Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 14 Feb 2023 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

MARYROSE CUSKELLY The Cane. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Tags: / / / / /

Maryrose Cuskelly’s novel seems to have taken Arthur Conan Doyle’s maxim to heart: ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’

Cuskelly was born in Queensland, where there were several high-profile child abductions and murders in the early 1970s. The 1972 disappearance of Mackay girl Marilyn Wallman while riding her bike to school was a particular influence in the development of the ideas behind The Cane. Set in the same decade in a made-up Queensland cane town, it’s the fictional tale of the disappearance of 16-year-old Janet McClymont:

They’re lighting the cane and Janet McClymont has not been found.

A week after she disappeared, her mother Barbara walked into Jensens’ shop and bought every box of matches and all the Bic cigarette lighters on the shelves. She then stood outside striking the head of each and every match against the phosphorus strip, watching it flare before shaking out the flame and dropping the spent stick on the road. Then she drove down to the inlet and threw the lighters into the water.

The novel is also the story of the impact that a crime like this has on the family left behind, and the small community in which the disappearance happened – with no witnesses and no clues.

Four weeks have passed since Janet’s disappearance and Ted McClymont still hasn’t gone back to work. Lucky for him he works for a government department, because anywhere else and who knows what they’d be living on.

Finally, it’s a story about attitudes:

‘How serious are you coppers taking it when you send a bloody sheila up here? Just because she’s wearing a safari suit or some bloody thing doesn’t mean she’s up to doing a man’s job.’

The problem for the investigation is that despite the small community, and what you’d think would be a tendency to know everyone’s business, there’s no sign of Janet. Unlike when Cathy Creadie went missing ten years ago. She was found, bruised, battered, supposedly drowned, in nearby mangroves, but nobody could ever really understand why:

It was never clear why her body was found in the mangroves, though, rather than down on the rocks where you might have thought it would have washed up.

Cuskelly has deployed an unusual style in the structure of this novel, using a number of narrators. The locals are the elderly, dry and ascerbic Arthur; Connie Tranter, friend of Janet’s mother, wife of a local cane farmer; and Connie’s daughter Essie, younger than Janet McClymont, an observant and clever young girl. The outsider viewpoint is policewoman Carmel, who arrives after the investigation stalled and a senior male policeman dropped dead on the job. She starts out working her way back through the steps already taken, looking for any clues, inconsistencies or hints that others may have missed. It’s this work that may remind the reader of the Conan Doyle approach – there’s nothing to go on, so she sets out to identify and eliminate everything she can. The resolution, when it comes, on first reading feels more fortuitous than the result of good policing, and it may only be when you look back at the things she was finding, eliminating and highlighting that you realise the truth was always there.

It can be quite tricky to read historical crime fiction set in small Australian towns. No matter how much you attempt to mythologise the lifestyle, the misogyny, homophobia, racism, victim-blaming and double standards are confronting. Cuskelly doesn’t back away from any of the truths of these places and the people in them, using the grief of Janet’s mother Barbara, and the life of her friend Connie, as well as the young girls Essie and her new friend Raelene, to illustrate many of the impacts. Connie Tranter’s a great character – a woman with an education, life and career in the city, who feel in love with a farmer and found herself baking, cleaning, having kids and struggling with the imposed limitations.

Connie’s job with the Arts Council was only an administrative position, but she had hopes for advancement. Living in Brisbane, she took advantage of all the cultural offerings available to her – such as they were – with subscriptions to the opera, the ballet, the Queensland Theatre Company. It was expected, given her job.

… And then her school friend Alison invited her to her wedding to Cam Tranter’s cousin.

The Cane concentrates on characters and place. Aside from the viewpoint of the male narrator, this is life in a small Queensland town in the 1970s from a mostly female perspective, looking at the community, the different groups of people within it, and the circumstances that allowed a young girl to simply vanish. Of course the community searched for her, but there’s something about that searching, some connection with the earlier death of Cathy, that’s just out of reach. Somewhere in the middle of all these hard-working, hard-drinking men, and the few outsiders like teacher Eamonn Sullivan, there’s a killer. Meanwhile we get the standard responses – girls aren’t safe, so they lose their freedom and their rights, while young boys are free to roam

It’s also a book about loss – loss of daughters, innocence, freedom, and the right to live a life without fear and the imposition of others – and about missing things, over and above the missing Janet. There are missed clues, missed hints, and missed opportunities. Assumptions are made, people were believed and trusted because of their position in the community, or disregarded and disrespected for the same reason. Turns out in both cases they shouldn’t have been.

Given this concentration on character, the pace of this novel is slow, immersive and thought-provoking. It evokes a place, time and attitudes that you’d hope were from a bygone era, although every day I wonder if we’re ever going to stop putting the onus for safety on the girls, and start insisting that boys have a responsibility not to kill, maim or manipulate. We could cut out the simplistic labels and gendered judgements while we’re at it. The 1970s were a generation or more ago, but, in a gently considered manner, The Cane does a very good job of pointing out we have failed to grow up much in the intervening years.

Maryrose Cuskelly The Cane Allen and Unwin 2022 PB 336pp $32.99

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

You can buy The Cane from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.