Of 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.
Publisher: Hachette 
Length: 372 pages
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