Review: THE DRAGON MAN, Garry Disher

Cover image, THE DRAGON MAN, Garry DisherThis review was first posted on Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan and is republished here with the author’s kind permission.

The Dragon Man by Gary Disher (1999) – The first Hal Challis mystery is set in the Peninsula on the edge of Melbourne at Christmas time. It is hot and dry and young women are being sexually assaulted and killed.

Detective Inspector Challis has few clues. The killer wears latex and does not leave his vehicle to dump the bodies. The victims have no connections. No one has seen anything.

Uncommon tire treads are a slender lead. As the only real clue the police make a major effort to track down sales of these tires.

Within the local police station few of the officers are looking forward to the holiday. Strained or broken relationships have left them with more dread than joy of the year’s greatest family celebration.

The solitary life of Challis is punctuated by calls from his wife in jail. She has been imprisoned for attempting, with her lover, to murder him. The calls are as sad as any I have read in fiction.

Christmas arrives in the midst of the investigation. It proves a difficult day for the police and their families. It is a blue Christmas on the Peninsula.

Aggravating the police and frightening the public are a series of letters from the killer to the local newspaper mocking the police investigation.

While police resources are concentrated on finding the killer they must still deal with the continuing local crimes.

Unlike most crime fiction involving the police there are multiple detailed police characters. Sgt. Ellen Destry, Sgt. Kees Van Alphen, Const. Scobie Sutton, Const. Pam Murphy and Const. John Tankard all have extensive roles in the book. The police station comes alive through their portrayals. Each of them has significant personal issues.

With the investigation stalling pressure builds upon the police. Superintendent, Mark McQuarrie, more skilled at detecting political currents than solving crimes, presses for results.

Challis keeps his men and women searching but clues remain elusive. When the break comes the book builds to a dramatic conclusion.

The Dragon Man, written over a decade ago, is an impressive debut mystery. I appreciate Kerrie from her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, and Bernadette at her blog, Reactions to Reading, for their recommendations of Disher.

Disher does an excellent job of the setting on the Peninsula. The semi-rural area adjacent to the big city has a varied population of working class people and the well-to-do. All are coping with the draining heat of Christmas in Australia. Just as Canadian writers know real cold Disher convincingly writes about real heat. (Feb. 22/12)

Review: BLOOD MOON, Garry Disher

  • published by Text Publishing 2009
  • ISBN 978-1-921351-87-7
  • 314 pages
  • Source: my local library
  • #5 in the Challis & Destry series

Synopsis (Amazon)

When hordes of eighteen-year-olds descend on the Peninsula to celebrate the end of exams, the overstretched police of Waterloo know they can expect party drugs and public drunkenness.

What they don’t count on is a brutal bashing that turns political. The victim is connected. And for Detective Inspector Hal Challis, newly embarked on a relationship with his sergeant, Ellen Destry, this is not the best time to have the brass on his back. Especially when a bludgeoned corpse is found outside town and it becomes clear something much darker than adolescent craziness is going down.

My take

When I recently read WHISPERING DEATH (#6 in the Challis & Destry series) I realised that I had somehow missed reading #5, BLOOD MOON.

The setting of BLOOD MOON is Schoolies Week, a week at the end of the school year when those finishing their schooling cut loose in various resorts all over Australia. There is an unbelievable level of tension as local residents hold their breath, waiting to see what damage the teenagers cause, how many of them are charged with drug abuse or drunkenness, how many clashes there are with the authorities. The events in BLOOD MOON align well with what the public “knows” can happen in Schoolies Week.

BLOOD MOON is a very authentic feeling police procedural with a number of concurrent investigations balanced against the personal relationships of the members of Hal Challis’ team, including his own with Ellen Destry. The investigation into the bashing of a school chaplain moves into the background with the murder of a female worker in the Planning Office whom we already know quite a bit about: that she is constantly stalked and watched by her husband, that she has been a leading participant in an attempt to preserve an old beach front house against demolition.The reader already feels well equipped to leap into this new investigation.

Domestic happenings and small town politics in an Australian setting make for an excellent crime fiction outing.

