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Cold Justice by Katherine Howell

On an early morning walk, a young girl finds the body of her classmate, Tim Pieters, hidden amongst some bushes. The boy’s family are desperate for answers but the killer is never found. Almost two decades later, political pressure sees the cold case reopened and Detective Ella Marconi inherits the job. Ella attacks the case with vigour, determined to shake off the memories of her last investigation, which ended with her being shot in the line of duty. But she knows it won’t be easy after all this time the murderer is probably long gone and the memories of any witnesses are fading. Georgie Riley, the girl who found Tim’s body, is now a paramedic, trying to face up to her own demons. There’s never been any reason to doubt her story, but when Ella receives an anonymous call insisting that Georgie has information about the Pieters’ case, she decides to dig deeper. As long-buried secrets and lies finally come to light, can Ella track down the killer before more people are hurt?

The set-up

This is the second novel by Katherine Howell that I have read and just like the first – the brilliant Frantic – it is a thriller featuring detective Ella Marconi along with a paramedic. Katherine Howell uses a different paramedic in each of her books. Howell herself worked as a paramedic for fifteen years and one would imagine that in her fiction she has drawn heavily on her own experiences. This Ella Marconi + paramedic combination is evidently a winning formula as the books have been bestsellers, and it’s easy to see why.

Although this book is a thriller, and therefore fairly fast-paced, it is sensitive when dealing with Tim’s death, and it doesn’t go in for grotty sensationalism. Tim Pieters is, after all, only seventeen when he is murdered and the book takes the time to show us the impact that Tim’s loss has had upon his mother and father in particular. Since the murderer evaded detection, we see the Pieters family in all of their grief, bitterness and confusion which hasn’t much diminished even after two decades. Ella Marconi is only given the task of re-opening the case due to political pressure brought about by Tim’s cousin, Callum, who has been elected as a member of parliament. Ella initially has to work the case alone, without previous experience of cold cases, and it is her first job after convalescing from a gunshot injury. Perhaps understandably then, Tim’s mother does not feel that the police department has sent its finest detective to work on the case, and her resentment further complicates Ella’s investigation.

In a parallel thread, paramedic Georgie Riley – a classmate of Tim’s and the girl who discovered Tim’s body – is in Sydney for a work assessment after a series of unfortunate accidents bring her professional competency into question. Georgie’s assessor turns out to be her old school friend, Freya, who mysteriously left the school shortly after Tim’s death.

Ella and Georgie take alternating chapters, although there are a few sections from the viewpoints of Callum and Freya too. The multi-voiced narrative works well here and I liked the voices equally, which is a feat of storytelling in itself.

The delightful Hilary

Special mention must go to a minor character called Hilary, a homeless woman who brings moments of comic relief to an otherwise serious text.

Hilary slumped back down on the steps. ‘I am sooo sick.’

‘Sick how?’ Georgie said again.

‘Just sick! Look at me! I’m probably dying.’

‘She’s pissed and she’s a pain in the arse,’ Freya said. ‘She does this all the time. When we do take her in, the nurses throw her in the waiting room and she walks out three seconds later.’

‘Sooo sick,’ Hilary moaned.

Freya nudged Georgie and started back to the ambulance. ‘Come on.’

Georgie looked at Hilary. She did stink of wine. Back at home, Georgie knew the equivalent locals well enough to know when they were just bunging it on. But she was on assessment here. Then again, Freya was her assessor and pissing her off was not a good idea.

‘I have a pain in me chest,’ Hilary said.

‘Don’t try that one,’ Freya said.

‘I do, I really do. Ooh, it’s right here.’ She clapped a hand to the centre of her chest.

‘For Christ’s sake.’

Georgie rubbed her forehead. ‘What’s it feel like?’

‘Like an elephant standin’ there.’

Aside from Hilary’s delightful shenanigans – which crop up at various points throughout the book – Cold Justice does give a sense of the difficulties that paramedics face, particularly when dealing with time wasters and hostility from members of the public who feel that the paramedics aren’t doing a good enough job.

