Review: THE BETRAYAL, Y.A. Erskine

  • Bantam book published by Random House Australia 2012
  • ISBN 978-1-74275-018-7
  • 416 pages
  • source: my local library
  • Available from Amazon

Synopsis (Random House Australia)

An engrossing novel of corruption and injustice at the heart of the police system, from the author of The Brotherhood.

Tasmania is in the grip of one of the longest, bleakest winters on record and it’s particularly icy at the Hobart  Police Station. Of the many golden rules in policing, one is especially sacred: what happens at work stays at work.

So when a naive young constable, Lucy Howard, makes an allegation of sexual assault against a respected colleague, the rule is well and truly broken.

Soon the station is divided. From Lucy’s fellow rookies right up to the commissioner himself – everyone must take a side. With grudges, prejudices and hidden agendas coming into play, support arrives from the unlikeliest of corners.

But so too does betrayal …

My Take

When she realises she has been sexually assaulted by a colleague, Lucy Howard decides to make a stand and to see that the perpetrator gets what he deserves. At twenty two years of age she can’t imagine what effect this will have on her work life.

Lucy’s story is played out against the backdrop of sexual promiscuity among her colleagues, of corruption in the police force and the even larger backdrop of corruption in Tasmanian politics. The story in THE BETRAYAL is told from not only Lucy’s point of view but from twelve others. This was a structure that worked well in Erskine’s 2011 debut THE BROTHERHOOD. It works well here.

THE BETRAYAL exudes authenticity and realism, and can’t help but make the reader consider what he/she would do in these circumstances. Would you report the rape regardless of the consequences for yourself? Where would you stand if a colleague reported she had been raped? Would you side with her or would you check the lie of the land?

A very strong sequel to Erskine’s 2011 debut THE BROTHERHOOD. (A Davitt Readers Choice Award winner in 2012) There are some links to the earlier novel, also available through Amazon. Story threads left hanging in that novel are tied off.  Y.A. Erskine is certainly one to put on your list of Australian authors to note and read.

My rating: 4.7

See also Bernadette’s review

About the Author

Y.A. Erskine spent eleven years in the Tasmania Police Service. She was
active in front-line policing and served as a detective in the CIB.
She is also an historian with an honours degree in early modern
history. Y.A. Erskine lives in Melbourne and is happily married with two

Review: THE BETRAYAL by Y.A. Erskine

If the phrase hadn’t been commandeered by an all together different book I would open this review by talking about its myriad shades of grey. Because in depicting a young policewoman’s decision to bring charges of rape against one of her fellow officers THE BETRAYAL’s greatest success is in showing that such an incident cannot be seen in black and white terms.

Using a similar structure to her first novel, 2011’s THE BROTHERHOOD, Erskine tells her story (and in large part it really is her story) from different perspectives. The book opens with a chapter entitled The Complainant in which a young policewoman, Lucy Howard, is raped by a so-called friend who deliberately spiked her drink so he could have sex with her while she was unconscious. The last chapter of the book is told from the perspective of Lucy’s rapist which, in its cavalier mundaneness, is much more chilling than all the italicised ‘thoughts of serial killers‘ the crime genre is so fond of. The intervening chapters show us the story from many other points of view including Lucy’s bosses, a journalist and the case’s prosecutors. Many of the players in the story actively oppose Lucy and side with her rapist, thinking nothing of spreading malicious lies or engaging in intimidating behaviour towards her. Others in the story are ambivalent about Lucy’s decision to press charges against a fellow officer even if they believe she was raped by him. Only one person, the Detective Inspector who oversees the case, really supports Lucy throughout her ordeal.

In some respects THE BETRAYAL could be considered lightweight for its genre. There’s not a single dead body in its 420 pages, no blood or gore and only a single crime in focus. But despite that, or perhaps because of it, the book is one of the most compelling I have read. Ever. Unlike more traditional crime fiction there’s no obvious path of good triumphing over evil or justice inevitably prevailing here. Because we see the story through so many eyes we don’t have an early sense of how it will play out and, by the end, we’re not really sure what form justice might take if it were to appear anyway. Could a guilty verdict make up for the abuse, bullying and vilification that Lucy receives from almost everyone in her world?

Having worked for a few months as a civilian in my local police department in the early 90’s, I’m not sure Erskine went far enough in describing the disrespect and simmering menace towards women that thrived in the environment, though I can understand those readers who struggled with this aspect of the book. It paints a very uncomfortable picture, all the more so if one accepts its realism (which doesn’t mean that all police officers are horrid or brutal misogynists, merely that those who are can get away with behaviour that would be unacceptable elsewhere)  The chapter told from the viewpoint of The Toecutter (a slang term referring to the internal affairs policewoman assigned to the case) is perhaps the most poignant . Because although Sonya Wheeler is a consummate professional in carrying out her duties she is personally torn by having to be involved at all. The passage in which she articulates her anger at how Lucy’s decision to press charges will negatively impact on all the female police officers who have struggled for the moderate level of acceptance they have attained is sobering in its authenticity.

THE BETRAYAL is not perfect. While Lucy Howard’s situation has a credible feel the character of Lucy feels a bit ‘off’ at times. On one hand she’s supposedly the best of the participants on a Detectives’ course (which one assumes requires a level of maturity and intelligence) but she’s also incredibly naive and immature and these two sides to her character don’t quite gel for me. And the book does paint an almost universally bleak picture of society in general and the police force (at least in Tasmania) specifically which must put some readers off.