My rating: 4.7

Other reviews to check:

Other reviews of Garry Disher titles on MiP
4.7, WYATT

The Challis & Destry novels
The Dragon Man (1999)
Kittyhawk Down (2003)
Snapshot (2005)
Chain of Evidence (2007)
Blood Moon (2009)
Whispering Death (2011)

The most impressive Australian crime fiction in 2011

It’s list making time of year so here at Fair Dinkum HQ we’ve each made a list of the five Australian crime fiction titles that impressed us most this year. Not all are 2011 publications and some have yet to be released beyond our shores but this mixture of new titles by favourite authors and outstanding debuts is a cracker of a collection if I do say so myself.

Kerrie speaking here…

I’ve only read 16 Australian titles this year, and am already formulating New Years Eve resolutions that I will do better in 2012. Nevertheless the problem in picking my top reads is that so many of them were so good and it was difficult to draw a cut off line. Not all of the titles were 2011 publications either.

So here are my top 5.

My top pick was THE WRECKAGE by Michael
Robotham, published in 2011, in which our old friend Vincent Ruiz teams up with a new character, investigative journalist Luca Terracini. THE WRECKAGE is a contemporary thriller set against the background of both the world financial crisis and the attempts to build Iraq in the face of both greed and terrorism. It reflects both Robotham’s meticulous research, and his ability to create great fictional characters. He describes the main characters in a way that makes you really care about what happens to them.

I really can’t choose between the other four, so the order in which they appear is not preferential.

In Katherine Howell‘s COLD JUSTICE, published in 2010, paramedic Georgie Riley and Detective Ella Marconi are travelling similar paths, returning to work after traumatic incidents that resulted in hospitalisation and being off work for some months.  Katherine Howell has used a formula similar to the one she used successfully in both THE DARKEST HOUR, and her debut novel FRANTIC: parallel plots that advance in tandem, each generating their own sense of suspense. The link between the two plots is Detective Ella Marconi. Again the paramedic characters are new, while Marconi provides the common thread from one novel to the next.

WHISPERING DEATH, published in 2011, affirms that Garry Disher is a master storyteller, a tight and consummate plotter, a writer who could sit on any international podium along with richer and more famous crime fiction writers. This is #6 in Disher’s Hal Challis series, firmly bedded in the 21st century, and reflecting on the problems of maintaining a strong police force, chasing rapists, armed robbers, and home invaders, in the face of diminishing funding and stretched resources.

Set in post-war Australia, this time post World War Two, with a policeman returning to work in a world that will never be the same, THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL by Geoffrey McGeachin, published in 2011, reminded me a lot of the Charles Todd series. Like Ian Rutledge in that series Charlie Berlin was in the police force before the war. Although the police force was an exempt trade he volunteered for service and was posted to the RAF in Britain. He took off on 30 missions over Germany, but, in his words, landed only 29 of them and ended up in a P.O.W. camp. For me, Geoff McGeachin has hit on a winner with this new series and I hope we see more of Charlie Berlin. It appealed to me on several fronts – historical, crime fiction, Australia.

My final choice is FINAL CUT by debut West Australian author Alan Carter, also published in 2011.  What makes this novel remarkable is the way the author ambitiously forwards two plot strands in tandem. It took a bit of getting used to at first. There is little to tell the reader that you’ve changed from one plot to another, just a change of characters. Often, but not always, the plots are basically at the same point, like the interviewing of a suspect.

But there’s much more than that to keep the reader involved. There are prior links between some of the characters which are gradually teased out for us. There are genuine murder mysteries with lots of attendant red herrings. There’s a good feel for the climate in Western Australia, both physical and economic. And there is some excellent characterisation.

And now it’s Bernadette’s turn

So far I’ve managed to read 35 books by Australian crime writers this year. I’m about half way through another one which is enjoyable but I already know it’s not quite good enough to nudge any of these off the list so I don’t feel too concerned about finalising the list a few days before the end of the year.

