Crime Scene: GARRY DISHER Bitter Wash Road; BARRY MAITLAND The Raven’s Eye: A Brock and Kolla Mystery. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
Garry Disher introduces a new character and Barry Maitland continues his successful Brock and Kolla series.
Bitter Wash Road is the latest police procedural from Garry Disher. Introducing a new protagonist, and set in the isolated South Australian wheatbelt, this is a book that delves deep into corruption, influence and power.
Constable Paul Hirschausen is exiled to a one-cop station in the middle of nowhere, demoted and tagged as a whistleblower, a dog, a maggot. His standing with other police could not be lower. Down but not out, Hirsch can only rely on his own wits, preparedness and ability to out-think the unthinkable. He’s forced to be constantly vigilant. He trusts no one, believes no one and stays on guard every moment:
Hirsch cocked an ear, listening for vehicles he’d have to warn off, or protect, or mop the collateral blood from. Or run like hell from.
A small farming community, Tiverton is a struggling town. Surrounded by farms at the mercy of the weather, commodity prices, and family tensions, there’s a stark sense of the haves and have-nots: those with wind-farm rental incomes versus their neighbours; town inhabitants with close family relationships, and those for whom deprivation and dysfunction is the norm. Overseeing the area are the cops from the nearby larger town – Redruth. And there’s something about the relationship between them and their surrounding communities that isn’t right. Their reaction to Hirsch isn’t right either.
In fact, there’s a lot that seems increasingly wrong in this world. Way before teenager Melia Donovan is found dead, supposedly the victim of a hit and run. Way before the victim of an abusive husband, Alison Latimer, is found dead, in a place she hated, seemingly a suicide. Despite the distraction of the corruption investigation that got Hirsch his reputation in the first place, the threats, the stitch-ups, the coincidences of who knows who and who holds the power in these towns start to build a picture which is increasingly disturbing.
Disher has always written strong storylines and character studies, but this book is like a master-class in perfection with a diverse and large cast of characters, each fleshed out just enough to give you a sense of who they are and what sort of impact events are having on them. In the same way, the hostility that Hirsch encounters from every cop and forensic investigator he comes across is palpable and the threat ever-present. The dialogue is perfect and there is a lyricism in the sparseness:
October gathered its skirts and raced past.
… A gritty wind blew and the ants raced in the red dirt and he didn’t see any hired killers lurking.
While ongoing hostility, dysfunction, disconnection and despair are facts of life for many of the characters, there are also signs of hope – of strength and survival in a harsh world. This isn’t a story that concentrates on the wildness and unpredictability of the Australian landscape and climate, but it does use those elements as a backdrop, setting the action firmly in a location that comes alive:
He drove into a town more depressed than Tiverton, but laid out just like it. One shop, one pub and a handful of houses on either side of an abbreviated grid of stubby, broad streets.
The action in Tiverton and surrounds is always overshadowed by the spectre of the corruption enquiry. Hirsch is still at the beck and call of that investigation, always compromised by his involvement in a very dodgy big-city squad, despite proof he wasn’t corrupt. That pulling away of focus from his day-to-day activities in Tiverton is part of the writer’s toolbox employed to play with the reader’s expectations. While the initial deaths of Donovan and Latimer are treated as tragedies, it’s only Hirsch who senses a less obvious explanation. What that is, and how the truth plays out, are cleverly done. There are hints and clues around, but there are also masterstrokes of misdirection and complication. Closer to home, there’s the possibility that the Redruth cops are complicit in more than just a bit of after hours moonlighting. Who is on what side is as big a puzzle as the truth behind the death of two seemingly unconnected victims.
Readers of this series will be aware that Maitland usually trains his architect’s eye on a unique setting. The Raven’s Eye takes us to the canals and waterways of the Thames when a young woman is found dead on a houseboat:
From here the Regent’s Canal led eastward to the Thames and west to the Grand Union Canal, which continued north to the Midlands, and from there to a thousand branches into the most remote corners of the country, and Kathy felt a momentary pang of envy for the life of freedom which that curlicued name promised.
While initially the death looks like a tragic accident, DI Kathy Kolla is not convinced. When it turns out that the victim is not who she claimed to be, and the circumstances of her death aren’t as straightforward as initially thought, Kolla is frustrated that her investigation is hampered by senior management insistence on new methodologies and other priorities. The interference isn’t from DCI Brock, but originates further up the chain, where a new Commander is pushing his own agenda, making everybody’s lives uncomfortable. There is also the high priority search for brutal killer Jack Bragg, which throws up a very dangerous assignment for Kolla, plus a new high-tech surveillance task force working on their patch and looking closely at Brock’s team.
The focus of this series has been shifting slightly from Brock to Kolla in recent books, but in The Raven’s Eye, Brock is back in the main action. Not completely in a cooperative team effort, Brock steps away from the management tensions and into the field when things go pear-shaped for Kolla. He’s prepared to back her instincts on the woman-in-the-houseboat case, but that investigation struggles for oxygen against the pressures of the hunt for the brutal Jack Bragg.
Being a huge fan of this series, I’ve found it very rewarding to follow the change of dynamic between those two lead characters, yet The Raven’s Eye was not quite as strong as you’d expect. Maybe it was the less architectural nature of the setting – the canal and the houseboats – making everything seem a little less solid or real; it was also the rather predictable tensions between the field detectives and senior, process-focused management. Not particularly unexpected or unreasonable, this never seemed to be going anywhere, except as something for the ‘good’ coppers to rail against. The major problem, however, was the way the search for their brutal killer panned out. There were some behaviours there that pushed the believability envelope beyond the feasible, with decisions leading to a hefty dose of boss-induced fem-jep, which seemed inexplicable. To say nothing of nefarious goings on at official hospitals and other assorted oddnesses.
At the core of the book there’s an interesting proposal, though, taking the reader into the possibilities of high-tech surveillance and the brave new world of criminal intelligence and control. It’s a policing environment bordering on that odd moment of science fiction turning into fact, which is possibly why the underhand sneaking around with medical procedures was less than convincing. On the one hand there’s the future and on the other, something that felt more like a 1960s covert-operations thriller.
All of which probably means that if the idea of covert police/medical activities in contemporary London intrigues rather than confuses, and you don’t mind a dash of lurking evil behind closed doors, then The Raven’s Eye could very well work. Possibly not if you’re new to this series, but for what it’s worth, for this reader, a slightly less than perfect Brock and Kolla novel is still a very good way to spend a few hours.
Garry Disher Bitter Wash Road Text Publishing 2013 PB 304pp $29.99
Barry Maitland The Raven’s Eye: A Brock and Kolla Mystery Allen & Unwin 2013 PB 384pp $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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