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Posted on 17 Feb 2022 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

GARRY DISHER Consolation. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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Australia’s leading writer of rural crime fiction, Garry Disher, has been quietly crafting an excellent series set in the dry wheatbelt of South Australia. This latest instalment won the 2021 Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction.

There are three books now in the ‘Hirsch’ series featuring Constable Paul Hirschhausen: Bitter Wash Road (aka Hell to Pay), Peace and now Consolation. Hirsch was a promising metropolitan cop who got mixed up in a corruption scandal. Never guilty of anything more than being the whistleblower, he was still demoted, finding himself in the middle of nowhere in a one-cop station with a beat that covered thousands of remote kilometres of farmland and bush to the south of the Flinders Ranges.

Bitter Wash Road introduced Hirsch, the struggling small town of Tiverton, and the implications of the ongoing investigation into the police corruption scandal Hirsch had blown the lid off in his previous posting. While there’s a constant pull back to that scandal, Tiverton is full of problems of its own, with some very suspicious deaths to resolve and question marks over the officers in the larger town nearby who are responsible for overseeing Hirsch’s area.

The second novel, Peace, sees Hirsch settling into his role as small town / huge beat cop, using a combination of highly visible patrols to reassure locals and attendance at working bees and community events to let people get to know and trust him. For a while it’s reasonably quiet in town, if you don’t count a grassfire, a stolen ute, and the patron who arrived in the front bar of the pub without exiting her car – until Sydney police ask for a welfare check on a family on a forgotten back road, and a strange, vicious incident occurs in town.

Consolation starts out with a snowdropper on Hirsch’s patch. Not something you immediately expect when you’re picking up a book steeped in the traditions of rural noir, but the report of a possible child abuse case, sadly, feels more expected. Not that Hirsch is underestimating whoever is pinching old ladies’ underwear – he’s acutely aware that these things can escalate.

One thing that Hirsch prides himself on is knowing who’s who and what’s lurking in his small town. Mind you, he does a bit of lurking himself:

Did Hirsch own the town?

At times he felt he did — was making it his, at least, as he prowled the streets at dawn. When he’d begun doing this eighteen months ago, he was mapping the place. Fixing the police station in relation to the little school on the Barrier Highway, the general store, the side-street lucerne seed business, the tennis courts, the painted silos at the defunct railway station — and the houses, mostly built of the stone hereabouts. Wheat and wool country, halfway between Adelaide and the Flinders Rangers.

That achieved — context established — the cop in him began to emerge. Protector and enforcer. He watched over the teen siblings who cared for their manic-depressive mother, the old woman whose husband wandered off if her back was turned, the Indigenous kid who’d come halfway to thinking Hirsch wasn’t the bashing kind.

This closeness to his community, and the quiet observations of a man constantly on watch, tuned to variances in expected patterns of life, is a hallmark of many of Disher’s restrained, complicated male characters. Hirsch is building a life in this place, with a happy relationship and a sense of satisfaction about the job. This is more than a bit rattled when the discovery of young girl, abused and neglected, is followed by a family separation and a dispute over tree-clearing that goes off in a big way, resulting in an armed man and his son hiding out in the area, tying up people on remote properties, pinching cars and supplies, and taking shots at some who try to stop them.

First thing Friday morning, Sergeant Brandl called him.

‘I’ll meet you at the Ayliffes’.’

Phone tucked under his ear in the backyard scraping yesterday’s mud from his shoes, Hirsch said, ‘I was about to leave. But I thought you were going to be —’

‘I got back last night,’ the sergeant said. Terse, telling him not to pursue it.

‘Okay.’

‘I found a message telling me what Mr Eyre has in mind. I don’t want you there by yourself if Leon Ayliffe goes off half-cocked.’

Hirsch was relieved. ‘I’m meeting Eyre at the front gate, eight-thirty.’

‘See you there.’

That was the plan. It failed to account for sheer bloody-mindedness.

Meanwhile there are the victims of the snowdropping, a brewing financial scandal and the sorts of complicated disputes, tensions and interconnections between neighbours, friends and families that happen in small towns and take years for incomers like Hirsch to fully understand. It sounds like a complicated plot but it rolls out in a logical manner, with Hirsch picking his way through the connections and juggling all the balls while also temporarily taking over the role of senior cop in nearby Redruth when that encounter with the Ayliffes doesn’t go to plan.

As always with Disher, the sense of place in Consolation is incredibly strong. It is set not among the bushfires and dust of a typical dryland farming summer, but the bone-chilling cold and mud of a wet winter. The little touches, like the city cops being pulled out of a bog by an taciturn elderly lady on a tractor, are beautifully written, and when Hirsch needs to be pulled out of the same bog, it’s unexpectedly funny. It came as a bit of a surprise to find myself smiling and even laughing at quite a few points in this novel – it’s not something I expect with rural noir of this kind, and it was welcome and very fitting.

The characters in Tiverton, and in the Redruth police force, are coming into their own by Consolation as well. Hirsch’s senior – Sergeant Hilary Brandl from Redruth – and her constables (known affectionately as ‘the children’), are now a good team, working well with each other, supportive and as close to friends as they dare to get. Hirsch’s own personal life has stabilised around a good relationship with girlfriend Wendy and her daughter Katie that grounds him; their mutual support for each other a light in some otherwise dark moments – particularly when a stalker threatens.

Rural noir has really become the new big thing in Australian crime fiction, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to Garry Disher. He comes from this world, he knows it, and he writes with great empathy for the people who live there and the way the rhythms of nature affect every single aspect of life. His ability to draw vivid word pictures, and his willingness to trust his readers to interpret them – and the things he leaves unsaid – put his books head and shoulders above the pack.

Garry Disher Consolation Text Publishing 2020 PB 400pp $19.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy Consolation from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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