Y.A. Erskine’s debut novel THE BROTHERHOOD absolutely blew me away. Partly this is because I had no expectations when I opened the front cover (I knew nothing about the book other than it was written by an Aussie woman) but mostly it’s because it’s bloody brilliant. A Tasmanian policeman is shot while on duty and the events of the day are recounted from different points of view – his rookie partner, the Police Commissioner, his estranged wife, the culprit etc – who each get a single chapter from which a whole picture of the leadup to and ramifications of the shooting emerges. I loved everything about this book – the structure, the flawed but believable people, the way the story kept surprising me, the themes that Erskine explored. This book is vying with one other title for the very top spot on my favourite books of the year (Aussie or otherwise) and my only complaint is that is hasn’t gotten the wide attention it so richly deserves.

Like Kerrie I’m not going to list the rest in order of preference, they’re all worth your attention.

Kathryn Fox‘s DEATH MASK was one of the first books I read this year and it ended up being the book I voted for in the reader’s choice category of this year’s Davitt Awards. It starts out simply enough with a young woman testing positive for a sexually transmitted disease that she cannot understand how she contracted given her sexual history and so she assumes there has been some mistake at the clinic. The story’s dark turn reveals the betrayal that led to her contracting the disease which in turn prompts the protagonist of the series, Dr Anya Crichton, to study the psychology of male sporting teams. It’s a topical storyline but tackled intelligently and without the moralising, quick-fix answers that mainstream media devotes to the subject and it reminded me that the best crime fiction always examines some aspect of our society or collective behaviour in addition to telling a jolly good yarn.

Australian-born, Scotland-living Helen Fitzgerald‘s THE DONOR tackles the simple but hideous premise of what a single father is to do when his twin daughters both develop a genetically inherited kidney disease. Perhaps a life of crime wouldn’t be everyone’s choice but hapless Will Marion seems somewhat short of options to save the daughters he loves. The book is both darkly funny and almost unbearably sad but not remotely maudlin which is, I think, a remarkable achievement. The father in this story is a wonderful creation: the type of person you want to slap for being so inept one minute but the next moment you want to wrap him in a giant bear hug for trying so hard.

Sulari Gentill‘s A DECLINE IN PROPHETS is the second novel set in 1930’s Australia to feature world-wandering dilettante Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and I adored it. Rowly and his friends start the book on board a cruise liner where a grim murder occurs and by the time all the players are in Australia things look very rocky for poor Rowly who unwilling caught up in an odd spiritual movement and may end up being considered an unsuitable role model for the young members of his conservative family. Whenever I talk about this book or its predecessor (something I do as often as I can) I break out in a wide grin as there is something quite joyous about the amusing, life-embracing characters that inhabit Gentill’s world, which is full of sumptuous details of the period. But there is sadness in Rowly’s life too and it’s this juxtaposition with his fun-loving ways that provides the spark of something special to the book. I am lucky enough to have an advanced copy of the third book in the series awaiting my perusal in early January and I am already grinning at the prospect. This book also wins my award for best cover of the year.

LINE OF SIGHT by David Whish-Wilson is another superb debut, this time set in Perth in Western Australia. It is a fictionalised account of the real life murder of a local brothel owner in the 1970’s and focuses on the struggle by one good cop to uncover the truth about the crime which appears to have been perpetrated by his fellow officers. What impressed me most about this book was its perfect capturing of the time and place (it really does feel like another country which is not surprising as the state has flirted with secession more than once). The characters stand out too, especially the man who was charged with heading up a Royal Commission into the case and who slowly came to realise that he’d been set up to find nothing at all. It was a somewhat brutal but entirely credible characterisation and I have thought about Justice Partridge many times since finishing the book.

Did you read any Aussie crime fiction that impressed you in 2011? Do share.

Review: WHISPERING DEATH , Garry Disher

  • Publisher, Text Publishing Melbourne 2011
  • ISBN 978-1-921758-59-1
  • 330 pages
  • Source: borrowed from a friend

Publisher’s Blurb

Hal Challis is in trouble at home and abroad: carpeted by the boss for speaking out about police budget cuts; missing his lover, Ellen Destry, who is overseas on a study tour.