Women and Work

The cleverest and most important characters in Cold Justice are all women and one might make the argument that Cold Justice is a feminist text. Our main characters, Ella and Georgie are strong, brave, energetic and argumentative where necessary. They are also two women who really love their jobs, and are both very much committed to them. This depiction of everyday work as something positive rather than something to be dreaded was refreshing. Ella – like Sarah Lund/Linden (the detective in the cult TV show, The Killing; Lund or Linden, depending upon whether you watch the Danish original or the American version) – often takes her work home with her and displays a kind of deep restlessness that doesn’t subside until she uncovers the truth of what has happened. Georgie gets huge personal fulfilment from her work as a paramedic, a job that is naturally depicted here with great realism – largely because the author has all the funny stories and detailed descriptions needed for absolute authenticity. When held up to scrutiny and forced to fight for her career, Georgie doesn’t just cave in. She sets out to prove herself worthy of a job that she respects.


As one might anticipate, the plot of Cold Justice is full of twists and turns, but it still deals with the everyday difficulty of actually finding a suspect, and the many avenues that must be explored before the culprit can be identified. Again this reminded me of The Killing, as so many leads are chased down only to go nowhere thus sending the investigation to circle back again to its starting point. I won’t say more on this for fear of spoilers, but the plotting definitely kept me on the edge of my seat.


I ended the book thinking of the police procedural TV shows, like CSI and Criminal Minds, which are so popular (and plentiful) at the moment and how books like Cold Justice have the edge over them. Those shows tend to take a new case every episode (The Killing is the exception, dealing as it does with only one case over a whole series) and must present it, investigate it and solve it in forty two minutes of screen time. Cold Justice takes the time to show us how police investigations actually work, which is to say they are messy, stressful, full of dead ends, but strangely addictive.

Cold Justice is easily my favourite thriller of 2011, so if you’re interested in an intelligent, enthralling and sensitive thriller with two heroic female main characters, I highly recommend that you check it out.

Pan, ISBN-13: 978-0330521338, 328 pages.

6 comments on “Cold Justice by Katherine Howell

  1. rosyb
    July 15, 2011

    What a indepth review! Have you ever read any Sara Paretsky – talking of female heroes and complicated plots. Might be of interest?

    Thrillers don’t tend to be a genre I go for much, despite being as hooked as everyone else with The Killing. I don’t know why.

  2. Lisa
    July 15, 2011

    Cheers, Rosy. I haven’t read Sara Paretsky. Will go and google her now. Most of the thrillers that I read have male protagonists, so it was lovely to read one that focussed on the wimmin!

    I watched The Killing on your recommendation, Rosy, and thought it was great. As with Cold Justice, I really appreciated the fact that the story included the experiences of the family which are too often left out in other shows/thrillers, so as to concentrate solely on the crime solver’s experiences.

  3. rosyb
    July 16, 2011

    The depiction of the parents was just brilliant, wasn’t it? And their pain. I also appreciate that the people all looked like real people. I could imagine the father was a removal man. I could believe that Lund was getting no sleep by the end of the series. It may me care more about the characters and the whole thing to feel more real. The tendency with American TV we ge over here is for everyone to be glossy and plastic surgeried and salonned to the eyeballs. Which makes it feel theatrical but not real.

  4. Nikki
    July 16, 2011

    What a comprehensive review, Lisa, thanks! Sounds really good, I’m not all that into thrillers, but I’m going to try this. I find the paramedic/detective combination really interesting. And I’m a sucker for tough, fighting women. Thanks for this!

  5. Pingback: The First Husband by Laura Dave « Vulpes Libris

  6. Katherine Howell
    July 24, 2011

    Hi readers,
    you can win a signed copy of Cold Justice, posted anywhere in the world, by guessing which of five statements about me is false, at 🙂
    And thanks, Lisa!

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This entry was posted on July 15, 2011 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: thriller and tagged .



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