.
The mystery plot is skilfully constructed and moves at a steady pace, with each reveal building on the last and moving inexorably forward in a way that gradually heightens the suspense, winding it slowly tighter and tighter until it reaches breaking point. The last third or so of the book is taut with tension and kept me glued to my Kindle; there’s one plot point I thought terribly unlikely, but the rest of it was brilliantly done. The romance between August and Jacob is adroitly woven throughout the story, and for me, the balance between the mystery and the romance was just about perfect. The relationship builds slowly and is fairly low-key, but the attraction humming between the two men is palpable and the affection that clearly develops between them feels genuine. As I said at the beginning, the events of the story take place over just a few days, and I appreciated that the author doesn’t rush anything about their connection; it’s subtle and progresses gradually as mutual respect is followed by deepening mutual understanding and gentle, flirtatious teasing, and feels exactly right for the place the characters are in mentally and the overall tone of the novel.
The characterisation throughout is very good and I really liked both leads. August and Jacob couldn’t be more different in many ways, yet they click from the moment they meet and find they make a good team. August has closed himself off since the death of his partner and has nothing in his life but his work, but something about Jacob draws him and he finds himself telling him things he’s never told anyone and opening up in a way he never has. It’s as though he’s gradually coming back to life before our eyes, every day finding pieces of himself he thought lost and gone forever.
Jacob is the exact opposite of the reclusive August. Outgoing and good-natured, he’s well-liked and a mainstay of the community, part of the local rugby team, running clubs and summer camps for local kids and acting as both LGBTQIA+ and Aboriginal liaison officer. Being a gay, Aboriginal cop in a small town has its challenges, but he loves his job and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. He senses the deep sadness August carries within him, and finds himself wanting to make him smile; and Jacob’s open-heartedness, his loyalty, his insight and his enthusiasm for everything around him are exactly what August needs to coax him out of the “self-imposed exclusion zone” in which he’s been existing, and it’s beautifully done.
The supporting characters are strongly written, and I especially liked Jacob’s wonderfully supportive family – his parents run the local pub – and the way in which they immediately welcome August into their circle, offering him the warmth and acceptance he never got from his own family. I also appreciated the glimpses we’re given of Aboriginal culture and the part it had to play in the dénouement of the story; in fact there were only two things that didn’t really work for me in the whole book. One was the fact that, despite so many murders by someone using the same MO, August’s superiors refused to take the serial killer idea seriously; the second came near the end when Jacob has a seriously TSTL moment that felt completely out of character. But the story was so compelling and the characters so captivating that I was able to suspend my disbelief sufficiently so as to be able to set those issues to the side.
Overall, Tallowwood is a gripping read that combines a thrilling suspense plot with a beautiful slow-burn romance, and I have no hesitation in recommending it highly.