But there’s plenty to keep his mind off his problems. A rapist in a police uniform stalks Challis’s Peninsula beat, there is a serial armed robber headed in his direction and a home invasion that’s a little too close to home. Not to mention a very clever, very mysterious female cat burglar who may or may not be planning something on Challis’s patch.

Meanwhile, at the Waterloo Police Station, Challis finds his offsiders have their own issues. Scobie Sutton, still struggling with his wife’s depression, seems to be headed for a career crisis; and something very interesting is going on between Constable Pam Murphy and Jeanne Schiff, the feisty young sergeant on secondment from the Sex Crimes Unit.

In his sixth Peninsula murder mystery, Garry Disher keeps the tension and intrigue ramped up exquisitely on multiple fronts, while he takes his regular characters in compelling new directions. Disher is a grand master of the police procedural, operating at the peak of his craft.

Read the first chapter on the author’s website.

My take

WHISPERING DEATH affirms that Garry Disher is a master storyteller, a tight and consummate plotter, a writer who could sit on any international podium along with richer and more famous crime fiction writers – and thank goodness he is going to be at Adelaide Writers’ Week in March 2012.

There are some interesting pictures of Australian lifestyles

… this morning Grace was in Hobart, strolling through a well-heeled corner of Sandy Bay… a land of two-car households, two adults working nine to five in well paid jobs. No shift workers here.

and then later

Today she had a clear run on the toll road between Melbourne airport and the city, and again when she headed over the West Gate Bridge, high winds buffeting the little car, and down into Williamstown, where the mean grind of old Melbourne co-existed with bright young mortgages. Factories and workshops sat next to pastelly little townhouses with cute, candy-coloured cars in the driveways. Grace wound down her window. The air, dense and still, was faintly salted from the Bay. The trees, branches barely moving, seemed dazed from years-long drought.

Several elements of Hal Challis’ life seem to come to an end in WHISPERING DEATH. He decides to sell his restored 1930s Dragon Rapide that he has worked on for the last 10 years. He sees this as representing a phase of his life that has come to an end. He decides also to sell his elderly Triumph TR4, this time because it needs a lot of work done on it, and he no longer has the time or motivation.

And then he voices criticisms of the resourcing problems Peninsula policing is experiencing, to local reporter, and it seems that his time on the Peninsula may be coming to an end too. He seals his fate when he rushes out of an interview with his boss and a couple of other big-wigs to answer his mobile phone.

His mobile phone sounded in his pocket. He checked the screen, saw McQarrie’s name on the screen and knew he couldn’t keep avoiding the man. 

He answered and McQarrie said, ‘What possessed you, Inspector, walking out on – ‘ 

Challis overrode him. ‘A home invasion and then a murder, that’s what possessed me.

Silence, and he found himself adding, ‘Doing my job, in fact,’ guessing he was driving another nail into the lid of his coffin.’

So, if you are looking for some quality Australian crime fiction, here is another title, another author to add to your list. You won’t be disappointed.

All the titles in the series are available on Amazon for your Kindle too.

My rating: 4.8

Read Bernadette’s review on Fair Dinkum Crime

The Challis & Destry novels

The Dragon Man (1999)
Kittyhawk Down (2003)
Snapshot (2005)
Chain of Evidence (2007)
Blood Moon (2009)
Whispering Death (2011)

Somehow I have missed reading BLOOD MOON but here is my database record of CHAIN OF EVIDENCE:
#4 in the Hal Challis and Ellen Destry series. Hal Challis has returned to South Australia – his father is dying- leaving D. S. Ellen Destry in charge of both his house and Mornington Peninsular East’s Crime Investigation Unit. And suddenly now in Waterloo a 10 year old girl is missing, feared abducted. Katie Blasko went missing after school but her parents did not realize it until the next morning. Filling Challis’ shoes is not going to be easy – Destry’s colleagues expect her to fail. But Ellen is in constant contact with Hal, both her friend and her mentor. At Mawson’s Bluff in South Australia, Challis is not only helping to look after his father, but trying to find out what has happened to his missing brother-in-law. A satisfying read.

