Review: THE BROTHERHOOD by Y.A. Erskine

As with all début authors, especially début Australian crime writers who don’t get a lot of attention in old media (or the new variety for that matter), I had no particular expectations of Y.A. Erskine’s THE BROTHERHOOD. I simply bought it because I’m trying to keep up with all new works by Aussie crime writers, especially the début authors. I certainly had no reason to anticipate it would be one of the very best books I’ve read all year.

John White is a Sergeant in the Tasmanian police force and the book is, on one level, the story of his murder which occurred when he attended a burglary in progress. Two Aboriginal teenagers are accused of the crime and are quickly apprehended which sets the stage for one of the most politically sensitive cases the island community has ever seen.

Although it concerns a crime and policing THE BROTHERHOOD is not a traditional police procedural. It unfolds via a series of chapters, each from the point of view of a different participant in events. We start by seeing things through the eyes of The Probationer; a young constable who only graduated from the Academy a month earlier and who accompanies John White to the house where a neighbour has reported seeing burglars. Her nervousness and excitement at her new job are palpable at the outset, as is her dawning belief by the end of the chapter that her inexperience is the reason White died. In the next chapter we switch to the view of things from The Commissioner’s standpoint. He is unpopular, a technophobe, has old-fashioned, politically incorrect views and knows that the case, if not handled well, could be disastrous so his priority is identifying opportunities to limit the damage.

Subsequent chapters show us things from the perspective of the lead detective (also White’s best friend), a local journalist, White’s wife, one of the suspects and several others. With only a single chapter from each perspective this structure could have resulted in a disjointed story with under-developed characters but neither of these things is evident here. The story flows beautifully, slowly revealing more about White (who never gets a chapter of his own though his presence is felt throughout the book), his relationships and the complex realities of modern policing. And revealing too that things are not always (rarely even?) as they appear to be. Some of the people we meet are warm and good-hearted, aiming to do the right thing even if they’re not always able to. Some are self-centred or disillusioned or never had a chance to thrive. Some are just plain awful human beings. All of them have secrets, fears, worries and dreams and all of them are compelling.

While I like my crime fiction to be political (small p intended) and/or to explore some aspect of the human condition I abhor being lectured to, preached at or told what to think. What I loved about THE BROTHERHOOD most of all was that just told its story, warts and all. It did tackle sensitive themes like communities in which long term welfare dependency is the norm, police resourcing, the dangers and unpleasantness that police face daily and, of course, the complex and often fractured relationship between Australia’s indigenous people and the justice system. In direct contrast to what most media articles on any of these issues will ever tell us, the book demonstrates that there is never a simple right and wrong side to any of these subjects. There are, as anyone but a moronic radio shock jock and his (or her) followers knows intuitively, a myriad of shades of grey and they are all on show here. Readers are given pause for thought and are allowed, should they wish, to come to their own conclusions about the rights and wrongs of individual behaviours and events.

Yvette Erskine has clearly drawn on her 11 years experience as a Tasmanian police officer to give THE BROTHERHOOD a realistic feel. It quite literally hums with authenticity. Its people are very human and its isolated island setting subtly captured. It is overall a dark book without much in the way of happy endings but, for me, it achieved a rare balance between the utter hopelessness of true noir and the occasionally unrealistic optimism of the police procedural. It is one of the very best books I have read all year and I recommend it heartily to everyone.

I have to admit this isn’t the easiest book to get hold of, even here in Oz, which is a travesty. But I did mange to find THE BROTHERHOD at: Dymocks (paper), US Kindle store (no idea if it’s available to non-Australians though).

My rating: 5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Random House [2011]
ISBN: 9781742750156
Length: 381 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I bought it