THIS IS HOW IT ENDS
by Eve Dolan
(Raven Books, $30)
Reviewed by Ruth Spencer

A dead body in the lift shaft is the elephant in the room in Eva Dolan's complex, brilliant thriller of murder and property development. Castle Rise apartment block is due to be demolished so expensive flats can be built and sold to overseas investors. The payout to leave isn't nearly enough for the tenants to buy again in London. Castle Rise is plagued by junkies and squatters and the constant threat of bulldozers. And the lift shaft is starting to smell.

The narration is shared by two voices. Ella, a rising princess of social media activism, is instagramming her way to political stardom protesting the "economic cleansing" of gentrification. Molly, a documentary photographer and old-school veteran of civil disobedience, has accepted Ella as a protege — a younger, fresher version of herself.

Molly's compassion and doubt is woven into her commitment to the cause; she understands the terrible anxiety interlaced with poverty. A tenant of Castle Rise, her options are to leave her life and start over at 60 in a strange town or rent until the money runs out and then throw herself in front of a Tube train. Ella was born rich and Daddy still pays her rent. Although her passion for protest was fuelled by a nasty brush with police, she's new to the disorienting power of fear. Molly doesn't know if she can trust Ella when the panic sets in.

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Jumping backwards and forwards in time, Ella and Molly's pasts are gradually revealed. This disjointed chronology is sometimes disruptive but provides escalating tension that culminates in a genuinely shocking finale. It's incredibly well-observed, with an eye for specific detail that plunges the reader viscerally into a scene, whether it be a sip of warm Coke at a protest or a vicious murder.

This Is How It Ends is something of a compressed epic, offering a sensitive and perceptive insight into poverty, age, activism and sexual politics. Many things move inexorably towards their ends: the dream of effective protest, the unification of the Left, the lives of the poor, trust, love but more specifically the reckless and desperate path of a murderer.

THE WICKED COMETH
By Laura Carlin
(Hachette, $35)
Reviewed by Dionne Christian

Laura Carlin's debut novel starts off at a heady pace as we're plunged into the filth, poverty and despair of 19th century London, where residents of Bethnal Green find themselves with something other than starvation and disease to fear.

Young men and women are going missing, disappearing into thin air, leaving families to grieve and a benighted population to wonder what new wickedness is afoot. Hester White has, by dint of "misfortune and malevolence", found herself in this world but when presented with a chance to escape, grasps the opportunity with both hands.

It's an exhilarating and extremely assured start to a first novel; unfortunately, The Wicked Cometh doesn't deliver on that early promise. Initially Carlin's writing helps build atmosphere but, about a third of the way through, all the ascending from carriages, giving ear to sounds within and forging of paths slows the pace.

Carlin works too hard which means the story and characters don't have enough room to breathe. The more villainous players in this crime-romance become caricatures; the plot starts to feel increasingly manufactured and, though she writes about terrible crimes perfectly in sync with the era, the tension does not mount.

Rather than a desperate desire to find out what's going on, it's more a case of reading out of curiosity to see just how Carlin will bring disparate threads and characters together. It's a fairly contrived ending, as though the author wasn't quite brave enough to finish her story on a more thought-provoking note. Instead, she opts — and there are no spoilers here, really — for one that is more "happy ever after" than anything.

That's not to say there's nothing to like about The Wicked Cometh. There's some nice writing; a couple of interesting plot twists and an enjoyable romance but this could have been so much more than merely an entertaining read.


OFF THE RECORD
by Craig Sherborne
(Text, $37)
Reviewed by David Hill

The gap between what seems and what is usually makes for promising literary material. In the case of Melbourne journalist Callum Smith (aka Wordsmith or Words to his cronies — he has no friends), that gap is a gulf.

The monstrous yet moving protagonist of Sherborne's new novel works the crime circuit in search of rancid narratives. He's the sort who breaks and enters lives; pays a junkie to disrupt an evangelist service so he can get photos of worshippers ejecting him.

Words likes to think he's idolised at home and work; that he's "the one ... who makes his copy sing". In fact, his marriage has imploded and his career has face-planted. The vodka is eroding his brain, sex is an historical event, and he has to leave his shirt-tail out to hide his waist flab. But thanks to a new job with an online tabloid, he maintains his delusions, convinced he can win back his wife, win over his son, win against his almost equally chaotic employer.

Sherborne dissects him like a pedantic frog: his pernickety grammar, dead glitter, soiled cynicism — "if there ever was a God, he must have slunk off disappointed" — his trajectory of dark disintegration and darker comedy.

We watch Words plot to compromise his wife's boyfriend with the IRD; blackmail his son's teachers into falsifying grades; attempt a sleazy repetition of the evangelist entrapment. Later, those evangelists exact biblical revenge. Events hurtle from calamity to ignominy.

Sherborne sometimes seems uncertain whether he's writing a socio-psychological study, a fanged farce or a moral homily, but he has a good chomp at all three. A mixed grill but a savoury one — and its protagonist would instantly slash such a clunky metaphor.