Review: Whispering Death by Garry Disher

At the beginning of the sixth Challis and Destry novel, set on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne, Inspector Hal Challis is saying a temporary goodbye to his colleague and girlfriend Ellen Destry as she heads of to Europe for some intensive study that will enable her to establish a new Sex Crimes Unit on her return. The timing proves to have a dark irony to it when a young woman is raped by someone wearing a police uniform. At the same time as the investigation into this vicious crime gets underway there are warnings that the man responsible for a series of armed bank robberies looks to be making his way to the area and Challis gets himself in hot water with his superiors over speaking out about the lack of resources available to him.

All of this accounts for about half the threads in this brilliantly constructed novel that offers all you could wish for in a police procedural. The complex story could easily be a disaster in a lesser writer’s hands but Disher manages these storylines and half a dozen others with seemingly consummate ease. There’s no chance of becoming bored as readers move from a burglar’s pre-crime survey to the examination of a crime scene to a witness interview. So that the pace doesn’t become so fast the poor reader is in danger of whiplash the book provides a good mixture of emotionally gripping scenes, like interviewing the rape victim, and those which allow the reader’s heartbeat to slow down a little. My favourite of these are the ones depicting the delicate investigation into a socially conscious graffiti artist who is spray painting messages like A CASHED UP BOGAN LIVES HERE and I’M COMPENSATING FOR A SMALL DICK on the driveway entrances of the area’s rich and tasteless residents.

The character development is equally strong with both one-off, bad-guy characters and members of Challis’ team all receiving attention at some point or another. Challis, who has had his fair share of professional and personal troubles in the past, is pretty happy here and is readying himself for a new phase in his life as his relationship with Ellen grows stronger. With her out of the action for most of the novel we spend more time with DC Pam Murphy who has some troubles of her own, not least of which are the physical symptoms which result when she stops taking anti depressants. She proves to be an interesting character to get to know more deeply and is a nice counterbalance to poor Scobie Sutton who doesn’t seem to be quite cut out for the darker side of police work and isn’t as creative as he really needs to be either. Sometimes in fiction long-running characters feel like they’re in a kind of suspended animation so that each time we meet them they’re having the same problems (such as an unresolved sexual tension between two characters). Disher allows his regular characters to move on in their professional and personal lives in a way that is very natural and more satisfying for the reader, though it probably means the author has to work harder to find new sources of suspense and tension in each story.

To round out the novel there’s also a nice undercurrent of social commentary about important issues such as police resourcing, the investigation of sex crimes against women and the problems that arise in societies where some people have nothing and others seem to have everything. It is thoughtful without preaching on any particular issue.

A final positive note to Whispering Death is that it doesn’t demand readers have read all the previous novels in the series in order to fully enjoy this one. I’ve read the early books in the series but somehow missed the last couple but did not feel at any disadvantage. There’s enough back story provided to enable someone brand new to the series to feel ‘clued in’ but not so much as to provide too many spoilers for those who might choose to read the previous novels after reading this one. So you have no excuse then not to track down this truly outstanding example of the modern police procedural. Now.

My rating: 4.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website:
Publisher: Text Publishing [2011]
ISBN: 9781921758591
Length: 330 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: Borrowed from library

WYATT, Garry Disher

Text Publishing 2010
ISBN 978-1-921656-02-6
274 pages
Source: my local library

Publisher’s blurb

Wyatt’s been away. Now he’s back.
Garry Disher’s cool, enigmatic anti-hero has been, uncharacteristically, out of action for a while. Now there’s a new Wyatt—and his legion of fans will not be disappointed.
The job’s a jewel heist. The kind Wyatt likes. Nothing extravagant, nothing greedy. Stake out the international courier, one Alain Le Page, hold up the goods in transit and get away fast.
Wyatt prefers to work alone, but this is Eddie Oberin’s job. Eddie’s very smart ex-wife Lydia has the inside information. Add Wyatt’s planning genius and meticulous preparation, and what could possibly go wrong?
Plenty. And when you wrong Wyatt, you don’t get to just walk away.

