Hardboiled and full of heart: JM Green's flawed and fierce Stella Hardy
Have you ever been on the run from police and a mercenary assassin? No? Just me, then. Just me, standing here, with the wind in my hair, my life in tatters, and no hope of a good bún chả giò chay for hundreds of kilometres in any direction.
As I’ve confessed more than once, the last year has won me over completely to crime fiction and thrillers. Before, I’d dismissed crime writing as very same-same, obsessively concerned with darkness, poorly written, thin on characterisation, and disproportionately plot-driven. Of course, as so often before, books proved me wrong. Yes, there are terribly written crime novels just as there are terribly written classics or terribly written memoirs, but the diversity within the genre means that thrillers run the gamut from the penny dreadful to beautifully literary investigations into what it means to be human.
Shoot Through is the third and latest book in J.M. Green’s contemporary crime series featuring Stella Hardy, a social worker who is neither particularly social nor especially tied to her desk. With a nose for trouble, a best friend who’s a cop, an ex-addict boyfriend, and a deeply dysfunctional family, Stella is always only one phone call away from an explosion of drama. And although she isn’t strictly a detective (after all, she has a hidden stash of cash purloined from a crime scene burning a hole in her pocket), Stella is every bit the smart-talking, cynical, hardboiled investigator authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler made us fall in love with.
It’s this tough-girl attitude that provides a sense of protection from the hard knocks of life for Stella, but her resilience is only half the story; she’s also compassionate and reluctantly tender — and it’s this generosity of heart that gets Stella into grief as she is swept up into her family’s drama and, inadvertently, something much bigger. When she goes to visit her brother, Ben, incarcerated in a rural prison, she stumbles right into a death in custody and a high-tech, high-stakes cover-up. What’s more, she’s suddenly saddled with Ben’s homeless and very pregnant girlfriend – and her own boyfriend, Brophy, is growing increasingly distant, too.
In the course of the novel, Stella roams throughout Melbourne and into rural Victoria, and the gritty descriptions of the city read like a love letter to Melbourne’s colour and edge. From alleys and side streets to the open road, it’s a story that feels deeply Australian, and it moves along at a cracking pace. The tension grows as the plot unfolds, but there are also unexpected moments of laughter and relief in the form of Stella’s wry and sarcastic observations. “The night was not exactly young,” Stella notes, “more middle-aged, but with great skin and a positive attitude.” There’s more profanity than I’m generally a fan of, but it works in context and meshes with Stella’s no-nonsense voice. She talks a good game, but she is not immune to terror and manages to keep a firm grip on her compassion, making Stella (who subsists on “sugar and caffeine and denial”) the ideal flawed heroine in a world of grey areas.
Published July 2019 by Scribe Publications