Author Interview: Karen Herbert

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You may remember Karen Herbert as the author of The River Mouth and The Cast Aways of Harewood Hall. But, right now we are focusing on her latest novel, Vertigo.

This title is one of our latest book club reads. Vertigo is an Australian crime mystery, and it’s sure to have you hooked until the very last page.

While our members are busy reading the novel, Karen had a chat with us about the book —

France seems like such a mild-mannered but tenacious personality. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Absolutely she is! Frances is a diligent, thorough forensic accountant, with a personality suited to poring through endless government files to find the hidden details that will uncover the misappropriation of public money.

She lives a quiet, ordinary life, content to ride the bus to the office each day, indulge in Tim Tams with her colleagues, and watch the football on the weekends. But like most of us, Frances is not so ordered beneath the surface.

She eats way too much takeaway and drinks more wine than she knows her body can handle. And she’s not honest about her feelings about one of her colleagues. When she finds a clue to her unrequited love’s disappearance, her determined and unauthorised investigation is both out of character and typically Frances. Her tenacious forensic accounting skills are perfectly suited to pursuing the truth, but her desire to

Why set the book within a government department?

Government departments are wonderfully split between being models of bureaucratic routine and hotbeds for social change. On the one hand, government departments must be above reproach in their handling of government money. They have processes and procedures, delegations of authority, internal and external audits, and checks and balances.

On the other hand, they percolate the big ideas that affect all our lives. They create solutions to homelessness, drive public health and safety campaigns, and design our cities and transport systems. There’s a lot going on in those beige corridors and open-plan offices. They are the perfect places to hide nefarious deeds.

The book marketing asks the question – can you solve a missing person’s case using spreadsheets? Can you?

Of course, you can! That’s where you find the little details that might be overlooked by the master criminal. One or two anomalous entries might be shrugged off as mistakes. After all, incompetence is more common than corruption.

But then someone like Frances starts interrogating the data and realises that the rows and columns don’t add up. That’s when the odd mistake here and there starts to look like something more intentional and maybe criminal…

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Crime fiction is a great opportunity to bang the drum about bigger issues. Homelessness features in Vertigo. The lack of a secure home is one of the major factors that drive other forms of disadvantage. When a person doesn’t have a home, they don’t have a safe place to sleep, to keep their food fresh, to get themselves ready for work or school.

Children who experience homelessness are more likely to have been born prematurely, experience chronic disease and developmental delay, and disengage from school. They are less likely to receive appropriate health care. About ten thousand people are homeless in Western Australia.

A fifth of these people are children. The public and not-for-profit sectors are doing some great work in providing low-cost housing. But too often, I hear people say things like there are plenty of homes available or some people prefer to live on the streets.

I suspect that if, like Frances, they took a closer look, they’d see that it is not that simple. Imagine the difference we could make in those two thousand children’s lives if they could grow up with a roof over their heads.

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