A MORBID HABIT
Author: Annie Hauxwell
Michael Joseph RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Tightly plotted, multi-layered and full of surprises, A Morbid Habit was my introduction to the work of Australian writer Annie Hauxwell. She’s earned herself a new fan because this book, the third in her Catherine Berlin series, certainly delivered the thrills.
The story opens in London, where broke investigator Catherine Berlin is working a casual graveyard shift at a security company. When she sees something unusual, she is advised to ignore it; her decision not to is the catalyst for a train wreck of events leading her to Russia for what she thinks is an unconnected and straightforward job. It’s not. Met at the airport by her interpreter, an eccentric expat named Charlie, Berlin prepares to conduct a “due diligence” interview with an entrepreneur seeking closer ties with Britain, but before this takes place her passport and medication is confiscated, and she is kicked out of her hotel. The connection to London is not immediately obvious, but Berlin soon discovers that she has become part of a complex web that involves security at the highest level. Getting out of Russia won’t be easy. Getting to the bottom of things will be almost impossible. Luckily, Berlin has long given up on “easy” and does not believe in “impossible”.
Like most other investigator-protagonists in this genre, Berlin carries heavy baggage. In her case it’s a serious drug addiction, something she’s managed for years with replacement therapy, and hidden from most. No time is wasted on giving backstory, and I can’t comment about the first two books about the addiction’s source, but what is clear is that Berlin’s addiction has affected her career, lifestyle and relationships significantly (not unexpected). Hauxwell briefly raises the variance of therapeutic treatments for such addictions by contrasting replacement therapy (used in the UK) with abstinence (used in Russia), highlighting this in more depth with an insight into the underground drug culture in Moscow. It’s a frightening glimpse at the lengths people will go to get their fix. Hauxwell also gives a sad and sobering insight into the addict’s mind, through Berlin and some secondary characters.
The bleak, wintry atmosphere of Moscow provides a perfect backdrop – it’s as chilling and uncompromising as the people who populate the city. The scenarios Berlin encounters are plausible given the political landscape of our world, with corruption, spies, hacking, cover-ups, political manoeuvrings and media influence all playing a role. The idea that this could happen adds another layer of tension. All this bleakness could make for a depressing, morbid read, but there are enough moments of comradeship to keep hope alive, and likewise, the ending keeps hope alive for another instalment.
I’m looking forward to getting to know Catherine Berlin better and watching her develop. In the meantime, I’m going to look up the backlist and get stuck into those books. PS. You can read this as a standalone – not having read the first two books did not make much of a difference to me.
Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. My copy was courtesy of Penguin Books.
Bookish treat: I was given some peanut butter Lindt balls. I ate most of them reading this book.