The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon #BookReview #BlogTour

Death is stalking the southern South Island of New Zealand…

Marginalised by previous antics, Sam Shephard, is on the bottom rung of detective training in Dunedin, and her boss makes sure she knows it. She gets involved in her first homicide investigation, when a university student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens, and Sam soon discovers this is not an isolated incident. There is a chilling prospect of a predator loose in Dunedin, and a very strong possibility that the deaths are linked to a visiting circus…

Determined to find out who’s running the show, and to prove herself, Sam throws herself into an investigation that can have only one ending…

Rich with atmosphere, humour and a dark, shocking plot, The Ringmaster marks the return of passionate, headstrong police officer, Sam Shephard, in the next instalment of Vanda Symon’s bestselling series.

It's my pleasure to be opening the blog tour for The Ringmaster today, alongside Gemma over at Between The Pages Book Club. Many thanks to Vanda Symon, Orenda Books and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part and for sending me a copy of the book.

The Ringmaster is the second book in Vanda Symon's Sam Shepherd series, following last year's excellent Overkill. Following events in that novel, Sam and her flatmate, Maggie have left small town life and are now living in Dunedin. The move brings fresh characters and new settings meaning The Ringmaster can easily be enjoyed as a standalone and there aren't too many spoilers for anybody reading the series out of order. There are a few faces who make a reappearance too - some more welcome to Sam than others.
The prologue gives readers a little more information than the police have to had. We know that student, Rose-Marie Bateman was killed by somebody she knew and trusted but who that person was remains a mystery. I actually managed to guess who the murderer was fairly early on although my suspicions weren't confirmed until much later on. This didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book; I got to feel smug, for once and there is much more to recommend here than just the revealing of the killer's identity.
Sam Shepherd is undoubtedly the highlight of the novel. She has various problems during the course of the story but is never the stereotypical troubled detective and other that a weakness for chocolate and a tendency to swig her wine, she comes across as a capable officer destined for a bright future. She is far from perfect, however, and her hot-headed nature means her grudge-bearing boss has it in for her following their ill-tempered working relationship in Overkill. She is understandably frustrated when she is constantly pushed to the sidelines but doesn't concede defeat. She is ambitious but she is also a deeply compassionate and perceptive officer and it is this which drives her to keep going, even in the face of such animosity. It is her empathetic nature which gives rise to one of the most dramatic and emotional scenes in the book and I'm sure I'm not the only person who will have been moved to tears by it. 
Her relationships with some of the other characters make for engaging reading too. Her friendship with Maggie was one of my favourite elements of the first book so I was delighted to see the pair still living together here. During the course of the novel she also grows closer to a fellow detective, Paul Frost who she had worked with back when she lived in Mataura. The will-they-wont-they nature of their relationship adds a real spark to the story and I really enjoyed the jovial nature of their exchanges which clearly mask their real feelings for one another. I also thought the interchanges between Sam and Terry, the ringmaster of the visiting circus were fascinating and really enjoyed seeing how their ingrained mutual mistrust evolves as the story progresses. As I mentioned above, Sam's relationship with her bullying boss provides leads to a few flash-points in the novel but how refreshing it is to read a book where the majority of a trainee detective constable's colleagues are supportive. Not so much her mother, who is a difficult character to like - although I couldn't help feeling that perhaps they were more alike than both realised, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Sam's father so obviously adores them both.
The mystery itself is intriguing; I may have guessed who but had no idea of why. Sam notices a link between a list of unsolved murders and a visiting circus which provides a vital lead but also allows Vanda Symon to explore some important themes. The circus boss angrily rails against the accusations, only too used to the oft-heard assumptions about travelling folk also being criminals. The circus features animal acts which brings them into direct conflict with animal rights activists; the boss is desperate to avoid negative publicity in case it effects ticket sales but being connected to the murder of a local woman also attracts the attention of vigilantes which leads to a real crisis of confidence for Sam. Her emotional development is such an important part of the novel and I really appreciated how she learns more about what is important to her and gains further understanding of what she is capable of. It bodes so well for future Sam Shepherd books and I'm looking forward to seeing how she progresses from here. The final denouement  is absolutely nail-biting although perhaps dealt with a little more quickly than I would have liked - that might just be me wanting more of a good thing though!
The sense of place is captured superbly, partly through the descriptions of Dunedin but also thanks to the colloquial dialogue; there is never any doubt that this book is set in New Zealand. The dark subject matter is lightened by Sam's sharp wit and deprecating manner, and by the dry humour which runs throughout the novel. I couldn't put The Ringmaster down (the title is very clever, by the way) and read it in a day. I'm now looking forward to seeing what lies in store for Sam in the next book in the series!

The Ringmaster is available now as an eBook and will be published in the UK in paperback on 18th April 2019. Purchasing links can be found here.

Don't forget to follow the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

Vanda Symon is a crime writer, TV presenter and radio host from Dunedin, New Zealand, and the chair of the Otago Southland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. The Sam Shephard series has climbed to number one on the New Zealand bestseller list, and also been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel. She currently lives in Dunedin, with her husband and two sons.
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  1. Thanks so much for the Blog Tour support Karen x


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