Review: SILENT KILL, Peter Corris

  • #39 in the Cliff Hardy series which began in 1980 with THE DYING TRADE
  • Published 2014 by Allen & Unwin Australia
  • available in Amazon Kindle
  • ISBN 978-1-74331-637-5
  • 255 pages
  • Source: my local library

Synopsis (author website)
Politics, murder and sex push Hardy to the limit.

When Cliff Hardy signs on as a bodyguard for charismatic populist Rory O’Hara, who is about to embark on a campaign of social and political renewal, it looks like a tricky job – O’Hara has enemies. A murder and a kidnapping soon cause the campaign to fall apart.

Hired to investigate the murder, Hardy uncovers hidden agendas among O’Hara’s staff as well as powerful political and commercial forces at work. His investigation takes him from the pubs and brothels of Sydney to the heart of power in Canberra and the outskirts of Darwin. There he teams up with a resourceful indigenous private detective and forms an uneasy alliance with the beautiful Penelope Marinos, formerly O’Hara’s PA.

A rogue intelligence agent becomes his target and Hardy stumbles upon a terrible secret that draws them into a violent – and disturbing – confrontation.

My Take

Peter Corris’ latest episode in the Cliff Hardy series SILENT KILL shows clearly he hasn’t lost his touch. He certainly is in the ranks of excellent writers of crime fiction internationally as well as on the Australian stage. As the blurb says, he is “the godfather of Australian crime fiction.”

In Rory O’Hara’s quest to launch a new Australian political party, Australian readers will recognise references to Clive Palmer’s recent, and more successful, bid for Parliament. But someone doesn’t want Rory O’Hara to succeed, and after he is injured when he is run down in the street, Cliff Hardy is employed by a backer to join the campaign and seemingly to protect Rory. Then things get really serious, and not even Cliff Hardy can prevent a murder.

So, a few thousand kilometers later, Cliff Hardy closes in on his quarry. The original financial backer of Rory’s tour has dropped out, but new money from a surprising source has employed Cliff to track down a killer. And it seems Cliff is not the only one on the trail. He will probably be doing someone else a favour.

I haven’t read all the Cliff Hardy series, but I am sure fans will be glad to see that Peter Corris is still hard at work.

My rating: 4.5

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Review: GANGLAND NORTH SOUTH & WEST by James Morton and Susanna Lobez

Gangland North, South & West by James MortonI’m not familiar with the previous installments in the Gangland series, hence I had no preconceptions of what to expect style and content-wise going into this book. As a result, I was somewhat surprised to read the broad spanning accounts across a century or more of crimes committed in Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory were condensed into 190 pages.

Drug running, people trafficking, mafia allegations, hit men, prostitution, mass murder, serial killings, bank robbing, gold theft, biker warfare – every element of criminal activity is touched upon, accounted and glossed over. While interesting, the brief nature left me wanting more. That said, there is a lot to mull over in this book and the authors should be commended on their effort to encapsulate so much criminal diversity into a one stop quick reference guide of sorts.

It was interesting to read that not much has changed over the course of a century in terms of the types of crime committed and the manner by which the criminals themselves undertake their unlawful activity. Of particular interest to me was the notion of my hometown (Adelaide) being dubbed the ‘city of corpses’ as opposed to the more well known and less evil moniker ‘city of churches. It was a real eye opener that’s for sure. As of publication, Adelaide had the highest number of shootouts in the country for the 2013 calendar year with 18 as of March.

GANGLAND NORTH SOUTH & WEST works best as a gateway book into the historic criminal underworld of the more unassuming Australian states. The factoids wet my appetite for more and I’ll be chasing down some of the titles mentioned in the comprehensive selected bibliography.

Review: The Build Up by Phillip Gwynne

this review was originally posted to Reactions to Reading on 31 August 2009

Dusty Buchanan is a Detective with the Northern Territory Police in Darwin. As the book opens a phone conversation with her over-bearing mother causes her to miss being there when a body is found in the long-running McVeigh case and so she is removed from the case. Instead she focuses on a tip-off she received from one of the blokes at the local camp for Vietnam veterans. He says his fishing line got caught on the body of a woman in the billabong. When Dusty is further isolated from her colleagues she’s forced to look to some unlikely people for help.

Reading The Build Up reminded me how much fun it is to read a book with language, cultural references and the odd ‘in’ joke that only locals will understand. It’s a bit like watching one of those kids’ movies that has a few strategically placed lines especially for adults and, in me anyway, provoked the same kind of knowing smile. I love a story that provides a sense of its location and this one stamps Australia in general and Darwin in particular lovingly on every page. I share a fellow blogger’s curiousity about whether or not the book will generate interest (or understanding) outside Australia (what would they make of Up There Cazaly for example) but I am delighted that Gwynne doesn’t seem to have written with one eye (and his bank balance) on the international publishing scene. In real life and in this book crude language and political incorrectness exist alongside spectacular places and down-to-earth people you can rely on in a crisis. You have to take the good with the bad or you get neither.