My take:

I came to WYATT not having read any of the earlier novels in the series, not surprising really as the last one was published a decade ago:
1. Kickback (1991)
2. Paydirt (1992)
3. Deathdeal (1993)
4. Crosskill (1994)
5. Port Vila Blues (1996)
6. The Fallout (1997)
7. Wyatt (2010)

As a result I had little idea about what I would find.
What I did know was that WYATT won the 2010 Ned Kelly award for Best Fiction.

Disher brings to his writing a polished style that is gritty, bare, and yet flowing. It suits the character of Wyatt who is also gritty, clever, prepared, focussed. He doesn’t hesitate to kill if he has to, and there are times when he does, seemingly without compunction.

The novel feels firmly embedded in its Australian environment, Victoria in particular. I don’t think non-Australian readers will need a glossary or translation service though.
One aspect that some readers may not like is that we are seeing crime from the criminal’s point of view.
In many ways Wyatt is evil, and he wins! Some would say, a very suitable Ned Kelly winner.

My rating: 4.7

Garry Disher’s page on Text Publishing.


This review was originally posted on her blog Petrona by Maxine and is reprinted here with her kind permission.

Kittyhawk Down, the second in the Hal Challis/Ellen Destry series of police procedurals set in the fictional Old Peninsula district in southern Victoria, Australia, is even better than the first, Dragon Man, and that’s saying something.
The characters have gelled and the author is more assured in his plotting and pacing this time round.

Hal Challis is an Inspector in the Homicide Squad,

    “tall, thin but hard boned, and looked slightly out of date in his jeans, scuffed flying jacket and plain leather shoes. His sunglasses were not an accessory perched above his forehead but shaded his eyes. He’d never worn a T-shirt as an undershirt or tracksuit pants out of doors. He’d never owned a pair of runners. His hair was straight, dark and lifted a little in the wind. It was cut once a month by a young woman who worked beside her father in a Waterloo barbershop. She was skilful and attentive, and for the sum of $10 returned him to the world with a neatly shaped head.”

Challis is investigating the case of an unidentified dead body that has been washed ashore, and slightly uneasily settling in to his relationship with the editor of the local newspaper, Tessa Kane. His sergeant, Ellen Destry, is herself on the trail of a man who attacks “courting couples” in parked cars at night, and pretty soon gets a good result, thanks to solid policing of the team, including the attractive character of constable Pam Murphy, her less attractive partner John Tankard and the sensitive Scobie Sutton. The thoughts and actions of these five policemen and women are the backbone of the novel, as they go about their professional and personal lives – personal lives that are intertwined in the local community and as such bring them into contact with people who may be of professional interest concerning various petty and not-so-petty crimes.

Challis’s somewhat desultory investigation and his ambivalence about Tessa and his imprisoned wife are swept aside by a series of incidents, starting in a small fashion but escalating way out of control. “The Meddler” is a person who writes anonymous letters to the newspaper complaining about petty infringements of the law by various residents or about failings of the local authorities. Tessa has made these letters into a regular column, but out of this initiative and an (uncharacteristically cruel) article she writes about a man who walks around with a pet ferret on a lead, are the seeds of some ghastly future events.

A lonely and introspective man, Challis has one hobby, which is to restore an old wrecked plane, the Dragon, which in 1942 helped ferry Dutch refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion of Java, from Broome to Perth. The Dragon is kept in a hangar at a local aerodrome, along with other vintage planes, one of which is the Kittyhawk of the title. Its owner is Janice Casement, whom everyone calls Kitty after her plane, and Challis feels more than a passing interest in her. One day, Challis witnesses a crazy incident while Kitty is attempting to land her plane, and feels compelled to investigate. While doing so, he finds some unsettling evidence in Kitty’s “office” area of the hangar that may involve or implicate her in some more serious, drug-related, investigations.

