Dangerous Devotions 

AD Penhall

Publisher: Clan Destine Press 2023 

Publisher’s blurb

A beautiful city on a glittering harbour, where not everything is tourist brochure perfect.

Blind barrister Tom Challinor’s plans for a well-earned week off are dashed by an attempted murder linked to a Sydney escort agency.

Sonya and her sassy friend Avril are employees in that niche-market agency where the workers are all people with disability: amputees, chair users, or people of short stature.

Their eager customers style themselves ‘devotees’.

As Tom investigates an underworld of desire, entitlement and exploitation, the menace of predatory passion clamps tight around Avril and Sonya. Bizarrely mutilated dolls start turning up at a women’s refuge, and young women start to disappear.

The first in the Harbour City Mysteries, Dangerous Devotions is inclusive, subversive and enthralling. The debut crime novel by psychologist and disability advocate A D Penhall, is a riveting insight into the world of sex workers with niche specialties.

Reviewer: Ashleigh Meikle

Disabled people are the central focus of this story; heroes and victims. Dangerous Devotions is set in Sydney, and opens the door on the world of disabled sex workers and their clients. Tom Challinor is a blind barrister who is drawn into the lives of devotees and sex workers after someone in the niche market goes missing. Tom enlists various other characters and they are drawn into a case that is disturbing and morbid – and to a different issue that seems unrelated. Mutilated dolls are appearing at a women’s shelter and Tom is enticed into investigating this creepy behaviour. Like most stigmatised groups, disabled sex workers or women seeking refuge are invisible to society. Tom sets about doing what he can to help. 

When sex workers, Avril and Sonya, realise they are being watched and followed by someone. They know a woman is missing and tension mounts as the predator starts to close in on them. Tom’s cases start to converge, and so do his suspicions. Is it a single perpetrator? And how close to home are they?

The theme of this book explores identity, the spectrum of disability and attitudes towards the disabled community. What influences the way people within this community interact with society – in ways that are determined for them, and ways they choose? 

A.D. Penhall captures the beauty and grittiness of Sydney throughout the novel. Her evocative descriptions show the diversity of the city, from instantly recognised landmarks to the well hidden cultural pockets or the downtrodden and forgotten corners. This enhances how the reader is able to engage with the story and the setting. Sydney is kaleidoscope of cultures, aspirations and even lost hope and Tom and Julia show a deep intimate knowledge of the city and its history that is embedded within the novel.

I felt that this book showcased a diverse range of characters who were all linked to the disability community. AD Penhall doesn’t shy away from also showing a darker or more complex side of people living with disability. She has offered a glimpse of what it can be like to be disabled and of the influence of community and peer groups on their lives. Sometimes the support is genuine, other times it is condescending. Dangerous Devotions gives people with disabilities a voice, and I think this was done well because Tom’s presence amidst the more vulnerable characters – the ones that those in power thought were less – gave an insight into the spectrum of disability, and the different ways people live with it.

The author has struck a great tone with her storytelling. She offers light and shade to a theme that could have been controversial to write about. Sonya and April have a swagger about them, mixed with a healthy dose of sass and cynicism. They are terrific, likeable characters.

In fact, all of AD Penhall’s characters are sassy and cynical – they have seen or experienced things that the majority of people don’t encounter in their daily lives, which gives them an edge and offered up plenty of surprises as the story unfolded. The sassiness and cynicism reflects how different people respond to the world around them, which suited the book and its array of characters.

It is an eye-opening book that contains confronting and unsettling moments. Yet it gives a community who is often on the outside a voice, and as the first book in a series, it delivers everything necessary to set things up for a sequel. I enjoyed this book – it was a little different to some of the crime I have read before. If you like books where the protagonist isn’t law enforcement, if you’re prepared to be challenged by stepping into a lifestyle that might confront you, this will be the book for you.