The build up of the title refers to the in-between period between Darwin’s two seasons: the dry and the wet. It’s a period known for provoking odd behaviour in people: suicides rates go up, other crime rates go down. Everyone is affected in some way. There’s also a build up in the way the book says what it has to say about its characters and the world they inhabit. The solving of either case, while being what drives Dusty, is almost incidental to the creation of a quite detailed picture of the place and the people who live in it. It’s an almost linear narrative but not always and the sequence in which what happens is revealed makes for deceptively powerful story telling. Just like the weather, the book teased me into thinking it was a fairly laid-back sort of a tale which left me completely unprepared for the-sucker punch of an ending.

Gwynne has created some truly memorable characters here. Dusty is the only human who is fully fleshed out (the other character that receives the full treatment is the Northern Territory itself) and she is terrific. She’s imperfect but not cripplingly so and is smart, funny and the sort of copper I hope there are plenty of. The rest of the people are generally quite brilliantly depicted via fairly brief but very descriptive scenes. No amount of extra words could have created a better image of a bloke called Trigger than a scene in which he can’t perform with a prostitute unless she’s wearing the football jumper of the player he believed responsible for his sidelining from the game he adored.

As often happens when I read the best ‘crime’ fiction I again thought about how genre labels ruin reading. They set silly expectations and make people worry about unimportant things when what really, really matters is for a book to capture a reader’s heart and imagination. If a book spirits you away for a while or makes you think about things in a different way, if only for a moment, then does it matter how many of the genre tick-boxes it gets right?  This book should be required reading for Aussies and while I’m not sure it’ll make complete sense to the rest of you I’d recommend you try (and I’ll happily provide translations and explanations if required).

my rating 5/5
Publisher Pan MacMillan [2008]
ISBN 978140503849-2
Length 339 pages
Format paperback

Review: GUNSHOT ROAD by Adrian Hyland

This review was originally posted at Reactions to Reading in July 2010

Emily Tempest has become the world’s most unlikely cop, an Aboriginal Community Police Officer no less. On her first day on the job in Bluebush in the Northern Territory she is one of the officers called to the scene of a stabbing out at Green Swamp Well. On the surface it looks like an open and shut case: two old drunks got into a fight and one stabbed the other in the neck. But to Emily, who knows both the victim (Doc) and the suspect (Wireless), something doesn’t feel right and she can’t let the investigation slide.

Gunshot Road has it all. Literally. Everything I could possibly want from a work of fiction all in one gorgeous package.

First there are fantastic characters. Emily Tempest is brave and stubborn and smart and funny and, as was the case with the first book in which she features, I’m still not entirely sure how a bloke can create such a credible female character but I’m delighted he has. In this book she is more mature than in her first outing though she still struggles when she knows what she should do is not what she wants to do and usually her heart wins out over her head. For better or worse.

There are plenty of other beautifully depicted characters to look out for too. Like the teenage Aboriginal boy called Danny who is deeply troubled by something and unable to communicate his fears to Emily. And the town’s new top cop, taciturn and uncomprehending of all the things he doesn’t know, but trying to do the right thing in his way. And of course the setting, the harsh land in the country’s centre, is just as much a character as any person in the book.

The desert isolation, the unrelenting heat, the laconic humour, the often awkward relationships between blacks and whites all combine to form an unmistakably Australian story. It’s not always a pretty one though and no one could accuse Hyland of trying to make it so because he tackles touch subjects such as the rampant domestic abuse of women in Aboriginal communities, endemic poverty and racism. However he somehow manages to do it without once lecturing from a self-proclaimed moral high ground. That’s a much rarer trait than it ought to be in modern literature.

Next there is writing that made me simultaneously jealous at someone else’s ability to string words together in a way that I will never be able to and grateful that he didn’t keep his gift to himself. This is from the opening chapter about an initiation

The town mob: fractured and deracinated they might have been, torn apart by idleness and violence, by Hollywood and booze. But moments like these, when people come together, when they try to recover the core, they gave you hope.

It was the songs that did it: the women didn’t so much sing them as pick them up like radio receivers. You could imagine those great song cycles rolling across country, taking their shape from what they encountered: scraps of language, minerals and dreams, a hawk’s flight, a feather’s fall, the flash of a meteorite.

The resonance of that music is everywhere, even here, on the outskirts of the whitefeller town, out among the rubbish dumps and truck yards. It sings along the wires, it rings off bitumen and steel.

I could go on but I’d end up quoting the whole book. In short, Hyland’s writing is a thing of beauty and the entire book is, in part, one long ode to its country.

