Crime Scene: B MICHAEL RADBURN The Falls. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
Emotion, reaction, damage and recovery are at the core of B Michael Radburn’s dark thrillers.
In 2011 The Crossing arrived in the Australian crime fiction landscape, combining aspects of the supernatural with the story of Taylor Bridges as he dealt with the extremes of grief, guilt and loss after the disappearance of his young daughter. Radburn’s second book, Blackwater Moon (2012), is part crime fiction, part thriller, again presenting men in the extremes of emotion. The benefits of men mentoring boys, and friendship and guidance from unlikely places are all beautifully explored, creating a story with heart, soul and real feeling.
Which leads us to 2016 and the second Taylor Bridges book – The Falls. (It’s not necessary to have read the first book to understand the past and to see why this series should have a strong future.) Again this is a story that features a lot of people struggling with various types of adversity, presented in the style of crime fiction and thrillers, but never with stereotypical characters. There are good, strong and believable female characters in the mix in this book, but again, Radburn’s strengths are when he focusses on men trying to sort themselves out in the face of emotional turmoil:
He felt restless. Not just tonight; not just this week, month or year. The restlessness had been creeping in since the island. He returned a new man – had to. Mended a broken marriage and found family again in the birth of Erin. He was home. Not just in this house in Cheyenne Bridge, but home in the wilderness as a park ranger. Why does it feel like something is missing? It was an itch that he couldn’t quite reach to scratch.
Taylor Bridges is a National Park ranger, which would seem to limit the avenues for pulling him into a crime fiction story but so far it’s all happened very seamlessly. In the earlier book he is in the depths of the Tasmanian wilderness already, the only ranger in a town slowly being consumed by a hydro-dam project. It’s damp, dark and extremely atmospheric, a setting that matches Bridges’s mood and the style of story. It makes enormous sense that when things go wrong in the town, he’s part of the community and, in particular, the landscape.
The Falls has him called in as a consultant to police trying to kick-start a murder investigation. This works partly because there is a personal connection between one of the initial witnesses and Bridges, and because the set-up pitches the situation as perfectly reasonable and normal.
The setting is another small town, this time in Victoria’s rugged bushland. Eldritch Falls, or the Falls as it’s known locally, is quiet, off the main highway, away from the popular tourist sites and a place with a dark history. Everything seems peaceful and run-of-the-mill in town these days, especially for Sergeant Quade Marsden, a cop who thought he was destined to be a big-time CID officer, until he annoyed the wrong people.
This means he’s particularly keen for the suspected murder – discovered in a canyon by a pair of latter-day treasure hunters on the hunt for a long-lost gold mine – to be properly investigated:
The photo was clear, not hurried and unfocused, and it turned her cold. The body of a girl, a bloody chest wound. Enough to know she was dead. Her skin was ghostly sallow, dark bruising around both wrists. There was no decomposition, and Aroha had watched enough episodes of CSI to recognise a fresh body. This place … The boot print … There was only one option.
The problem is that not only is the canyon seemingly inaccessible (Aroha and boyfriend Dylan only manage to get in there by abseiling down the surrounding cliffs), there’s also a major bushfire sweeping through the area. By the time they get back out to alert local police, and Marsden is able to get into the canyon, the scene’s been substantially wiped out by the bushfire, and the body has gone missing.
The lack of evidence and missing body means that Marsden is struggling with how to commence an investigation, which is where Bridges comes in:
Taylor broke the silence. ‘Well,’ he said closing the file, ‘it paints a picture, but there’s nothing here that Aroha hasn’t told me. And without a body there’s no case, is there?’ He shrugged. ‘I’m not sure how I can help, but I’m happy to offer my services.’
Bridges owes Aroha’s father, and bringing him onto the case is her suggestion initially, despite Marsden’s scepticism. Bridges has plenty to offer, though. He can assist in the search for the body and other evidence, plus he has a real chance of finding out how a killer could have got into such inaccessible territory.
At the back of the police investigation, there’s a gradual unveiling of the story of the Christiana Gold Mine and Jacob Muller, the man who founded it around 100 years ago. There are lots of question marks about this man, the history, and the mine. Overall this helps create a closed-in, secret-hiding feeling in the entire district – so much so that it’s easy to believe the canyon is concealing other things that are buried so deep only somebody with the patience and bush-craft of Bridges is ever likely to find them:
The opening was large enough to drive a train through, the mine black as midnight inside. Thick timber supports framed the entrance and a small-gauge rail track disappeared into soil and rubble. Romanesque pillars were carved into the sandstone facia on each side, and a symbol above: a wheel with a five-pronged star in its centre.
There are lots of layers to be unpeeled in The Falls. While some authors might be content with a damaged central character whose past is constantly in his mind, Radburn doesn’t play games by half. All the characters in this book have their own demons, and they are dealing with or hiding from them in equal measure.
While character and the exploration of emotions and reactions does play an enormous part in all of Radburn’s books, there’s also a strong sense of pace as well as clever and involving plots. These books are all slightly on the darker, more reflective side, but there’s still plenty of tension and some seriously good action to keep readers alternatively guessing and perched firmly on the edge of their chairs.
There are also ongoing supernatural elements in The Falls, albeit very understated. There’s a strong connection between Bridges’s two daughters – the elder dead before the younger was born. There are also the connections among local families, affecting the way the generations interact with each other, the landscape and their shared past.
B Michael Radburn The Falls Pantera Press 2016 PB 370pp $29.00
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.