It looks like a suicide. An older, teenaged girl, based in filthy bedsit a condemned building with the utilities switched off, whose mother is dead and whose father is in jail, and a near-empty vial of prescription drugs in her hand that Homicide Detective Jacob Striker recognises as medication for a bipolar depressive diagnosis. But it’s been filmed and why does the victim have large amounts of prescription drugs prescribed by the same doctor and dispensed by the same pharmacy? Unfortunately the suspect manages to retrieve his camera and get away thanks to a window being painted shut and a getaway car. Striker knows the girl vaguely as she used to go to the same high school as his own daughter where she had a history of running away. No one knew then she was running away from her abusive father.
Readers soon learn the identity of the man set up as the killer, but the book’s focus is on the motives of those directing the killer, the person meticulously planning these deaths. When Striker learns a former Victim Support Worker, Larisa Logan, knows something about Mandy’s death and has become both a missing person and a person of interest to a policeman with connections to the Mental Health Team, Striker vows to find Larisa before her enemies do and get justice for Mandy. Problem is there is a warrant out for Larisa to be sectioned and, although she is suffering both post traumatic stress disorder and depression following a car accident that involved fatalities, the last thing both Striker and his police partner Felicia Santos need is for Larisa to be sectioned and medicated before they can speak to her. Particularly when the person caring for her once sectioned is connected to Mandy’s death.
When another body turns up and Striker and Santos have to escape a burning building, finding Larisa becomes even more urgent. There’s also a need to track down a doctor, currently on leave and uncontactable, who prescribed medication for Mandy and the second victim. Both were being given therapy by another doctor who has a high profile with useful political and police contacts. He is hiding behind patient confidentially and hindering the operation, yet his wife and children seem scared by him and his daughter’s been observed with bruising around her face. Striker and Santos not only have a race against time and a labyrinth of procedure and paperwork but are hindered by a cop after his own glory, internal politics and the pressure a well-connected wealthy society member can indirectly exert.
A former policeman, Sean Slater, handles procedure and a multi-stranded story with skilful ease. The mental health issues are handled sensitively and realistically. Striker has good reason to know what the drugs prescribed to the victims are for. Slater illustrates the ‘treat the diagnosis, not the person’ attitudes of professionals working in the mental health system and the stigma and barriers faced by patients along with the bureaucratic frustrations suffered by both.
Sean Slater’s written a genuine page turner with characters who find that the deductions they’d carefully figured out rung by rung can slither away as someone reveals something they’d kept hidden. Even the deadliest of games comes to an end and nothing is more dangerous than someone driven to extremes by tragedy and grief and left with nothing to lose. “Snakes and Ladders” is a compelling read.
By Emma Lee