Crime Scene: EMMA VISKIC Resurrection Bay. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
A deftly handled plot, strong characters and a sly, dry humour make this an outstanding debut crime novel.
Emma Viskic won the 2014 Ned Kelly Short Story Award and the 2013 New England Thunderbolt Award for her short crime fiction, so it’s reasonable to greet Resurrection Bay, her first novel, with a degree of expectation.
Really good contemporary crime fiction often sets out to push comfort zones, or in the case of Resurrection Bay, to reveal something readers may not know a lot about. Viskic does this via a masterclass in getting the balance right between showing and telling in this assured and well-plotted novel.
The protagonist, investigator Caleb Zelic, has been profoundly deaf from early childhood, and the way that influences his life, his relationships and the manner in which he functions day to day is built seamlessly into this narrative. It’s clear from the way he lives that this is a condition requiring management, but it also encourages acute observation and an ability to assess situations and people by non-verbal means:
Tedesco stopped in front of the young policeman. ‘Move the reporters back from the tape, Constable. If you feel the urge to up-chuck again, aim it at them rather than the crime scene.’ He turned to Caleb. ‘A few more questions, Mr Zelic, then I’ll get you to make your statement down the station.’
The easy rhythms of a dust-bowl country town in his speech, but his face was half-hidden by shadows. Caleb shifted a few steps to draw him into the light.
It’s this sort of shift in physical positioning and the hyper-awareness that is part of Caleb’s life that is so cleverly revealed in Resurrection Bay. As are the depths of the problems caused by his disability:
His aids lay like tiny pink snails on the vanity. Expensive enough to put a serious dent in his bank account, small enough to hide under his hair. They changed the silence in his ears into distant sounds; blurred and directionless, like the murmurings of an underwater world.
Caleb, however, is not just a deaf man. He’s also a very good friend and when his childhood mate, a cop and father, is brutally killed and Caleb is the one to discover his body, there is no way he’s going to let this just roll. Not simply because he’s one of the main suspects, but because somebody’s killed a friend and colleague. This makes it personal for him, and for another friend, ex-cop Frankie.
The victim, Gary, and Caleb and Frankie have been working together as part of a private investigation team, and what has been occupying Gary’s time recently is a warehouse robbery. Before he died, he had managed to text Caleb a final clue – the name Scott – but that’s all Caleb and Frankie have to go on. It’s not much, as there is no Scott to be seen – not among the warehouse staff, any possible suspects or any contacts, anywhere. So they go back to first principles and start to redo the case, following the same trail as Gary, hoping to stumble upon the same people that he did.
Frankie is a story in her own right. Partner in the investigative agency, she’s an alcoholic struggling to remain sober, a spiky, abrupt, strong woman who is very matter of fact about everything, including their working patterns:
‘OK if I do the talking?’ Frankie asked as they got out of the car.
Code for ‘Are you with it enough to follow two people in a conversation?’
The strength of Resurrection Bay lies partly in its ensemble of characters. The focus is on Caleb, obviously, as suspect, investigator, friend and mourner. Around him Viskic has positioned a supporting cast that includes Frankie and Caleb’s ex-wife Kat, as well as a range of doubters – Tedesco the cop, Caleb’s grumpy doctor mother-in-law, and his own brother, whose role in Gary’s death, and Caleb’s life, is complicated and never quite clear.
Even though Gary’s murder occurs in the big city, it’s back in the small town they came from that the complex connections and relationships are untangled, explaining the challenges of living with somebody with a disability, and despite Caleb’s ongoing love for Kat, her unwillingness to be drawn back into a relationship:
‘You know, all this time, I’ve been missing you, wondering if I did the right thing leaving, but I’d forgotten just how fucking lonely our marriage was. Because I never had you, did I? Not the real you. Just whatever small part you could bear to reveal to me.’
There’s a lot of personal background built into Resurrection Bay at this point, woven into bursts of investigative activity or revelation, but it’s very well balanced. The reader never has to wonder when the story is going to get back to the plot as there are bits and pieces of all the elements at each turn. The pace is nicely varied as well – from breakneck danger through to reaction, contemplation and consideration. Caleb is not a professional crime fighter, and he’s not cold and hard. It is the threat to the people he loves dearly, as much as any personal threat to him, that drives him, and it is not a situation he relishes or is comfortable in:
He got to his feet and stumbled towards the sea. The lapping waves were like the sucking of Boxer’s throat. He waded in, ripping at his T-shirt. Rivulets of red ran down his skin. His blood, Boxer’s. Heaving sobs shook his body. He collapsed to his knees and wept.
There’s great humour and fun, too – for example, when describing Kat’s car (which Caleb eventually has to borrow):
Kat’s ancient Beetle had a top speed of sixty, and an eye-popping mural that covered every inch of the duco. It had been painted by someone with a deep love of the female form and very few inhibitions.
Beautifully understated observations, and the sly, dry sense of humour dotted throughout Resurrection Bay are part of what make this debut novel a joy to read, especially as there is no overshadowing of story by character or vice versa. There’s a deftly handled plot working its way from the murder of Gary through the investigations conducted by Caleb and Frankie to the threats from unknown quarters, and the possibility that there’s police corruption involved. There are more than enough red herrings along the way to keep the determined puzzle solver occupied, and perfect sense in the connections that eventually fall into place.
The tension is built using a number of devices – a sense that Caleb’s inability to hear everything could mean he’s missed something, combined with the dawning view that there’s possible corruption in high places and, finally, the consequences of Caleb’s choice of people to trust. To say nothing of the mysterious Scott’s tendency to use family and loved ones as a means to force compliance on anyone who gets too close to the truth. This multi-level threat doesn’t declare itself with any fanfare – rather, it builds slowly, creeping into the reader’s mind about the same time as it does into Caleb’s. Building until it breaks apart in surprising revelations.
The story arc through Resurrection Bay is so well balanced, and so perfectly constructed that even a slightly soppy ending not only rings true, but feels just right. This is an outstanding debut novel from an author you’d hope is busy on the next instalment right now.
Emma Viskic Resurrection Bay Echo Publishing 2015 PB 192pp $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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