Finally there is a great story and GUNSHOT ROAD is a more solid piece of crime fiction than its predecessor. For the first half of the novel there’s a fairly slow, humorous approach to the investigation as we’re introduced to all the players and people tease Emily about her new obsession. Then at a certain point the novel switches gears and speeds up as it becomes more serious and foreboding. Together these halves make up a perfectly paced story with a genuine nail-biting finish.

Heck the book even incorporates, glorifies actually, geology, my favourite science. What more could I possibly ask for? Gunshot Road is a funny, beautiful, sad and thoughtful book that everyone should read. Immediately.

My rating: 5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Quercus [2010]
ISBN: 9781849162158
Length: 369 pages
Format: Trade Paperback

THE BUILD UP, Phillip Gwynne

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

In the oppressive heat of Darwin, capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, you can’t even swim in the sea to cool off because of the giant jellyfish. Detective Dusty (Frances) Buchanan is a tough, smart, 30-something female cop who is single after the end of a live-in relationship with a lawyer, and who before the novel opens has been instrumental in identifying a leading suspect in the murder of a British backpacker – the region’s highest-profile murder case since Lindy Chamberlain’s baby Azaria was taken by a dingo.  The presumed perpetrator, a man called Gardner, is in jail awaiting trial. Dusty is uneasy about his guilt, but is taken off the case by her new boss, “the big C”, and put onto more mundane tasks.

Depressed by the office politics at the station and frustrated by her single status, the resolutely upfront and unspun Dusty keeps herself fit by swimming in the pool in her yard and by running on the beach. For much of the first half of the book we become immersed in her life and that of the people in Darwin, fascinatingly portrayed with great local colour, as we gradually become aware that sinister events are occurring – possibly connected to a local Vietnam Veterans’ group, or possibly related to a local brothel whose location remains obscure to Dusty (and the rest of the police, who are all more concerned about the Gardner case than in anything else).

Dusty is a great character. She gives as good as she gets verbally as well as physically, but at the same time she’s vulnerable and sympathetic. She’s friends with Trace and Miriam, two very different aboriginal Australians, and the author portrays vividly the coexistence of these cultures at the edge of this hot land. As the build-up to the inevitable storms and rains continues, so does Dusty’s conviction that there is a murder to be investigated whatever her boss might say. With the aid of a German birdwatcher (there is a delightful sequence where Dusty picks him up in a bar), Dusty manages to get herself busted back into uniform and ostracised for an almost-fatal accident (which emphatically was not her fault). Undeterred, she makes an unlikely ally and sets forth to follow up what leads she can under the radar – and in the process finds some evidence that completely changes the earlier case.

There are so many great touches and themes to this novel – I can only urge you to read it. It’s full of what I call “grown up” humour, and there are so many clever nuances where Dusty’s straightforward and “straight down the line” methods bring rewards in unexpected ways, not least her caring attitude towards animals – the scenes with the pig, and their part in revealing the plot, are particularly great. The reader eager to learn about life in other regions will be well-rewarded with plenty of vernacular and vignettes. Yet along with the unsentimental and upfront telling, the novel also represents an emotional core – the author is very wise about emotions and failings; above all there is bags of humanity in the book. Combine this with an attractively independent heroine, plenty of action and humour, and a wonderful sense of place and culture, and you could want no more from a book. I do hope very much to meet Dusty again one day.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading for so kindly sending me a copy of this excellent book.  Her review of it is here.

Review first posted at Petrona, October 2010.

GUNSHOT ROAD, Adrian Hyland

This edition published by Soho Press 2010
ISBN 978-1-56947-636-9
372 pages

When Tom McGillivray, superintendent of the Bluebush Police and an old friend of the Tempest clan, came up with some paid employment for Emily Tempest as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer, she was happy to accept. The deal was that she would spend a month in Bluebush in training and then she’d be based at Moonlight Downs as its ACPO.

Emily’s just come back from a short training course in Darwin in time to catch the tail end of the Bluebush aboriginal community’s Young Man’s Time. On her way from the women’s camp to work she stops and washes off her body art under a garden hose, and dons her oversize police uniform. That in itself seems symbolic, as she attempts to bridge two cultures.

She arrives at work to find that there’s been a murder: One oldie has killed another out at Green Swamp Well, and McGillivray is in hospital, his place taken by a new senior sergeant Bruce Cockburn. On their way to the crime scene Emily senses something out of place and discovers a Range Rover that’s gone off the road, its occupants spilled into the gully and in need of help.
When they eventually make it to Green Swamp Well, Emily finds that she knows both the victim, and the apparent perpetrator, two eccentrics who had a history of argumentation, but were underneath it all the best of mates.

Emily was never going to get on with Senior Sergeant Cockburn: where he tries to simplify things, she sees complications. Emily’s aboriginal background gives her a heightened sense of disturbed balance. He reminds her that she is simply meant to be a liaison officer not an investigator, but Emily really can’t help herself.

