By Dinuta McKenzie
Publisher/Year: Harper Collins, 2023
First printed in The Age on January 26, 2023 and reproduced here with Sue Turnbull’s consent.
Reviewer: Sue Turnbull
Female detective? The odds are criminally stacked against you
As a sub-genre of crime fiction, the police procedural has tended to be a male preserve even when written by women. Think Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series or P.D. James and her poet detective, Adam Dalgliesh. And then there was Prime Suspect, with Lynda La Plante giving the memorable Detective Jane Tennison a backstory in crime fiction that sheds light on the historical challenges women have faced as serving police officers.
With Taken, the second in her prize-winning series to feature Detective Sergeant Kathryn Aneesha Miles, Dinuka McKenzie updates the situation, letting us know exactly what it feels like to be a woman and a cop. After desperately trying to solve a series of crimes before going on maternity leave in The Torrent, Kate is now struggling to get back on active duty while dealing with a heady cocktail of post-traumatic stress disorder, post-natal depression and painfully swollen breasts.
Between an abrasive encounter with a wife-abusing meth-user and a media appearance, Kate seeks the sanctuary of an unused interview suite to pump her breast milk before concealing the product in the back of the fridge “to deflect the curiosity and distaste of her colleagues”. Being a woman in a hostile and competitive male world has never been easy, but being a lactating mother decidedly ups the ante.
Nor does it help that Kate’s dislikeable boss seems to value her only because she ticks the diversity box. Not only is Kate a rare female detective, but thanks to her Sri Lankan heritage, she is also a woman of colour. The race angle is quietly underplayed in a crime novel where motherhood, babies and family take centre stage.
The action begins with a nasty case of domestic violence before Kate is called upon to assist in the disappearance of a four-month-old baby girl while the mother was taking a shower. Kate’s empathy for both women is immediate. With two children of her own she can imagine nothing worse than what they have experienced. She’s a good cop.
But Kate also knows that her colleagues are keen for her to fail and that she is going to have to prove herself once again. Just to add to the pressure, she’s worried that her father, an ex-chief of police and the lover of a former attorney-general, may have been implicated in some shady financial dealings.
As in the best procedurals, everything is precarious. Stay-at-home husband Geoff’s freelance architecture business is not going well, and he is both anxious and resentful about Kate’s return to work so soon after the birth of their daughter. Kate justifies this by arguing they need the money but also comes to realise that she is addicted to “the buzz” of police work – even if it puts her life in danger.
While Taken touches on sensitive social fault lines, it is primarily a visceral evocation of just how hard it can be for women with ambition to succeed in a career in which they are destined to fail because of their gender. Still.
Reviewer 2: Christina Lee
Dinuka McKenzie’s first novel, The Torrent, won the HarperCollins Australia Banjo Prize in 2020. This, her second novel, continues the series. McKenzie, like many engaging writers before her, builds the story around a deeply flawed police detective. She has chosen a particularly interesting character, a woman who is forced through circumstances back into work only three months after a firearm injury at work and a resultant pre-term emergency Caesarean. Her husband’s business has failed, someone has to pay the bills, and although he’s doing a great job as the caregiving parent, neither of them seems particularly comfortable with how their lives are panning out.
This is one of several ways in which McKenzie expertly addresses the tension between outdated social expectations and individual circumstances in contemporary Australia. Both Kate and her husband are committed to principles of gender equity, but this just seems to make it difficult for them to articulate the discomfort they clearly both feel about their chosen division of household labour. As a result, they live with a simmering and unspoken resentment that further exhausts them both. The writing is subtle and nuanced, showing every side of this and other issues, without lecturing and without judgement.
At work, Detective Sergeant Kate Mills is struggling – and mostly failing – to juggle a big and emotionally draining case, difficult relationships with colleagues, possible corruption, sexism, racism, and a boss who can’t stand her. McKenzie shows a woman completely unable to cope with the multiple demands of her life. But at the same time she shows that Kate has no real choice but to go back to work, and it’s hardly her fault that the New South Wales police force is riddled with misogyny, racism and casual corruption.
The case in question is that of a missing baby. Tough for anyone, and particularly tough for a woman struggling with breast pumps and anxious about her own baby. And on top of the steadily intensifying pressure to find the baby before it’s too late, there are hints that Kate’s father might have been involved in something underhand during his own police career, and questions about what that might do to Kate’s own career in a station filled with colleagues with little sympathy for her.
Again, McKenzie does not judge, but shows why we might understand her colleagues’ perspective. Kate is genuinely not ready to return to work, and is not doing a good job. She is quick to jump to conclusions on the basis of gut feeling, regardless of evidence. She is unable to let other people do their jobs, interfering and slowing things down, and she considers instructions from her superior officer as nothing more than suggestions to be ignored. In a run-of-the-mill crime novel, of course, these would all be part of a brilliant and unconventional crime-busting strategy. But McKenzie’s take is more interesting and more realistic. She shows what bad ideas they are, and how they put people in unnecessary danger and delay the solving of the case. But at the same time she shows Kate’s lack of sleep and high anxiety about the case and the people involved, as well as concerns about her own performance and future in the job, on top of worry about her own family. This all makes her poor performance perfectly understandable, and again we are invited not to judge but to understand.
We are in capable hands, and the various threads of the story weave together convincingly into a difficult but satisfying ending. I for one was left hoping that Kate could be helped to find a bit of perspective and some time for herself, but I’m sure we’ll find out in the next book in the series.
In summary, an enjoyable and satisfying crime novel filled with realistic characters set against an intriguing back story.