Nicola West weaves a conspiracy within a conspiracy in her debut crime novel.
Nicola West opens Catch Us the Foxes with the protagonist, 29-year-old Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson, being introduced to an enthusiastic crowd at the Sydney Opera House:
‘She’s a bestselling author, a former Young Australian of the Year and Walkley Award winner … best known for exposing one of Australia’s most insidious and prolific killers.’
Lo is the author of the book The Showgirl’s Secret, which comprises the bulk of Catch Us the Foxes, bookended by the Opera House event. So we know from the outset that whatever befalls her in the course of this story, she will survive and thrive.
Set in the small coastal town of Kiama on the New South Wales south coast, The Showgirl’s Secret is Marlowe’s first-person account of discovering the body of the year’s showgirl, beautiful Lily Williams, in the stables at the showground just as the evening fireworks are about to start. In addition to the shock of finding her friend dead, Marlowe notices something strange:
Lily’s top had ridden up underneath her sash, exposing the small of her back. A patch of her skin was missing, but the wound didn’t look fresh. As I walked towards her, I noticed seven strange symbols had been carved around the flayed flesh. … My instinct told me they were the key to her death …
Marlowe lost her mother when she was a child, and her relationship with her policeman father isn’t particularly close. But now, her father – waiting for her on the other side of the showground – is the one she calls. When he swears her to secrecy about the symbols, Marlowe’s curiosity is well and truly aroused, and so begins a slow piecing together of possible suspects and a grander, darker, story altogether.
Before her death Lily had been buying numerous crystals from the local new age shop for ‘protection’. Did she know someone was out to kill her? But who? And why?
Lo gets hold of Lily’s diaries, and finds within their pages disturbing accounts of small children wearing fox masks running through the rainforests above the town. A secret cult of prominent figures. Could any of it be true? Or is the journal simply a catalogue of distressing dreams and delusions?
There are clues pointing in both directions, and at different stages individual characters claim to be speaking the truth — but no one is quite what they seem.
This is a twisty tale with a number of secrets to excavate, and Lo is both courageous and terrier-like in her dedication to the task, even risking a scene at Lily’s funeral to flush out the killer. At times the revelations – or are they red herrings? – seem to stretch credibility, but the pace doesn’t falter and carries the story on.
For Marlowe, Kiama is ‘the bucolic little hellhole we called home’. It is a place of gossip, prejudice, and conformity – ‘fit in or fuck off’. Lo is ambitious, keen to leave and forge a career as a crime reporter. At the time of Lily’s death, however, she is merely an intern on the local rag, assigned to take photographs for a feature on the show. When she suggests she could write about Lily for the paper, the editor – drunk on rum and grief – angrily declares her a ‘vulture’ and sacks her.
As the media descend on the town, Lo sees the opportunity to offer an ‘inside story’ as a way to get a job and get out of town.
For all that Lo is driven by her desire to leave as much as her desire to learn the truth of Lily’s death, one of the strengths of Catch Us the Foxes is the evocation of Kiama and the rainforests behind it.
Here she reflects on the town’s most famous feature:
Watching the waves violently crash over the rocks of the bay, I knew that the blowhole would be putting on a show tonight. I would have loved to pretend that, after twenty-two years of observing the spectacle, it no longer impressed me. But there was something about that column of water – shooting twenty-five metres up into the air, accompanied by a deafening roar – that brought out the kid in me.
The blowhole was an intrinsic part of the town, but unlike the twee historic buildings painted in photo-op ready hues and the hulking monuments to long-lost ghosts, its reverence was actually deserved. There was something primordial about it.
In her acknowledgements Nicola West talks about growing up in Kiama, and she gives us lovely details: the way the post office building looks at night, its ‘hideous pink hue softened in the moonlight’; Daisy, the life-size papier-mâché cow, standing outside the Old Fire Station Art Gallery; the crowds of weekend tourists that keep the locals confined to the backstreets; and the importance of the annual show, with its carnival rides, prizes for the best produce, livestock, arts and crafts, and the annual Miss Showgirl competition.
But for all her intimate knowledge of the town, Lo comes to question how well she knows its inhabitants – starting with her father.
There is a final, devastating twist at the end as we return to the opening scene at the Opera House. Whether or not it’s a final step too far – and readers may have different views – it does not diminish the strength of what preceded it: a page-turner enhanced by complex relationships, driving ambition, and a loving evocation of a town, its beaches and the wild mountain behind it.
Nicola West Catch Us the Foxes Simon & Schuster 2021 PB 384pp $32.99
This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 August 2021