Crime Scene: ALEX HAMMOND The Unbroken Line. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
This unpredictable legal thriller is no courtroom drama and brims with action.
The first novel in this series, Blood Witness (shortlisted for the 2014 Ned Kelly Best First Crime), set Will Harris up as a strong and believable central character. A lawyer with a social conscience and questionable taste in business partners, his love life is constantly under threat from the fallout of his professional activities.
In The Unbroken Line, things get worse when Harris and his girlfriend Eva are out on a date while he is recovering from injuries sustained in the climax of the first novel. As they head home, they are run off the road in Melbourne’s Burnley Tunnel. Harris is threatened and his girlfriend’s face callously sliced open. Their relationship fractures, seemingly irretrievably, and Harris is left confused about the source of, and meaning behind, the menacing instructions to back off.
Meanwhile his fledgling legal practice is in a precarious position, and his business partner, Chris Miller, has mysteriously disappeared from the day-to-day operations:
Miller had sunk as much money into the practice as Will. But as a celebrated barrister, Miller’s reputation was at stake – much more than the dubious regard in which Will was held. It was inevitable that Miller would run his own firm one day but it was only three months ago that Will was almost a complete unknown – he was far from a player in Melbourne’s cutthroat legal scene.
Harris might think himself unknown, but as the son of a judge, and somebody already under investigation for questionable conduct, he’s not that far under the radar of Melbourne’s legal circles. His family connection is the reason that he’s coerced into taking on the defence of the teenage son of a colleague. Saxon is being investigated under Victoria’s Brodie’s Law that makes bullying a criminal offence. He’s suspected of complicity in the suicide of a school friend, and the video evidence of him standing by as the dead boy jumps from a bridge is damning. Despite his doubts, Harris has no choice but to try to defend his client to the best of his ability:
Walsh placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. Saxon didn’t move. He continued to stare with a beneficent serenity across the garden. Will shivered. Something wasn’t right about them.
Perhaps it’s simply because Harris is a defence lawyer, or maybe it’s because he’s a risk taker, drawn to lost causes, but while he’s trying to keep one boy out of trouble, he’s got another client who is going to jail, partly because he’s guilty of drugs offences, and partly because he’s in a lot of trouble with a major underworld family. Doing time and keeping quiet about his suppliers seems like the only option if he wants to stay alive, but the complication here is that Harris is already being investigated by the Law Society for questionable conduct and anything dodgy about his advice to this client isn’t going to play out well with the Tribunal. A detective involved with the case says:
‘I’ve heard about your ethics. Paraskos tells me the legal commissioner has paid her a visit. They’ve had a chat about you. I think that’s why Feinson’s so keen to know about you and Aaron. She seems to think there’s something fishy going on.’
None of which compares to the storm of trouble that rains down when his partner Chris Miller is charged with supplying the drugs that killed a young, well-connected footballer:
The helicopter manoeuvred to a better position. Two police officers walked on either side of the figure in a light grey suit. … It was Chris Miller.
Harris is spread thin, dancing on ice and playing some very dangerous games, all with the threat from those two men in that tunnel hanging over his head.
You’d be forgiven for wondering if Hammond hasn’t given his protagonist a little too much heavy lifting for one man. Added to all of the case complications, the workload, and the financial worry about the viability of his practice, Harris is still recovering from the severe injuries inflicted in the first novel. Aggravated by the attack in the tunnel, his need for constant, brain-fuzzing painkillers isn’t helped by the constant need to stay on the move, ahead of all the players, and out of trouble himself. Combine that with the loss of his beloved Eva, who after the attack leaves the country in order to try to feel safe again, and the entrance of a new potential love interest. It’s enough to make the reader want a good lie down, let alone Harris.
Given the complications of the plot and the many diverse elements it’s hard to pick what will or won’t converge, if ever, or why. The final twist is built nicely into the various threads, there for the reader to guess if you’re really paying attention, but let’s face it, even Harris is struggling to keep all those balls in the air and the clues straight in his own mind. It’s not until he’s really feeling the pressure and starting to slow down a bit that he starts to pick the trees out of a very crowded forest:
He didn’t like the mad rush, the overwhelming feeling of being unprepared, the gnawing gut-twist of apprehension and fear. Yet it was the only way he could find forwards. He would confront the men who had set him on this path, the men who’d savaged Eva, who’d destroyed their future. He would confront them and find out the truth.
For readers to get properly inside Will Harris’s head, and to understand some of the sub-threads in this novel, it would be worthwhile reading Blood Witness first, although it’s not mandatory. There’s enough context to everything in The Unbroken Line to make sure that new readers aren’t completely bamboozled.
This is action-based crime fiction set in the legal world, not courtroom drama. Harris is a combination of lawyer, investigator and fearless warrior in pursuit of the truth. He’s not bland, definitely not predictable, and it’s hard not to worry about his prospects for longevity. Within all the complexity, at the heart of the novel there’s a plot steeped in colonial history and inherited power and corruption. This is the aspect that rapidly moves from highly unlikely into chillingly possible. The generational grasp for control, the way that privilege can sometimes breed such brazen contempt, and the conflict that arises when the line between right and wrong becomes very thin are all explored in The Unbroken Line.
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
Alex Hammond The Unbroken Line Penguin Australia 2015 PB 320pp $32.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.