Review: DISHONOUR by Gabrielle Lord

DishonourGabrielleLord23201_fOf late, the woman variously labelled the queen or godmother of Australian crime writing has concentrated her publishing efforts on a popular series of novels for young adults but was prompted last year to publish something for her older readers. DISHONOUR, set to be a standalone novel like Lord’s early books, couldn’t be more topical with a protagonist inspired by a serving Sydney policewoman of senior rank and story elements that aren’t so much ripped from the headlines as they are predicting them. It is the story of Debra Hawkins, a Detective Inspector appointed to lead a new unit within the NSW police which aims to help the victims of violence who live within ethnic or cultural groups in which women and girls can be treated in ways that are illegal in Australia. They soon come across a woman of Iraqi heritage who is being physically abused and held a virtual prisoner by her two brothers who are, in addition to being the siblings from Hell, actively involved in the city’s drug dealing scene.

The subjects explored in DISHONOUR are worthy of exposure. The issue of violence within families is getting discussed more widely than has ever been the case before in this country (for example our current Australian of the Year is a remarkable woman who has used her son’s death at the hands of his own father to raise the profile of this subject). But adding the complexity of marginalised and politically sensitive cultural groups and their treatment of women into the mix makes it a whole different story with uncomfortable political and social connotations. Lord does not shy away from these difficulties though and uses the book not only to depict the horrendous situations that some women find themselves in within their own families, but also the alarmingly limited way in which authorities can assist them even when they do find the courage to seek help and the complications that arise when politically charged labels of racism can be thrown at those trying to help. The broader backdrop of the changes in the scale and nature of criminal undertakings in modern Sydney is also on show. For me this social context proved the most successful aspect of the novel.

The character development and storyline left me somewhat disappointed.

I’m only speculating of course but I wondered if the possibility of a series might have resulted in the holding back of some of the back story and present-day dramas that were heaped upon Debra for future installments rather than squeezing so much into a single novel. There’s the murder of her policeman father when she was 12, a stupid and potentially career-ending act she undertook on behalf of her drug-addict brother, and the fact that a criminal whose case she worked has threatened her with death and seems to be taking steps to carry out these threats which are all impacting on Debra’s life. Not to mention two serious family illnesses and a major career problem that eventuate later in the book. She is a contrast to many crime fighting protagonists in that Debra is in a sound, loving relationship and isn’t an alcoholic but she has way too much personal drama going on for me and professionally behaves more obtusely than I think (hope) someone in her position would do. I really struggled to take her seriously at times.

Ultimately for me DISHONOUR was too concerned with Debra and her personal troubles rather than the women and work she was meant to be focused on. Partly I think that is the result of the narrative choice. The entire book is told from Debra’s point of view and I think I’d have preferred it if we were also shown things from the perspective of some of the women seeking the help of Debra’s unit. The only direct exposure we have to their experiences is when they interact with Debra which, when combined with some of the fact-laden passages providing exposition, gives the sensibility that this is not primarily a story about these women and makes the book border on being didactic a few times.

The story itself was a bit of a jumble. The thread dealing with the death of Debra’s father seemed to have an obvious resolution to me from the very beginning and I found it a distraction from what I thought of as the main plot line. Even there though there was too much going on and it was all dealt with a bit superficially to the point that one element seems to have been forgotten entirely between the middle and end of the novel.

Reading DISHONOUR left me frustrated because although it raised important subjects it felt to me too eager to sideline them and focus on a fairly un-suspenseful cold case that wasn’t nearly as interesting to me. It’s as if I embarked on a choose your own adventure novel but someone else’s choices for plot development and resolution were superimposed over my own.

aww-badge-2015This is the fifth novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

Publisher: Hachette [2014]
ISBN: 9780733632457
Length: 372 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: PRESENT DARKNESS by Malla Nunn

PresentDarknessNunnAudioWhen PRESENT DARKNESS opens we are in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the end of 1953. Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is one of the police called to the home of a white school principal. He and his wife have been brutally assaulted. Their teenage daughter says she recognises the voices of two of the black students her father invited to his home as the culprits. One of these boys is Aaron Shabalala, son of the Zulu detective who is Cooper’s best friend.

It feels odd to mention the colour of the participants in the way I have done above but skin colour is the single most important attribute each human has in the world Nunn depicts so vividly. It determines where you can live, what jobs you can get, what kind of health services you have access to, whether or not anyone in authority will give a damn when you are the victim of a crime and a myriad of other aspects of your life. I knew all of this on some intellectual level before reading Nunn’s books but I don’t think I’ve ever really understood how invasive apartheid was during every moment of every day. Cooper, who appears here in his fourth novel, is of mixed race heritage but ‘passes’ for white and compounds his law-breaking by living with a mixed race woman with whom he has now fathered a child. They live in constant fear of being found out by the wrong people. Davida, Cooper’s girlfriend, has not been out of the compound in which they are living for over a year when Cooper invites her along to an interview he needs to undertake because it will occur at an illegal club run by an old friend of his and the couple will be able to dance together for the first time. Nunn enables us to really grasp why someone would take the risk of being found out for such a simple pleasure that most of us would take for granted.

It is not just the enveloping settings that make Nunn’s books such a treat for readers; the characters are engaging too. Cooper is a complicated man. Still carrying the scars (and a ghost) from his childhood of poverty and his wartime activities he strives to be a good person but doesn’t always manage it. He struggles not to take out his justifiable anger on those who have hurt him or his loved ones but Nunn makes us care about him regardless, or even because, of his faults. Here we also meet some of Cooper’s friends from his childhood in Sophiatown which adds some depth to his back story and makes him all the more fascinating. The two friends who have seen him through previous scrapes, Samuel Shabalala and Daniel Zweigman, appear once again and together the trio are simply mesmerizing. Their collective desire to right the wrongs they see around them, despite the horrors they have all witnessed and are still experiencing daily, rekindles this reader’s faith in the human race.

To top all of this off PRESENT DARKNESS is an absolute ripper of a yarn. In some ways it is the most traditional procedural of the series but there is also plenty of the peril for our heroes and edge-of-seat drama that I’ve come to expect. Although I have loved all of its predecessors I think this is Nunn’s best novel to date. Despite the grim reality of its setting it does contain light (and even the odd glimmer of hope) along with the shade and there isn’t a single wrong note. I listened to a superb narration by Rupert Degas, who used various local accents and dialects to help the book really come alive for me, and cannot recommend it highly enough to those of you who like their crime fiction accompanied by a dose of immersive social context.

awwbadge_2014This is the second novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

You can also check out my co-host’s review of this novel from last year, or my own reviews of Nunn’s earlier novels A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE and LET THE DEAD LIE

Narrator: Rupert Degas
Publisher: Bolinda Audio [2014]
Length: 8 hours 7 minutes
Format: audio book
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.