But these imperfections do not take away from the book’s many strengths. In showing the dark, painful side of choosing to report a date rape and press charges the book opens up a subject that demands greater scrutiny. By including so many of the truly horrid things that can happen to a rape victim after they have been raped the book might be holding up society to a magnifying glass rather than the more traditional mirror but I have little doubt that each of the things depicted as happening to Lucy has happened to a rape victim somewhere, even if not all to the same person. And if there are readers who could be left untouched by that thought then we are, collectively, in serious trouble. This is not a book I would recommend if you’re looking for a light escape from the pressures of the real world. But when you are in the mood for something that offers genuine insight into the complexities of the modern world I would heartily recommend THE BETRAYAL.

I reviewed Y.A. Erskine’s first novel, THE BROTHERHOOD, last year.

I’m counting this towards my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for this year and it could not be a more perfect book for the challenge.

My rating: 4.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Random House [2012]
ISBN: 9781742750187
Length: 432 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I bought it
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The 2012 Davitt Award Winners Are…

The Davitt Awards are sponsored by Sisters in Crime Australia and are named in honour of Ellen Davitt (1812-1879) who wrote Australia’s first mystery novel, FORCE AND FRAUD in 1865. Awards are given annually to crime writing by women in several categories:

This year’s winners were announced at a gala dinner tonight (1 September) in Melbourne,

The first award of the night was for Best True Crime and it went to journalist and author Liz Porter for COLD CASE FILES in which old cases from Australia, the UK and the US are re-opened in the light of new forensic techniques.

Next came the award for Best Young Fiction book which was apparently fiercely contested. Ursula Dubosarsky’s THE GOLDEN DAY was highly commended by the judges but the winner of this category was Meg McKinlay for SURFACE TENSION

The next award was for Best Adult Novel. Carolyn Morwood’s DEATH AND THE SPANISH LADY was highly commended by judges but the award went to Sulari Gentill for A DECLINE IN PROPHETS. As this particular book was also on my list of five most impressive Australian crime novels for last year I can heartily concur with the judges’ decision on this occasion. It is historical crime fiction set in 1930’s Australia (and beyond) and it is a delight to read, combining thoughtfully drawn characters, a wonderful sense of time and place and a ripper of a story.

The new category for this year of Best Debut Novel went to Jaye Ford for her novel BEYOND FEAR. Ford is yet another journalist-turned-crime-writer and penned a book with loads of strong female characters and snappy pace which I liked a lot.

The final award of the night was the Reader’s Choice Award. All the books in all the other categories are eligible for this award and all members of Sisters in Crime Australia are able to vote for it (and apparently 550 of us did). This year the award was shared by Jaye Ford’s BEYOND FEAR and Y.A. Erskine’s THE BROTHERHOOD!. Both great books and THE BROTHERHOOD was another of my five most impressive Aussie crime novels of last year.

Congratulations to all the winners and thanks to all the writers of all the eligible books. Even from my limited reading of the books in these categories I can attest to the fact that Australian women’s crime writing is in great form.

Information in this post was provided by Vim & Zest Communications and the ever-helpful twitterverse, especially @angsavage to whom I offer a particular thanks for the vicarious thrills provided via #davittawards

Review: THE BROTHERHOOD, Y.A. Erskine

  • Published Bantam, Random House 2011
  • ISBN 978-1-74275-015-6
  • 379 pages
  • source: my local library

Synopsis (Booktopia)

One dead cop, one small island and an impact that will last a lifetime.

When Sergeant John White, mentor, saviour and all-round good guy, is murdered during a routine call-out, the tight-knit world of Tasmania Police is rocked to the core.

An already difficult investigation into the death of one of their own becomes steeped in political complexities when the main suspect is identified as Aboriginal and the case, courtesy of the ever-hostile local media, looks set to make Palm Island resemble a Sunday afternoon picnic in comparison. And as the investigation unfolds through the eyes of the sergeant’s colleagues, friends, family, enemies and the suspect himself, it becomes clear that there was a great deal more to John White – and the squeaky-clean reputation of the nation’s smallest state police service – than ever met the eye.

The Brotherhood is a novel about violence, preconceptions, loyalties, corruption, betrayal and the question a copper should never need to ask: just who can you trust?

About the Author

Y.A. Erskine spent eleven years in the Tasmania Police Service. She was active in front-line policing and served as a detective in the CIB. She is also an historian with an honours degree in early modern history. Y.A. Erskine lives in Melbourne and is happily married with two dogs.

My take

Hobart, small city, big town, capital of Tasmania. TASPol, a small police force where everyone knows everyone else personally, working out of Hobart, in a state where about a third of the population gets some sort of government assistance, and another quarter works for the government.

I loved the innovative structure of this book. It reminded me of clock solitaire. The story is carefully layered. We start with a hook. The officer in charge of the investigation into the death of a fellow police officer is going through the deceased’s possessions and finds some items that puzzle the reader but for the investigator seem to have only one interpretation.

And then the reader is dealt a series of “cards”, the story as seen by a range of connected participants. We learn who the police officer was and how he was killed and through each chapter we see him through the eyes of another. Each chapter adds a layer to our knowledge until eventually we come back to where the book started.

And interlaced into the story are various strands: an Aboriginal population, the remnants of Australia’s original inhabitants, now welfare dependent, and in some cases only too willing to cry victimisation and brutality; an under resourced police force with more than usual difficulties in recruiting and retaining good officers; corruption in all professions, even among those responsible for managing the legal system; and an island state with significant social prejudices. It’s a heady mix.

THE BROTHERHOOD is certainly an Australian police procedural with a difference and worthy of attention.

My rating: 5.0

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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: 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