The novel tells the story of these several, apparently unconnected investigations, set against the evocative and vivid descriptions of community life in the Peninsula.  Because we are following the lives of several law-enforcement characters, the same people who are questioned by the police in one chapter sometimes crop up in other circumstances – for example one of the policemen has a child at the same school as two “persons of interest” – and this adds a dimension to the novel that is quite unusual in my experience of the genre.  While conveying a great sense of place, however, the author never loses sight of his storytelling role, and as the pages turn the reader gradually becomes aware of threads tightening up and connections coming together – how or why is, pretty much, kept obscure until the end, whose tense conclusion is sad in parts, but also satisfying. I’ll end the review by quoting a passage that summarises one of the appeals of this series for me, concerning Challis’s visit to someone whose husband has been shot and killed.

    “She was red-eyed, her grief raw. Ostensibly he was there to ask her some gentle questions, but he learnt nothing new and hadn’t expected to; visiting and comforting the bereaved was the other side of a murder investigation. Waves of misery and anger can spread from a single act of homicide and swamp a family and its friends. Challis represented order. Where things were falling apart for the bereaved, he was competent, professional, focused, and familiar with a bewildering system.  Sometimes his relationships with bereaved families and individuals lasted years. His was a shoulder to cry on; he was a link to the beloved victim; he represented the investigation itself and so offered hope and justice. He’d provide his phone number and find himself talking calmly, patiently, at the darkest hours of the night, and visiting from time to time, and taking people who’d almost lost heart into the squad room and showing them the desks, the computers, the photo arrays – the sense of justice at work. It often meant a lot and the flow was two-way, for as the bereaved felt valued and encouraged, so did he.”

An excellent series, and one which I shall be continuing to read with eager anticipation.

Review first posted at Petrona, October 2010.

THE DRAGON MAN, Garry Disher

Dragon man The Dragon Man by Garry Disher
Bitter Lemon Press 2007 (first published in Australia in 1999).

The Dragon Man is first in a series of five, soon to be six, novels about Detective Inspector Hal Challis and his Sergeant, Ellen Destry. It’s one of my favourite kinds of novel, in that it describes in detail a police investigation into a crime, provides a strong sense of location and society, and also addresses the personal and professional lives of the detectives concerned.

The crime in this case occurs when a woman is abducted on the Old Peninsula Highway in a (fictional) area south-east of Melbourne, Australia. Challis is responsible for crime over a fairly large area in this peninsula, where constant state cutbacks to social services make the job of the police harder – not just because of the increased likelihood of crime, but in creating a challenge for people’s daily lives, for example in organising child care when nurseries are closed down and you have to work shifts.

Challis is a serious-minded policeman, whose disastrous marriage has resulted in his wife being imprisoned. His domestic history is gradually revealed via his wife’s late-night, drunk phone calls to her husband from jail – he cannot bear to cut her off completely by divorcing her. Challis is a loner, taking refuge from his less than satisfactory personal life and his heavy workload via his hobby of slowly restoring a vintage World War Two-era plane. His sergeant, Destry, is a highly competent police officer but has her own domestic struggles in the shape of a resentful husband who is also a policeman but at a lower rank, and a sulky teenage daughter – a telling subplot which I am sure reflects many people’s experiences.

The story of the crime investigation is very well paced throughout the book as we come to learn more about the day-to-day life of people who live in the Peninsula, as well as and the inner lives of the various members of the police force, positive and negative, as they attempt to find the person who is abducting and killing vulnerable women.

There are several intriguing threads to the main plot, which gradually come together in a tense climax. I have to admit that the identity of the perpetrator was pretty obvious, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this highly atmospheric novel, which transported me right into the lives and concerns of the people within its pages. I’m definitely going to seek out the subsequent novels in the series.

Part of the publisher description for this book:
Summer on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne. The heat’s ramping up, the usual holiday madness building. Detective Inspector Hal Challis is already recycling his shower water and starting to dread Christmas.
But this year there’s something more. Women abducted and murdered on the Old Highway. A pall of fear over the scorched paddocks. The media are demanding answers—and Challis’s sleepy beat is set to explode.

I decided to read this book because the author is a favourite of Bernadette of the excellent blog Reactions to Reading. Here is what she had to say about this particular book.
Other reviews of The Dragon Man are at: Australian Crime Fiction; (reviewer, Harriet Klausner); and

Question and answer session with Garry Disher and Angela Savage.
Author’s website, including bibliography.