Book ReviewsNew Zealand authors

Overkill by Vanda Symon: atmospheric New Zealand crime

Overkill was one of the books I bought at the Orenda Books Roadshow, the last in-person bookish event I attended before the UK government put the kibosh on every kind of social activity and told us we had to stay home while they figured out how to deal with the pandemic. If I’d known there was about to be a lockdown, I’d have bought even more. C’est la vie.

Overkill by Vanda Syomd is an atmospheric crime novel set in a small rural New Zealand community

I’d not heard of Vanda Symon until the roadshow arrived in Wales in February 2020 with a bus load of their published authors from all over the world. Based purely on Vanda’s exuberant personality and the fact she came from Dunedin in New Zealand (a city I’d visited only the previous year) I bought all the titles in her police procedural series set on New Zealand’s South Island.

Overkill , the first in this series, introduces Sam Shepherd, the only police constable in the small rural town of Mataura. She’s called in when the body of a young mother is found in the Mataura River. It looks like suicide but Sam is not convinced. Her instinct soon proves correct but in the hunt to find the killer Sam puts her job in jeopardy and her own safety at risk. She has a personal reason to want the truth to emerge: the murdered woman was the life of her former lover and in the eyes of her police colleagues Sam had good reason to want the woman dead.

Headstrong But Determined

I grew to love Sam, all five feet of her. She’s very conscious that she’s a woman in a strongly male environment and “just” a junior beat copper, more used to dealing with traffic accidents and the odd fracas in the local pub than a murder. Both factors which hamper her ability to be taken seriously when the more senior officers from the division descend on Mataura. But even when told to back away, she just can’t stop herself delving deeper and deeper into the murder investigation.

In her naivety and frustration with her superiors she frequently barrels headlong into situations without thought of the risks to herself. Headstrong, but determined, she makes mistakes, goes off completely on the wrong scent, but when she falls, there is always her housemate Maggie on hand with a restorative mug of coffee and copious supplies of ToffeePops. I’d never heard of these biscuits but they sound so good I’ll have to pick up a packet on my next supermarket trip.

Sam Shepherd is shaping up to be tremendous character so I’ll be keen to follow the next steps in her career. By the end of Overkill we know that will involve a move away from Mataura. Although it was her determination that eventually nailed the culprit, the experience was so traumatic she decides she cannot remain in this town. I’ve had a quick look at the plot of The Ringmaster, the next title in this series which makes it clear Sam Shepherd has relocated to Dunedin, one of the biggest towns on New Zealand’s South Island.

Small Town Atmosphere

I’ll be sorry to leave Mataura behind. Vanda Symons captured so perfectly the pace and atmosphere of a small farming community that’s “slighty shabbier and more run-down” than most rural towns.

Like most towns it struggled to provide employment and ways to entice the young folk to stay. How could it compete with the excitement of the city. It had a smattering of pubs, stores — mostly empty — and churches: the main ingredients for life in the sticks, although the pubs saw a lot more patronage than the churches.

The setting of Overkill is also a place where everyone knows everyone else, and it’s nigh on impossible to keep anything private. The perfect set up in fact for a nosy police officer since it means Sam Shepherd can rely on local gossip for potential leads about extra-marital affairs, fake prescriptions and cattle rustling. The solution to the crime however turns out to have implications well beyond Mataura.

But if you want to know more than that, you’ll just have to read the book yourself. It will be worth it: Overkill has atmosphere, a engaging character and a twisty plot. The perfect recipe for a crime novel.

Overkill by Vanda Symon: Footnotes

Vanda Symon hails from New Zealand where she currently hosts the monthly Write On radio show , interviewing local writers and any international authors who happen to be passing through Dunedin. She wrote Overkill, her first novel , she says, while suffering sleep deprivation caused by parenting two very young It was published in New Zealand by Penguin Books in 2007. The UK edition was issued by Orenda in 2018.

There are now four books in the Sam Shepherd series, the most recent of which Bound is due for publication in the UK in March 2021.

This is book number 3 in my #21 in 21 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

10 thoughts on “Overkill by Vanda Symon: atmospheric New Zealand crime

  • Pingback: Can You Ever Have Too Many Books? : BookerTalk

  • That’s great! I was looking for books for Kim’s Southern Cross Crime Fiction in March.

    This one sounds excellent.

    • I’m trying to decide if I can join in with that event – problem is that it clashes with Wales Reading Month which of course I cannot miss since that’s my home country

  • I had to buy this book as soon as I had read a small extract at my local bookshop when it was first published here in NZ. It certainly has you riveted from that first sentence.

  • I’d not heard of her. I haven’t read a good mystery in awhile. I used to read quite a few. Glad you enjoyed this.

    • I don’t read that many in the crime/mystery category now – but occasionally it just fits the mood

  • So glad you enjoyed it. One of my favourite series of books.

    Oh the days of going to a book event, I miss them. It was a fantastic evening.


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