Say You're Sorry

SAY YOU'RE SORRY
Michael Robotham
Sphere, $29.99

Mention Oxford and most of us think of the university's dreaming spires, the quaint pubs and historic tourist trails, so effectively used on television as Morse and Lewis track a wayward student, a mysterious bluestocking or desperate don.

Yet not so far from all of this picturesque splendour are smaller, lesser known and more typical towns, some with housing estates on their fringes that could just as easily be found in any of England's big cities. These towns and estates are peopled by a more usual cross-section of English society: the well-to-do, ordinary workers, strugglers, the poorly educated, and, alas, gangs and drug dealers.

It is this latter milieu that Australian Michael Robotham largely mines in his latest novel, Say You're Sorry, again featuring Joe O'Loughlin, psychologist and criminal profiler. O'Loughlin is a refreshingly unusual crime investigator, not for being separated - pretty usual in this genre - but for suffering the early stages of Parkinson's disease.

O'Loughlin is travelling by train to Oxford from London in winter, accompanied by his teenage daughter, Charlie, to deliver a lecture. As the train nears Oxford, it passes a group of police removing a young woman's body from a frozen lake.

Unbeknown to O'Loughlin, he will soon be involved in the unexpectedly resurrected case of the missing ''Bingham Girls'', two teenagers who disappeared from nearby Bingham three years earlier, for the body in the lake turns out to be that of Natasha ''Tash'' McBain, one of the pair - and she only died recently.

So where had Tash been during the ensuing time? Given that she survived until recently, could her best friend, Piper Hadley, who disappeared with her, still be alive? And if so, where is she?

As the revived case gets under way, overshadowed by a double murder that may or may not be connected, old ground is revisited and new avenues explored.

Initially, O'Loughlin is employed by the police to profile the perpetrator of the double murder, but he's then brought in to the Bingham Girls case. This second case will touch him in a personal way through Charlie, who is feisty and difficult at times.

Robotham tells his tale with parallel narratives. One is O'Loughlin's, in which we accompany him, his former police offsider and the local force in the renewed investigation. The other is the writings of Piper, from which we learn about her, Tash, their families, friends and relationships.

Employing these dual storylines generally works well, as they deliver two aspects of the same case and allow, through Piper's words, an insight into parts of it that are unknown to O'Loughlin and the police. This also maintains a running tension as you don't know whether Piper's story will turn out to have been told by a girl who is still alive or one we will discover to be dead.

As effective as this duality is for the most part, having Piper still telling her story towards the end of the novel tends to upset the book's overall narrative balance. It may have been more effective for the author to have ended Piper's tale before the extremely gripping climax begins.

Despite this, Robotham has provided a first-rate psychological thriller containing a disturbing and menacing central story flanked by acute observations about people under stress and how they react.

The well-drawn characters on either side of the crime make fine supports for a wounded hero in a wounded world.

The story Say You're Sorry first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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