With a big heart, a loud mouth, a thirst for alcohol and a propensity for choosing the wrong man to love, Stella Hardy is a wise-cracking flawed heroine, and a promising addition to Australian crime fiction.
Good Money opens perfectly: “My bedroom. Population: one. I was horizontal, under the covers, imitating sleep when my mobile buzzed.”
Stella is called out to comfort the mother of a young African boy who has been found dead in a back alley in Melbourne’s inner west. When she gets there, she discovers evidence that has the potential to uncover a serious misdeed from her own past. Self-interest kicks in, propelling her on a path into the murky world of mining magnates, drug dealers and killers.
There are a few essential ingredients necessary to keeping the reader on the path with Stella Hardy. First, we need an entertaining heroine, and messy, chaotic, courageous and foolhardy Stella is certainly that. Second, you need whip-smart language, and J. M. Green knows just how to use black humour, irony and underplayed sarcasm to perfection. Third, you need a tightly drawn world around the crime itself – coherent and dark enough to pull us into its depths, peopled by a cast of characters deftly sketched. Green takes us into Footscray and the surrounding suburbs, and for the most part, her portrayal of this world works well – the Vietnamese restaurants, the housing commission towers, the social-work industry and its relationship with politics. Stella’s relationship with her former best friend, Senior Constable Phuong Nguyen, is a particular highlight, with the bruised rebuilding of their relationship tenderly drawn. However, there are times when the novel teeters on the edge of disappointing caricature, particularly in its portrayal of the New Zealand thugs, and the Russian second wife of the mining magnate.
Last, you need a tightrope-taut plot, peppered with clues in just the right places, and this is where I had my main reservations with Green’s debut. Too often the information Stella and the reader needed was signposted, sometimes under flashing lights. And in the end, the plot veered into the congested and silly, with the villains being just downright ridiculous, cartoon-like in their evil. It’s a pity, because there’s a lot to like about Stella Hardy and I do believe she has the strength to carry a more robust plot peopled by a cast of characters a little more worthy of her. EF
Scribe, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2015 as "J.M. Green, Good Money". Subscribe here.