Crime Scene: GARRY DISHER Signal Loss. Review and series overview by Karen Chisholm
Garry Disher has two successful major crime series out – very different from each other, both of the highest possible standard.
In 1991 the first of the Wyatt series, Kickback, was released. In an unusual twist for local crime fiction at the time, Disher had created the ultimate anti-hero.
An unrepentant thief and loner, Wyatt continues to this day with his calculated, analytical and highly successful criminal undertakings, though later books carry the slightest hint of edges being smoothed a little. This has always been an absolute favourite series of mine – sparse and pointed, beautifully written with a central character who’s unapologetic and unexpectedly admirable because of that. (The books in this series are Kickback, 1991; Paydirt, 1992; Deathdeal, 1993; Crosskill, 1994; Port Vila Blues, 1995; The Fallout, 1997; Wyatt, 2010 and The Heat, 2015.)
His second series, known now as ‘Peninsula Crimes’, consists of police procedurals based on the Mornington Peninsula outside Melbourne, featuring Inspector Hal Challis and his partner – in life and work – Ellen Destry. As the series has progressed Disher has been switching the focus between these two more and more, creating an interesting dynamic in their professional and personal partnerships, and giving the series a lot more depth as a result.
In 1999 The Dragon Man introduced readers to Challis and Destry, the fictitious town of Waterloo, and a flawed, complicated and tricky bunch of characters – many of whom are ongoing. The Peninsula has always been a favourite Melbourne summertime holiday destination, with safe beaches and plenty of camping opportunities, and that sort of village influx feeling is beautifully depicted, as is the chaos that a possible serial killer invokes, along with the standard annoyances of aggravated burglaries, letterbox torching and vandalism.
Book 2, Kittyhawk Down, came out in 2003, and again there are the mindless petty crimes and annoyances that seem to go with idiots on holidays; there are personal complications aplenty for all the cops, plus murders and general mayhem. This entry perhaps suffered a little from repetition of elements of The Dragon Man, but it certainly made you aware that even those on the side of good can be carting around some hefty personal problems.
Snapshot was next up in 2005, cementing this series as something to be followed closely. Spouse-swapping parties, spite, senior police interference (and personal connections) all combine with a known killer but an unclear motive to give a reader plenty to be enthralled by.
2007 saw the release of Chain of Evidence with Disher abruptly yanking Challis out of the now familiar Peninsula setting and sending him off to a remote town in outback South Australia where his father is dying. As the focus switches from Destry back on the Peninsula tracking down a ring of paedophiles, to Challis in the outback searching for the truth about the disappearance of his brother-in-law, there is clear evidence of a master plotter and storyteller at work here.
By 2009 and Blood Moon, it’s Schoolies Week so there’s trouble enough without the hint of romantic interest between Challis and Destry tumbling into rapid cohabitation with mixed feelings on both their parts and plenty of career implications from above. Combine that with some very pointed digs at community planning out of control, people who move to rural areas and then try to change everything that made them want to go there in the first place, a bullying and controlling husband, sexual assault and bashing, and Disher is juggling a lot of elements and doing it with aplomb.
In 2012 Whispering Death again saw Challis pitted against the upper echelons, while dealing with home invasions, a sinister twist in a rapist’s behaviour and a cat burglar who normally is very careful to avoid muddying the local waters. Once again readers will be struck by the cleverness of this plot, where even those elements that might be considered a little clichéd are elegantly delivered, and the timing is absolutely spot-on.
For those who would like to get a taste of Disher’s writing without diving into an ongoing series up front, then Bitter Wash Road, released in 2013, is an outstanding stand-alone
The arrival of Signal Loss in 2016 was welcome indeed for readers who are already welded-on Peninsula fans
As always, the Peninsula setting, with its combination of rural and urban lifestyles, gives Disher scope to explore a wide range of issues. The plot again involves a current societal problem, as well as the day-to-day complications of tricky colleagues, family, private life and relationship hiccups. Disher is adept at creating characters on both sides of the law who are flawed, tricky, complex and understandable. Placing those characters into situations like the increasing impact of the drug ice, the pressures of development pushing into the rural fringes of cities and even life in those pop-up suburbs where there’s nothing but houses and limited services, makes Disher an accurate chronicler of real life, with a dry wit into the bargain:
Pym made him take his filthy habit outside. Pym, who didn’t touch steroids, ice, nicotine, alcohol. He was a killer these days, but quite a bit of the old Pym lingered from before. Clean, straight. Good job as an aide to a Liberal Party MP, before a small misstep in the form of a Facebook post. A few frank thoughts on immigrants and Muslims that prompted a swift change of careers.
Things start out at full throttle when two hitmen from Sydney (with more than a hat-tip to Mr Wint and Mr Kidd of James Bond fame) are tasked with a spot of cleaning up on behalf of a Sydney-based meth importer.
While their desired outcome – disappearing a Peninsula dealer – might loosely be called a success, the fallout from a lot of almost comic blundering means that the ultimate aim – to quietly and carefully dispatch a problem and melt back into the distance – doesn’t quite come off as planned. Not helped at all by the coincidental investigation that Challis is conducting into the growing ice problem in the area.
Meanwhile Destry is heading up a new sex crimes unit tasked with, among a huge array of other things, tracking down a serial rapist adept at leaving no evidence behind him at all. In typical Disher style the frustrations and complications of this new unit are summed up quickly:
The sex-crimes unit was small: Ellen Destry (sergeant), Ian Judd (senior constable) and two constables, Lois Katsoulas and Jared Rykert. Rykert was finger-stabbing his keyboard, face clenched when Ellen walked in from the interview room.
… ‘The prick got off with a warning,’ he said. ‘I spent weeks on it, Sarge.’
Graham Tovey had assaulted four women in and around Waterloo in a three-week period, grabbing one on a service road behind a timber yard, another on the tidal flats boardwalk and two near the foreshore skate park. He’d followed them, brought them to the ground with an arm around the neck, then digitally penetrated them before running off with their purses.
‘A warning,’ echoed Ellen, shaking her head. Robbery and assault with intent to rape.
Disher is not afraid to use his novels to explore difficult questions, to highlight injustices and to dig deep into law-enforcement frustrations – and what causes a lot of crime in the first place. Pointed, and often slyly funny, there’s a willingness to let readers draw conclusions as well as plenty of ‘What the …?!’ moments along the way. The timing is always particularly precise, with plots that belt along, even with the intertwining of the personal, and characters who are vivid and real. Disher is also very willing to switch the spotlight around. Signal Loss pulls an ongoing minor police character, Pam Murphy, to centre stage, giving this reader hope that we might be headed towards a more expanded partnership. It’s a clever way to keep an ongoing series fresh and interesting, and exactly the sort of bold manoeuvre that you’d expect from an author as accomplished and talented as Garry Disher.
Garry Disher Signal Loss Text Publishing 2016 PB 336pp $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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