Embarrassingly for someone who is trying to keep on top of Aussie crime fiction releases I had not heard of this series before spying this book on the 2011 Ned Kelly Awards longlist. If this instalment is a good representation of the series then I have missed several reading treats as HOW THE DEAD SEE, the sixth book of the series, is a delight.
Detective Inspector Franz Heineken of the Tasmanian Police Force is nicknamed Pufferfish, described as
A prickly, toxic bastard, ability to inflate and even explode when severely provoked.
In this outing he is confronted by several high-profile cases including the theft of a valuable diamond necklace, the death of a well-known actor which is reported as suicide until the actor’s girlfriend claims it was murder and the vicious beating of a young Indian woman. Heineken and his team, DC Faye Addison and DS Rafe Tredway, think they know which of the island’s criminal fraternity is responsible for the necklace theft but they have a devil of a time proving it as their prime suspect has claimed police harassment before so they must tread very carefully indeed. The investigation into the actor’s death meanwhile introduces the police to an entirely new suspect pool and the somewhat debauched behaviour one might associate with Hollywood.
The book makes excellent use of the first-person point of view by showing us not only what Pufferfish sees and hears but also what he thinks about what he is seeing and hearing via a dry, acerbic internal monologue. Seeing the public/professional face of the man as well as his more private thoughts provides both entertainment and a depth to the character that it would be hard to get across in any other way (especially as the novel is refreshingly short). Although his work does take up most of his time we do get some glimpses into Heineken’s home life as we meet his slightly clandestine girlfriend and his adult daughter and learn about his idyllic-sounding beach shack.
Happily there is a first rate mystery in the book too. Often this aspect of a humourous crime novel can be a little lacking but here there are two very interesting main crimes and neither goes in the direction one imagines at the outset. Although the book maintains a fast pace, Owen has still managed to depict the complications and temporary stalling that such investigations must surely take which gives a very believable feeling to the whole thing. Another element of the book which helps the credibility factor is the very natural-sounding dialogue both between the team members and with the various suspects.
To wrap up this very entertaining package the book also offers a strong sense of its setting. The positives (outstanding scenery, still-present sense of history and a lively community spirit) and negatives (isolation from the rest of the world, not always welcoming to strangers) of Tasmania are incorporated seamlessly into the story and the writing and overall tone of the book is very, very Australian. There were a couple of sentences even I had to read twice to understand, though as they both contained sporting metaphors it’s not terribly surprising.
Knowing absolutely nothing about a book or its author before cracking a book’s spine is a pretty rare occurrence for me these days and I savour the complete lack of expectation that accompanies the experience. It took me only a few pages to become completely hooked by this clever, topical story and its deliciously off-beat characters. Highly recommended.
My rating: 4/5 stars
Publisher: 40 South Publishing 
Length: 234 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: provided by the author for review
David Owen was born in Zimbabwe and migrated to Australia via Malawi, Swaziland, South African and London. He now lives in Tasmania, the setting for his Pufferfish novels, of which HOW THE DEAD SEE is number six. The previous novels in the series are:
- Pig’s Head (1994)
- A Second Hand (1995)
- X and Y (1995)
- The Devil Taker (1997)
- No Weather for a Burial (2010) (here’s a review at Aust Crime Fiction)
Although I have managed to be completely oblivious to this terrific series until now, Pufferfish does have his fans dotted around the globe. Here are some thoughts on the series from Peter at Detectives Beyond Borders (with more thoughts/reviews via his links)
To be honest the book is not that readily available in Australia so I’ve no idea how the rest of the world might get hold of this one (a prime candidate for eBook publishing if ever I’ve seen one) but as we have two copies here at Fair Dinkum HQ you can expect a giveaway some time soon.