A man dazedly regains consciousness, only to find himself handcuffed, feeling like "he's been bathed in something corrosive", and with his head adhered to the carpet by his own clotted blood.
So starts this debut crime thriller from North Shore engineering student and nascent author, Ben Sanders, an adroit barely-20-something being touted as "a major new talent" with a "sophisticated and edgy" writing style.
The Fallen then quickly switches to the first-person narration of street-savvy Auckland police detective Sean Devereaux, a hero who quickly displays some classic crime fiction traits. Devereaux has a tendency to trust his own morals, instincts and judgment more than "the rules" of his superiors; his narration is peppered with pithy comments and observations about the case and the wider world that are tinged with both smart-aleck humour and the occasionally jaded eye of someone who's already seen plenty - "criminal investigation is inherently recession-proof"; but at the core he's someone who cares, even if at times he may not want to.
Devereaux returns early from leave to investigate the brutal slaying of a 16-year-old "Epsom princess", whose bashed body is discovered on the edge of a flowerbed in Albert Park. "I wondered what she could have done to deserve such a fate," reflects Devereaux, "but as always when I asked myself that question, my subconscious churned up the same answer: nothing". Off the clock Devereaux is busying himself playing white knight for his attractive neighbour - finding out why she's being watched by a mysterious man. As he juggles his official and unofficial duties, the latter with the help of "strong but silent" security specialist John Hale (formerly an investigator with both the army and the New Zealand Police), Devereaux opens the proverbial Pandora's Box. His after-hours activities peel the scab from a scam run by senior colleagues and he and Hale are dropped right into an escalating cycle of kidnapping, murder, and violence.
Sanders writes in a punchy, crisp style, employing short sentences and terse but telling descriptions - rather than languid or overwrought prose - to evoke a strong sense of the various Auckland settings, and his characters' thoughts, actions, and motivations. There is a sleekness to his storytelling that would be impressive for any crime writer, let alone one so young.
He sprinkles musical references throughout; Devereaux, like the author, has a passion for rock, from REM to Neil Young. Sanders has reportedly been enamoured with crime fiction since he was an adolescent, and fellow fans of the genre will be able to spot the influence of varying big-name international bestsellers in aspects of The Fallen. Hale has echoes of Robert Crais' Joe Pike, while Sanders' ability to evoke an essence of Auckland as Devereaux travels the city's streets is almost Connelly-esque.
But just like a new band that has echoes of those that have gone before, the real question isn't whether a newcomer is completely unlike anything else, but whether he or she provides something enjoyable and a little different. More importantly, whether they're any good. With The Fallen, Sanders comes up trumps on that front: Devereaux's first outing is an absorbing debut that also entices with future promise.
The young man from the North Shore has added to the mounting evidence that New Zealand can produce native, compelling crime fiction to match the international offerings readers buy and enjoy in droves.
Craig Sisterson is an Auckland reviewer.