Story Rating: 4.25 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Antony Ferguson
Length: 10 hours, 13 minutes
After the death of his boyfriend, Detective August Shaw perfected the art of avoiding human contact. Convinced that his ability to love another man has died as well, he dedicates his life and energy to bringing justice and closure to families of the victims in his cold cases. When he is contacted by the senior constable, Jacob “Jake” Porter, about remains in a Tallowwood forest, Jacob is on the first plane from Sydney—simultaneously hoping this won’t be another person added to the long list of “suicide” cases he has been obsessively trying to solve for a decade, and if it is, that he finds some new evidence that leads him to the murderer.
To his dismay and frustration, both hopes are dashed as the victim’s death fits the MO of his suicides, but offers no new clues or leads. What August finds instead is an earnest, smart, and hardworking fellow officer who not only believes August about the victims not committing suicide, but is just as dedicated to finding the killer and getting justice for the young gay men they target. As August and Jake spend long days investigating and trying to circumvent brick walls and obstacles from all directions, August is surprised as well as terrified when he realizes that he is attracted to the younger policeman and struggles with the ramifications of being ready to let others in and fully live again. Before August and Jake have a chance to truly explore this, their lives are placed in jeopardy as they unearth secrets and the killer escalates their murder spree to a new level.
I really enjoyed both the story and narration of Tallowwood. Jake and August are such dynamic, fully fleshed out characters that work so well together that it is hard not to root for them. The pacing of their romantic interest is very well done and believable, especially given August’s colorless, isolated existence since his boyfriend died and Jake’s intrinsically kind, intuitive, and supportive nature. I absolutely adored Jake Porter from the moment he took the stage. From his endearing hero-worship of August to his keen intelligence, professional perfectionism, and warm disposition, Jake (and his freckles) stole into my heart as surely as they stole into August’s.
Walker does a masterful job of keeping August from being the stereotypical tortured hero who fills the narrative with back and forth angst and drama. As Jake puts it, there is “none of that miscommunication bullshit” to drive character realization or relationship growth. Walker does not rely on the hurt feelings and arguments of the miscommunication trope to fuel August and Jake’s connection; it is simply allowed to breath and develop at a natural and unhurried pace. Moreover, Jake’s openheartedness and compassion allow him to see August as no one else does and offer him the care, words and understanding he’s needed for years.
“I’m a…I’m a mess.”
“No, you’re not. You’re still you. You’re just made up of different parts now. There are new pieces to who you are. Those pieces aren’t wrong or broken. They’re just different from how you used to be, and that’s okay…You should be different after everything you’ve been through. It means your human, August. You don’t need to be alone; you just need someone who knows how your puzzle goes back together.”
While Walker does a good job keeping the suspense and romantic elements balanced, the mystery itself is the one aspect that doesn’t quite work for me. I could not completely get on board with the underlying premise, even though the reason for what August is missing and the handicaps these missing links create make some sense. While it has been shown empirically that murders/disappearances of people from marginalized communities do not always get the same coverage, concern, and investigative diligence they deserve, it just strained my credulity a bit too much that even in that kind of environment, the how and why of certain obstacles would not have occurred to August sooner. However, this suspension of disbelief is necessary to bring Jake in with fresh eyes and make him an asset and ally for August, so it is understandable. Additionally, while Walker avoids the miscommunication device, she takes full advantage of the high stakes climax scenario, which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t hinge on a choice that feels remarkably out of character given everything one learns about the person and their instincts. It maxed out my suspension of disbelief capabilities, but the writing is engaging enough to overlook it and just enjoy the finale. While the believability of the cases’ being treated as unconnected suicides and this 11th hour choice distracted me and affected my overall enjoyment, this may not be the case for others.
What did not distract me from my immersion into Tallowwood’s narrative is Antony Ferguson’s performance. For me, he nails Jake and August’s personalities, dynamic, and interactions, bringing them to vivid life. August and Jake are almost polar opposites and Ferguson somehow manages to capture this in his delivery and the choices he makes for their voices. Although I am by no means an expert on varieties of Australian accents, I think Ferguson does a great job, not only with the accents in general, but also in giving August and Jake subtly different inflections in their voices to further differentiate them. This small difference underscores Ferguson’s grasp of the characters and his engagement with the story. There are also quite a few secondary characters, and Ferguson makes them all distinct, believable, and compelling no matter how long they appear. Tallowwood is an engaging story about love, grief, hope, and justice that is further enhanced by Antony Ferguson’s performance, and I recommend you have a listen.