There is such a lot to like about this book: starting with Emily herself and her unexpected sense of humour, and then there is such a range of interesting and intriguing characters, and description that takes you right into the heart of the outback. I like the way Hyland layers our introduction to people and events. One or two characters from his earlier novel DIAMOND DOVE make an appearance. Emily herself seems more certain of who she is, and she has a status with the locals that I didn’t pick up in the earlier novel.

The author says, in the blog post he wrote for Readings:
Takes a little time for the country to get to know you.
It is this world-view, and its ongoing clash with the threshing machine of Western materialism, that lies at the heart of Gunshot Road. I find this conflict utterly compelling, and of great significance; 

I have no hesitation in  recommending that you find a copy of GUNSHOT ROAD.
My rating: 5.0

Other reviews to check

Debut author Adrian Hyland topped the oz_mystery_readers 2007 best reads list with DIAMOND DOVE with 5 people recommending it. The group discussed it in September when Adrian was the group’s guest on Quiz an Author, an event when an author is invited to be an online guest for a week, and questions and answers fly thick and fast. Fresh from being named the Ned Kelly best first fiction novel of the year winner at Melbourne Writers Festival, Adrian was frank and eloquent in his replies and has remained an active member of the list.
DIAMOND DOVE was given a rating of 5 by the members, a rare achievement in itself. The only other book to be given a rating of 5 was RAVEN BLACK by Ann Cleeves.

DIAMOND DOVE has been published in the US as MOONLIGHT DOWNS.

My review of DIAMOND DOVE:
Emily Tempest returns to Moonlight Downs, a scatter of corrugated iron hovels nine hours from Alice Springs out in the spinifex desert, 14 years after leaving to go to secondary school in Adelaide. The daughter of a local miner, Motor Jack, she is welcomed home by Lincoln Flinders, the head of the community. The Moonlight mob have only recently returned to their land themselves. The Moonlight mob are Emily’s community by adoption – her mother was a Wantiya woman from the Gulf Country. Unmistakably aboriginal in appearance, Emily has not yet decided which world she belongs to – aboriginal or white. She meets up with Lincoln’s daughter Hazel, her best friend in the past. The morning after Emily arrives, Lincoln is found dead, unmistakably murdered, and Emily finds it impossible to rest until she knows who killed him. Adrian Hyland’s debut novel. Very polished writing and a feel of authenticity about the setting and customs. I came away feeling I had learnt quite a lot.

THE BUILD UP, Phillip Gwynne

Pan Macmillan Australia, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4050-3849-2, 339 pages.

It is late September, and the Wet is coming to Darwin. Or rather the Build Up is happening. The temperatures and the humidity are rising, every day just a little more. 33 year old Detective Dusty Buchanon of the NT Police Force is originally from Adelaide. Until recently she had a boyfrined. Now she doesn’t.

Dusty has been working on the McVeigh case for nearly two years. Now a body has been found in the desert and it is almost certainly the abducted woman. But Dusty’s new boss has decided to take her off the case. Even before the body had been found, a case had been brought against a suspect, but he walked free.

But the Top End is never long without crime. Two weeks later there are rumours of a female body in a billabong. The location is very near a Vietnam Veterans bush camp, but when Dusty and her partner investigate there is nothing to see. Still the rumours persist, and when Dusty eventually locates a body buried near the billabong it is male not female.

There is a lot to like about THE BUILD UP. If you’ve ever been to Darwin you’ll recognise the names of streets and cafes, and somehow Gwynne has captured the essence of the place. I felt as if culturally I had been dropped right in it. And there are some wonderfully drawn characters including Dusty herself, newcomer Flick Roberts-Thomson, ex-footballer Trigger Tregenza, the Dutch policeman Tomasz, Viet veteran Barry O’Loughlin, and Trace born as the cyclone raged. Dusty seems to move effortlessly through a number of communities: the itinerant aborigines who camp in the parklands around Darwin; conversing in Indonesian with waiters in restaurants.

It is not just the interesting characters he draws though. Gwynne writes in a language that feels at once local and authentic. I couldn’t help wondering whether the book will have much appeal outside Australia. Are there too many idioms that will puzzle? There are references to cases like Azaria Chamberlain, places like the Emerald City – I wonder what a non-Australian reader will make of that? Perhaps it won’t matter.

If you read Australian crime fiction, then this is certainly a book to look for.
My rating: 4.7

THE BUILD UP has been shortlisted for the 2009 Ned Kelly Awards.
SBS have announced that they will be making a 13 part television series set in the Top End, in and around Darwin. Titled Dusty, the show will follow the trials of the crime-fighting police detective working in the self-styled ‘capital of the second chance’.

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