Book Review: The Scarlet Key by Debbie Terranova

posted in: On Reading 1

The Scarlet Key is a suburban crime thriller set largely in Brisbane’s well-to-do northern suburbs, including Hamilton, Clayfield, New Farm, and Bowen Hills. The lead character, Seth VerBeek is a crusty investigative reporter for The Morning Post.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t read many self-published books before, so I approached this with curiosity and skepticism.

As a career journalist who has spent more than half of the past 20 years as a sub-editor, I place a premium on the enormous machine that exists behind the printed word. Nobody can sub and edit their own work. It’s simply not possible. (Let’s not get started on the recent job cuts that will see News Corp and Fairfax release hundreds of sub-editors from their position and is resulting in the reporters subbing their own work, to disastrous results – that’s another blog post entirely).

So how does a self-published author provide all the safety checks that a big publishing machine would, such as structural edits, plot surgery, along with the crucial grammar and typo checks?

I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that I only spotted one typo in this book. I’ve spotted more than that in a traditionally published book, so whatever Debbie did here, it was pretty successful.

The Scarlet Key Plot summary:

Journalist Seth VerBeek receives a red key, delivered anonymously to his office, and the mystery begins unfolding. Along with his sidekick Cate, Seth follows the clues that lead him to the dead body of a heavily tattooed lady, a strange psychic tattooist and the vaguely titled gentleman, Claude Faberge, who calls himself a personal handyman.

The plot, to my untrained eye, was well-structured. It flowed smoothly and logically from one event to the next and almost every point was plausible and sensible.

The bits I liked:

I really loved a lot about this book. Debbie’s writing was the first thing I fell in love with. Page after page, I’d read, and then turn to my husband and say, “This is *exactly* the kind of writing I’m aspiring to.” She writes with a journalist’s economical use of words and a light touch. No long, flowery descriptions to weigh down the text. Everything is described quickly and then the plot keeps moving.

The characters were an interesting ensemble. One area that I struggle with in my own writing is to get into the mind of those characters who bear no resemblance to me. How to think and speak like someone who has had a vastly different life experience to my own? How to create dialogue for someone brilliant and quick witted (not me at all!) or for someone racist, or someone homophobic? It’s very difficult and an area of my writing that I’m trying to improve.

Debbie’s characters are distinct and definitely have enough of their own uniqueness that they are more than just slight variations on the same character.

The Brisbane locations added a dimension to the story that I thoroughly enjoyed. Reading about the large, shady Moreton Bay fig trees that liberally dot the Brisbane landscape helped to really put me in this story. Areas that I adore, such as New Farm Park, Hamilton, and Clayfield, all gave an added texture to the story. At the same time, the sprinkling of Brisbane references was not overdone so as to alienate non-Brisbane readers.

I often wonder what the impact is on a book’s mass appeal when it’s located in such a clear and obvious way in a town that few (globally speaking) know about. It’s a balancing act when, as a writer, you use a location as another character. When it’s a location such as Manhattan, it works because the whole world is familiar with Manhattan and it is an appealing location. But will US readers be helped or impeded by the Brisbane scenes? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think maybe a bigger description of Brisbane might have helped readers who were not familiar with this city.

The story is told from changing points of view. We are with one of three key characters from one chapter to the next – Seth, Isla, and Claude.

Debbie has also told this story in a non-linear fashion, jumping from the present day to various points in time up to almost two years before the present day. It is risky because it can confuse the reader, however, it was handled very well.

The bits I didn’t like:

The chapter that introduced central character, Claude, offered no physical description of him at all. We were told that his companion, Lola, waddled, but we got no real physical description of her either – hair colour, age, skin type, eye colour. It was maddening!

As mentioned earlier, the enormous machine that is a traditional publisher brings with it a team of readers. They pick up all kinds of details.

One such detail would have been the incongruous descriptions on the body when the journalist, Seth VerBeek, finds it.

On the floor was a doona, as white and puffy as a cloud. Peeping out was a foot. Pink varnished nails, cracked heel. He grasped a corner of the doona and lifted it. Beneath was a naked woman. Clearly she was dead.

Although she was beyond her prime, she was not old either. Her hair was neon pink; her skin was one giant tattoo. Tattoos covered her entire body apart from her face and the extremities of her hands and feet. Cherubs and garlands, birds and beasts, flowers and fruit. The images flowed together to form patterns within patterns, swirls within swirls.

In awful fascination, he squatted and took photos with his iPhone. Some of the tattoos looked as fresh as yesterday, while the rest would have been no more than a few months old.

The body was squeezed into a corner between the shower and the hand basin. Judging by the state of decomposition, she would have been there a couple of days. 

There was no blood, no obvious sign of a struggle. 

As best he could, he replaced the doona exactly as he’d found it and padded deeper into the house. Everything seemed to be in order.

These few paragraphs are the only time in the book that he is near the dead body. Then we skip forward a few pages and he’s looking at the photos that he took of the dead body.

He turned his attention to the photos of the corpse on the floor. Four were clear enough for newspaper reproduction. Sadly the face was either concealed by the doona or badly underexposed. On a brighter note, the shots of the tattoos were clean and sharp, in particular the one across her back. A sweep of colour in the form of angel wings. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? 

Astonished, he enlarged the pic. the wings were magnificent, detailed, alluring. In the shock of finding her, scrambled emotions must have blinded him to it. That tattoo was an omen. And it was fresh. On its surface was a liquid sheen, similar to gravel rash he’d endured as a kid whenever he fell of his pushbike. 

The thing that seems obvious to me here is that he’s looking at photos of the dead body, lying prone, so that the back is exposed and we can see the tattoos of the angel wings across the entire expanse of her back. Presumably, because he talks about not being able to see the face properly, her face was turned towards Seth.

But a few pages later, when Seth was showing the photos to his sidekick Cate, this:

“Do you notice anything unusual?”

Seth rubbed his chin. He’d seen plenty of naked women in his day but none as decorative as this. On her back were the angel wings, on the thighs and arms was a feast of botanicals, and across the chest were arabesques and blue lotus flowers. 

“Here’s a hint,” she said. “What’s missing?”

He examined the photo again. Of course! The nipples. 

When did Seth roll the body over to photograph the front? He didn’t. Many of the paragraphs before and after the discovery of the dead body emphasise how he didn’t want to disturb anything and was going to call the police. There’s no plausible way that he turned the body over to photograph the front and back of it.

These are the kinds of plot wrinkles that I think a traditional publisher would catch.

Don’t misunderstand me – this is the biggest thing I found to pick at, and at best, you would call this a tiny detail. It doesn’t alter the plot at all and has no bearing on anything. It’s just a niggly thing that annoyed me.

In Conclusion, I…

… really loved the book. Overall, the writing is beautiful, the book is well-structured and the conclusion is whimsical and considered, touching on the central themes of dignity of life, dignity of death, and the importance of conquering the past. I really enjoyed this book. I’m now going to read more of Debbie’s books. She is a great writer and if you’re looking for a beautifully written, gentle mystery that tackles the big issues of dignified end-of-life choices, then this is definitely for you.

Connect with Debbie Terranova:

Instagram: @TerranovaBooks

Twitter: @TerranovaBooks


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  1. Debbie Terranova
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for your lovely review, Felicity.
    One of the nicest things about writing is meeting people like you who share a passion for the written word.

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