Peter Temple writes with a succinct eloquence: simple beautiful words that craft a tapestry of emotion, imagery and sensation. Though this is a crime novel (a genre that I tend to avoid) it’s the beauty of the writing and the Australian setting that makes this an incredible read.
Joe Cashin is a senior detective with the Victorian Police, a smart man with a nose for the darker side of life. He can tell when a person is lying, and is ceaseless in his persistence for the truth. This dogged intensity earned him a high profile in the force, the respect and disdain of his colleagues, near cost him his life and (arguably) resulted in the death of a young officer who walked too closely in his shadow. Wracked with pain and guilt, his confidence abraded, Joe keeps the peace in Port Monro, a small coastal town where nothing much happens. In his spare time he restores his late father’s house and tries not to think too much. He’s in stasis, but life won’t leave him alone.
The murder of an elderly millionaire pushes Joe back into the job and shines a media spotlight on Port Monro. When three local Aboriginal youths are connected to a watch thought to be stolen from the dead man, Melbourne put Joe in charge to bring the boys in. With aboriginal deaths in custody a hot political topic, and one of the youths the cousin of an up and coming politician, it is imperative that the intercept is done right. It isn’t. It goes awry – a brilliant, bloody disaster. Two of the boys are killed; the third left injured and traumatised. Police harassment drives the boy to suicide. The police are cleared, claiming they acted in self defence in difficult circumstances and the locals (racist and intolerant) consider that justice has been served. Joe doesn’t think so, and works to uncover the truth.
In many ways this is a crime novel, and if it weren’t for the simplistic beauty of the writing, I would not have been so engaged. I focussed on the writing, on Joe, the characters with whom he directly interacted. Early on in the book he takes in a swaggie, a drifter with no fixed address: Dave Rebb. Softened by the trauma he endured, Joe offers Rebb a job instead of locking him in the cells and running background checks. In Rebb, Joe finds a friend. It’s tentative, masculine, painfully hesitant, but Joe connects and accepts. The subtly with which Peter draws the relationship between these two men is inspiring.
There is a love interest, the legal counsel who acts for the Aboriginal boy and an old school friend of Joe’s. This aspect felt just a little convenient, as though Peter offered her up to remind readers of Joe’s heterosexuality. To me, that was never in doubt.
The non-speaking stars of the novel are the protagonist’s two dogs: poodles. They feature in many scenes, yet never own any of them.
The dogs were tiring now but still hunting the ground, noses down, taking more time to sniff, less hopeful. Then one picked up a scent and, new life in their legs, they loped in file for the trees, vanished. When he was near the house, the dogs, black as liquorice, came out of the trees, stopped, heads up, looked around as if seeing the land for the first time. Explorers. They turned their gaze on him for a while, started down the slope.
The harsh coastal landscape brings an extra dimension, conveying a maudlin tone, oppressive weight, darkness.
Cashin drove to Port Monro down roads smeared with roadkill – birds, foxes, rabbits, cats, rats, a young kangaroo with small arms outstretched – passed through pocked junctions where one or two tilted houses stood against the wind and signs pointed to other desperate crossroads.
An early reference to the abduction and rape of a male police officer by three men, and the officer’s later suicide, warn that this is a tale of moral indecency where humanity’s most basic decencies are cast aside. It follows through. The truth behind the elderly man’s death is unimaginable… but possible. The horror leaves no character unaffected, or uninvolved.
Every Australian who enjoys reading quality fiction should read this book. Sue Turnbull tells you why. If you're not Australian, read it anyway.
Rating: ****1/2 (out of a possible *****)...Continua