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.