‘He wanted me to be number fifty-five.’
Nothing much happens in the tiny town of Wilbrook. Nestled in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, the town was a hive of activity during the Gold Rush, and the mining companies returned when iron ore and blue asbestos were discovered nearby. But the yields have long since dried up and the big corporations have departed, leaving behind a sleepy, sunbaked shell of a town. For local police sergeant Chandler Jenkins, work is easy – traffic violations and bar fights are his usual fare, and he sometimes feels there isn’t enough to keep his small team occupied each day.
Everything changes one sweltering morning in November, however, when a bloodied man stumbles, near-delirious, into Chandler’s police station. The man says his name is Gabriel, and claims he was abducted and held captive in an isolated hut by a serial killer named Heath. Heath was intent on making Gabriel his fifty-fifth victim, and Gabriel barely escaped with his life. The shocking story galvanises Chandler, and after taking Gabriel’s statement, he drives him to the local hotel to recuperate before returning to the station to plan a manhunt.
But Chandler and his team have barely started discussing how to track down Heath when a second injured man is marched into the police station by an angry local, who claims he caught the man attempting to steal his car. The man admits this is true – but says he was only trying to steal the car to escape a serial killer who had shackled him in an isolated bushland hut and was planning to make him his fifty-fifth victim. The killer’s name is Gabriel, says the man, and his own name is Heath.
Suddenly faced with the biggest and most perplexing case of his career, Chandler knows he needs backup and reinforcements from the large Port Hedland squad swoop into town, headed by the ruthlessly ambitious Mitch Andrews. With two suspects, two identical stories, and Mitch’s constant attempts to sideline him, Chandler soon finds himself at the centre of a terrifying, all-consuming puzzle. Who is telling the truth? Which man is the real killer? And in the breakneck race to find out, who will survive and who will die?
The first novel from Irish author James Delargy, 55 is a remarkably accomplished work of crime fiction already optioned for film. Delargy’s nuanced characterisation and pitch-perfect dialogue make his key players feel real, and Chandler’s even-handedness and integrity contrast compellingly with the sneering narcissism of Mitch. A number of chapters are dedicated to the pair’s history as young partners on the force, and as the cause of their rocky relationship is slowly revealed, another layer of intrigue is added to the story. There’s conflict between Gabriel and Heath, too, and with both men claiming their innocence, you’ll find yourself torn time and again about who to believe.
55 is tightly-paced and tension-filled, and the setting adds perfectly to the atmosphere. The tiny, isolated town of Wilbrook is at once open and claustrophobic, and the vast emptiness of the outback serves to both reveal and conceal all manner of misdeeds and horrors. The Australian landscape is beautifully described, too: you can practically feel ‘the long fingers of the relentless sun,’ and practically taste the choking red dust, ‘a fiery topping on a land scorched almost to death.’
Clever, disquieting and utterly addictive, with an ending that’ll make you gasp, 55 is sure to be enjoyed by fans of quality Australian crime novels like Scrublands, And Fire Came Down, and The Dry. Try not to read it all in one sitting – we dare you.
James Delargy was born and raised in Ireland and lived in South Africa, Australia and Scotland, before ending up in semi-rural England where he now lives. He incorporates this diverse knowledge of towns, cities, landscape and culture picked up on his travels into his writing. 55 is his first novel.