Award-winning crime writer R.W.R. McDonald is back with another raucous mystery for 'the Nancys'. He talks to Craig Sisterson about blending pathos and joy in his storytelling.
The fog curls around the willows on the far riverbank as the quartet huddles near a ditch a couple of kilometres out of town. Behind them is a road on which friends, neighbours, and strangers drive by each day. Going about their lives. In front of the foursome, the Clutha River flows, edged by trees turned yellow and orange by the season, even if the April air feels more like winter than autumn. Also in front of them: a simple white cross in the long grass.
Not everybody driving that road gets to go on with their lives.
Fingers chilled, toes freezing in her boots and cellophane crinkling on the bunch of flowers she holds, 12-year-old Tippy Chan tries to juggle the tablet on which her grandmother NaiNai witnesses proceedings on video chat from China. Tippy's flanked by her uncle Pike, who looks "like a tattooed Santa on steroids", and his fashion designer boyfriend Devon, both visiting from Sydney. NaiNai tuts at the red flowers placed on the grass by Tippy's mother. Flowers by a white cross on a country road in South Otago for NaiNai's son.
For Tippy's father, one year gone.
Two years ago, Melbourne-based Kiwi Rob (R.W.R.) McDonald burst on to the crime-writing scene with The Nancys, a charming mystery centred on an unusual trio of amateur sleuths: Tippy, Pike, and Devon. A Nancy Drew-loving gang who put their love of mysteries to the test by trying to solve the murder of Tippy's schoolteacher in small-town Riverstone. Hijinks ensue.
While words like "raucous", "exuberant", or "delightful" may be the first descriptors that come to mind when reading The Nancys – which went on to be shortlisted for book prizes on both sides of the Tasman and win the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel – there's far more to McDonald's storytelling than fun. Among the grin-inducing characters and zany escapades, there's an exploration of big issues, from discrimination and difference to grief and resilience.
"Writing is very organic for me and it began with these characters," says McDonald. "It was about following these characters and their situation and, no matter how kind of ridiculous it got, for me the mantra was, 'This is real for them.' Which means that when there was the darkness and pain, honouring that and going there rather than skirting it or going, 'Oh well, they're just these over-the-top characters, so whatever.' For me it was like these were real characters, if there's such a thing, and what was going on for them was really going on for them."
In The Nancys, Tippy and her mother were struggling with life in the aftermath of the death of her father. Her uncle Pike returns to Riverstone (a town modelled on Balclutha, McDonald's birthplace) with his fashionista boyfriend Devon in tow to look after Tippy while her mother takes a much-needed holiday. Pike had fled the "town that style forgot" many years before. Tippy loves Pike's old Nancy Drew books, so the trio decide to form a mystery-solving club.
"Part of the original reason of Tippy's babysitters, Pike and Devon, to investigate the murder of Tippy's schoolteacher was to help Tippy explore her grief," says McDonald. "It was a project they could do together, just perhaps not the most appropriate project they could come up with."
Dealing with grief, in all its messiness, really comes to the fore in McDonald's new novel. Nancy Business opens by the roadside cross on the anniversary of the day Tippy's life changed forever. That sense of grief and confusion is soon compounded when an explosion in Riverstone kills three people and destroys the town's iconic tree and town hall. Was the local florist really responsible for such destruction? Once again the Nancys sashay into action, stepping on toes and uncovering all sorts of dastardliness, as well as some hard truths about their own relationships.
It's another superb tale, full of exuberance while performing the difficult task of balancing big laughs and serious issues. Or as award-winning Sydney bookseller Simon McDonald said in an early review, "A masterclass in tonal balance: it's one part mystery, another part family drama, and these two elements are glazed in a riotous celebration of all things camp and queer."
McDonald admits the tone of his books was a conscious decision. A balance he crafted during the evolution of The Nancys from an idea of the main characters he'd had in his head since 2006, through working on the manuscript while doing a Faber Academy course a decade later.
"I wanted to make it light and easy to read, as our narrator is an adolescent girl and I wanted to make it as in-the-moment as possible," says McDonald, whose unpublished manuscript was highly commended in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards in 2017, before becoming a smash hit on release. "As the books are exploring a child's grief over losing a parent, I felt it was important to have light and shade. In my experience even during our saddest times something ridiculous can still make us laugh and provide relief."
McDonald notes that Tippy having lost a parent is something of a parallel with Nancy Drew, the legendary teen sleuth whose escapades have entertained and inspired millions of readers for 90 years. Nancy lost her mother at a young age, "though it's never really dealt with in the books, it's a thing that happened in her past". For McDonald, who lives in a rainbow family in Melbourne, co-parenting two daughters, this aspect of Tippy's character was personal too.
"It comes from the subconscious but there was a lot of personal experience going into the writing as well – I think there has to be, for it to be authentic," he says. "The interesting thing is once you get to 80,000 words, suddenly you see patterns and go, 'Wow, I didn't realise that this was something I needed to look at, or would come up.' I found that once I do sort of explore those things, then they shift, so I don't think I'd ever write another book exactly like The Nancys, because whatever it was I've kind of processed now and it was the same with Nancy Business."
McDonald grew up on a sheep and deer farm in Owaka (that his brother now runs), then became a boarder at Otago Boys' High. He lost his own mother when he was a teenager. "It just completely changes your world," he says. "Tippy has that at a younger age, so it was around exploring that, and how you can get quite numb. Particularly if you don't have counselling or don't have that access to really discuss and grieve, how you can get trapped in that place."
It was on that farm in Owaka where McDonald became a lifelong book lover; he remembers devouring everything he could get his hands on, from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to
Stephen King. Even his mother's Harold Robbins books. "Now I'm like, 'My God, I wouldn't have those in the house with my daughters, or any kids!'" he says.
A love for reading stories became a love for creating them while he was at The Catlins Area School. "It was when we used to write those 'what I did for the school holidays' things, and I still remember I said we'd gone to the beach and I got bitten by a crab. The teacher said, 'Good.' It was all complete bulls***, so it was my first fiction. I was like, 'Wow, this is cool.'"
Nancy Business by R.W.R. McDonald (Allen & Unwin, $33) is out now.