Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 447 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Loraine Peck’s debut, The Second Son, is a gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs.
The story is framed around a married couple, Johnny and Amy Novak, who are members of an organised crime family headed by Milan Novak, a Croatian immigrant. Amy is particularly keen to shield their young son, Sasha, from the family “business”, which involves running a string of fish’n chip shops as a front for nefarious activities including money laundering and drug trafficking.
The novel begins with the execution-style murder of Johnny’s beloved older brother, Ivan, who is fatally shot one dark evening while doing that most mundane (and unglamorous) of domestic duties: putting out the bins. The hitman is thought to be one of the gang’s Serbian rivals. Revenge is on everyone’s mind and police fear this will be the start of an ongoing tit-for-tat gangland war.
Johnny, who is the second son of the title, needs to prove himself worthy of filling the power vacuum created by Ivan’s death. To avenge his brother and win the trust and respect of his father, he comes up with a plan to carry out a daring heist to steal the Serb’s planned shipment of ecstasy said to be worth $3 million.
But there are complications. Amy, who was warned by her comfortably middle-class parents not to marry Johnny, wants a different life. She sees the violence and the bloodshed, and fears for her son’s future. When their own family home is shot at, she moves out and then issues an ultimatum to her husband: leave this life of crime behind and start afresh on the NSW north coast.
Johnny’s loyalties are torn: he loves his wife and son, but he also knows that he can’t risk the wrath of his father, nor the gangland criminals in his orbit. Whatever decision he makes will have far-reaching, perhaps even deadly, consequences…
The Second Son is an action-packed drama that combines the all-male world of violent crime with the moral and ethical dilemmas this creates for the women they have married. For instance, how can you live your life like a normal couple when you know your husband is a criminal even if you don’t know the depth or the details of the crime? Can you simply turn a blind eye, lie to your friends and then hope that none of the fallout will ever effect you?
Told in the first person from both Johnny and Amy’s points of view, Peck explores how these dilemmas affect both parties. Their narratives are told in separate chapters (which are headed “Johnny” or “Amy” accordingly), which helps provide a glimpse of their thought processes and their values, but unfortunately, their voices are so similar (and the present tense so wearing) that the structure didn’t really work for me. I also struggled to believe the male voice, which was too nuanced and too “nice”, and found Amy’s voice repetitive.
The book held the promise of being an intriguing character-led story, but it dissolved into a plot-driven one that didn’t really sustain my interest. I suspect that’s because I simply didn’t care about the characters, but also because the momentum sags in the middle, but picks up again towards the end.
Perhaps I have watched one too many Underbelly episodes or true crime documentaries, or read too many Mafiosa crime novels, but this story lacked the hard-hitting noirish edge I would expect from a novel about organised crime. It didn’t feel claustrophobic or dark enough; there always felt like there was the possibility of escape for the characters — indeed, this is what Amy dreams of all the time — and yet anyone who knows anything about this world knows that that is not possible. There is no escape — except death.
That said, The Second Son would make an excellent film or TV series. It asks important questions about love, loss and loyalty within an organised crime family. And it explores a topic rarely, if ever discussed, in Australian fiction: the ways in which grudges and resentments from the 1990s Balkan civil war continue on the streets of Sydney.
Judging by all the glowing five-star reviews online, I’m a little out of step with this one. For a more positive take, please see Shellyrae’s review at Book’d Out.
About the author¹: Loraine Peck started her career as a portrait painter and magician’s assistant in Sydney. After being sawn in half one too many times, she switched to dealing blackjack on the Gold Coast. Bartending and slinging lobsters in the US lead to a sales job in the movie industry before she was propelled into a career in marketing in Australia, the Middle East, Asia and the US. Consumed by a desire to write crime thrillers, she decided to stop everything and do a writing course—to learn how to write the kind of book she loves to read. (1. Source: Text Publishing website.)
Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia and New Zealand.
This is my 6th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 4th book for #AWW2021.