“The Stoning” by Peter Papathanasiou plays with your expectations of a crime novel, even as it uses many familiar tropes. I loved this; it’s a novel with layers that asks readers to take a hard look at some uncomfortable things.
In Cobb, a tiny town in Victoria so rural that it’s essentially the outback, Molly Abbott has been stoned to death. Apart from the horrific nature of the crime, Molly was youngish, pretty, well liked, and a kindergarten teacher.
It’s just the sort of crime that could become inconveniently high profile; not something the authorities want, with a detention centre in town. So Detective Sergeant George Manolis is despatched from Melbourne to help solve the crime.
Manolis doesn’t particularly want the job; he suspects it was handed to him because he was born in Cobb. But he and his parents left decades ago, and he barely remembers the town. And like most fictional detectives, he’s got plenty of personal problems to occupy him without a sensitive secondment.
This is one of the ways Papathanasiou uses familiar tropes while simultaneously diverging from them. Manolis has the full complement of problems: a wife who’s left him, a toddler son he doesn’t see enough of, a recently deceased father he’s mourning, and the occasional bout of racism aimed at him.
Unlike most fictional detectives, he’s not obsessing about these most of the time. They sit in the background, occasionally rising to the surface when triggered by other events. This makes Manolis much more real; he’s just realistically complicated. Mostly, Manolis is concerned with what’s in front of him: a vicious crime, and the challenges Cobb presents to an investigator.
Here again, Papathanasiou uses a familiar trope: a town hostile to outsiders. Yet again he takes this in an unexpected direction. The sexism and harassment aimed at the sole female police officer are shocking, as is the violence directed at the young Indigenous police officer. This town doesn’t just reject physical outsiders: it rejects lifelong residents who don’t fit the narrow set of biases that define the “right” sort of person. Manolis, both a physical outsider and one whose Greek heritage makes him visibly different, is particularly objectionable.
Finally, there’s the investigation. We’re all familiar with a good police investigation: the tight procedures that govern them. To find ourselves in a small town with few resources, little concern about following procedures, limited interest in doing things properly, and a very low care factor about all these failures is quite shocking. Our expectation of a dedicated detective working through a set series of actions to find the murderer is subverted; Manolis tries, but he just… can’t. Procedure is out the window.
So we think we know what we’re in for, and Papathanasiou regularly subverts it. The skeleton of a classic crime story is here and provides the impetus for the plot. But much of the flesh of the story is unexpected and challenging.
Readers are asked to confront their own prejudices.
How do you make judgements about people? How much is preconceived, how much is gossip, how much is misinformation? Do you think someone is automatically wrong if they don’t do what you think they should? There are plenty of judgements in here, about refugees, women, migrants, Indigenous people. Some will seem shocking to a reader who considers themself unprejudiced, and yet this is very real.
If the novel has a flaw, it’s that Molly Abbott never really comes to life. As the investigation proceeds, we find out more about her. But for me, she never became a fully rounded character. I prefer novels where the victim feels like a real person, not a prop. However, there’s a lot going on in the novel, and many readers will be too absorbed in that, and in the mystery of Molly’s death, to worry about her life.
Despite dealing with a lot of challenging issues, and being quite dark in places, this is easy to read. It’s not an overly long novel, and the writing style absorbs you so thoroughly that pages zip by.
This is a challenging novel that confronts multiple forms of prejudice and prods the reader in sometimes uncomfortable places. There’s a solid crime plot in here too, but for me, the social commentary and subversion of popular tropes were what really made this novel outstanding.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, and both crime readers and readers interested in social commentary wrapped in a good story should too.
A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club Members are reading The Stoning by Peter Papathanasiou. You can read their comments below, or add your own review.
I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, and I love sharing that joy.
I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, across all genres. There’s not much I won’t at least try. I’ve been an enthusiastic book reviewer for years. I particularly enjoy discovering writers new to me, and sharing good writing with others.
My career has included time spent writing and editing technical documents, but it’s fiction that really moves me. I’ve reviewed for a number of different outlets over the years, and have been a judge in literary competitions.
I’m now raising little bookworms of my own, which brings a whole new kind of joy to sharing books.
More of my reviews can be found on my review blog www.otherdreamsotherlives.home.blog .