Enjoyable and troubling: ‘Fetish’ by Tara Moss

Get your '90s on.

Get your ’90s on.

Last year my goal was to write ten book reviews for my blog, and I did three. Three. Yes, I had lots of other work to do (i.e. my thesis, and writing I was actually getting paid for) but still. Ten blog posts in fifty-two weeks should not be a difficult goal to achieve regardless of how busy a person is. (I also spent a good portion of 2014 watching New Tricks repeats in my pyjamas, which may have had something to do with it). In any case, in trying to remedy the situation, here’s a review of a book I read ages ago and which I can’t really remember that well, but which I do remember thinking was kind of good and also kind of troubling. Also I’m participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge again (an initiative that encourages people to read and review books by Australian women, in order to combat the gender bias in book reviewing culture) so you know, trying to do my bit.

The book is Fetish by Tara Moss, and it was actually her very first novel, published in 1999. It’s the first crime novel in what has become known as the ‘Makedde Vanderwall’ series. Makedde, or Mak, is the protagonist, a young model whose best friend is murdered in Sydney after Mak arrives there for some modelling gigs. Mak, who’s obsessed with crime solving thanks to her cop dad, gets stuck into the case, much to the chagrin of the local police. The story that follows details not only the solving of the crime, but Mak’s own personal development as she works through her relationship with her father, issues of sexism in her modelling career and life more generally, and problems from her past.

As a crime story Fetish is great. The pacing is really effective, the tension takes hold in your guts, and Moss genuinely had me wondering who the perpetrator was the whole time. Fetish is also really convincing and compelling since it’s so thoroughly researched – it contains a wealth of detail about the Australian police force, murder inquiries, legal processes and particular investigative protocols without ever reading like an information dump. I was really impressed with how much Moss seemed to know about, well, everything.

For the most part, Mak was a well-written character – likable but complicated, strong but contradictory. She’s smart, determined and brave, knows how to fight and shoot a gun. There’s good personal growth in her story line, and she makes infuriating mistakes as well as smart choices. My problem with Mak was that she was always on the verge of reading like some sort of fantasy woman. She’s a model, but not too skinny. She’s graceful, but takes self-defense classes. She’s blonde, but not dumb. She’s strong, but vulnerable enough for men not to feel too threatened. Sometimes it felt like there was a reference every other page as to how stunningly beautiful Mak was, how long her legs, how attractive men found her. It was frustrating because Fetish actually reads like a book that is trying to write a female-centric crime novel that bucks gender stereotypes. And it does, to an extent…but I found Mak’s characterisation in the sections where she appeared sexually objectified really troubling. The sections focusing on her actual character development and behaviour were more far more interesting and original.

A weird and uncomfortable gender dynamic operated in other parts of the book too, particularly the seductive tone of the passages that describe the killer fantasising his female victims – those passages seemed designed to arouse readers, even though they described the dismemberment of women. Also I couldn’t stand how the male lead, the detective (can’t remember his name) only seems to like Makedde when she revealed her vulnerability or ‘needed’ him in some way: it kind of grossed me out how clichéd it all seemed, how he couldn’t just like her for who she was from the start. I guess these kind of gender dynamics still operate in real life, but the guy still annoyed me.

All that said, let’s remember that the book is called Fetish, and the whole thing kind of reads like a fetishisation of the crime genre, exploiting the gender clichés for all they’re worth. In that sense, the book works, even though it’s deeply unsettling (and sometimes blatantly problematic). I will probably try more of Moss’s fiction, mostly because I have the feeling that Moss will have grown as writer, and that some of the hamfisted elements of Mak’s characterisation will have been smoothed out, as will some of the issues with gender. I’ll keep you posted when I read the sequel.

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