This 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)