Sunday, January 07, 2007


TICO Publishing, January 2007, $26.95, ISBN 0977768899
Sandra Ruttan’s debut, Suspicious Circumstances doesn’t mess about with obscure titles. The opening scene, with a woman flinging herself from a rocky outcrop, certainly qualifies as suspicious. Moreso because the whole event was caught on video. And the woman seems to be jumping backwards. How many suicides do that?

Its just one of the many questions reporter Lara (pronounce it “Lay-ra”) Kelly has about the tape. Questions that will lead her and her unwilling partner, local cop Tymen Farraday into the heart of a small town conspiracy that will unsettle everything they thought they knew about their quiet little town.

Ruttan’s style owes a great deal to a more British than American style of storytelling. There’s a more relaxed approach to the story, taking time to ease itself into the plot and laying the groundwork for the action to come. There are multiple plot strands that can seem disparate at times, but ultimately move together as the climax gallops into view. The narration is gripping, but not insistent, and while Ruttan us unafraid to get down and dirty, there is a definite moral compass here that is more common in British novels. The echoing voices of McDermid and Billingham are present, but while they clearly influence Ruttan’s style, she has a voice of her own: a voice that one suspects could easily tell a variety of stories and styles.

What particularly helps Ruttan here is the spark between her two leads. Call it the Moonlighting effect. Two protagonists who spark off each other but are never allowed to spill that over into a forced romance. In fact, without Ruttan’s character work, the novel would never take off. The large cast is held in check by believable motivations and an empathic sense that keeps the reader interested in events which, as with every novel worth reading, are about character in motion.

Without the character work, novels such as this are a failure. While Ruttan clearly understands the machinations of small town politics and the small newsroom atmosphere in which her heroine makes a living, without characters that come to life, all of that is useless. And Ruttan’s characters are rounded enough to hold interest and intrigue, providing credible motivations to keep the plot and the local conspiracies moving along.

Although, undoubtedly, cosy fans will be crying out bloody murder as Ruttan tackles some unpleasant scenarios, there is still a sense that the author is holding back slightly, that she could take us into darker territories than she does here and perhaps that adds a slight air of conservatism to the novel in terms of structure and resolution. But, as an excellent example of the procedural novel, Suspicious Circumstances not only ticks the boxes, but does so with a style and enthusiasm very much the author’s own.

What keeps Ruttan’s impressive debut moving is the strength of writing, quality of character and atmosphere that is created. In dealing with an entire community, Ruttan has a great deal to cope with and manages to not only sift through what the reader needs to know, but never shies away from or forgets the important details. This is a big novel, with a large cast and multiple motivations, but it’s written clearly and plotted subtly, making for an engrossing ride.

All of this means that Suspicious Circumstances is a well executed procedural with a spark between our protagonists, an excellent feel for political machinations on a small town scale and a plot that twists and turns like a bad tempered rattlesnake.
Russel D McLean for, 07/01/07