Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong was once, literally, the poster boy for Western Australia’s police force. Of Chinese descent he represented a new kind of recruit and, for a while, he could do no wrong. But as this book opens he is disgraced, having been involved in a frame-up that was discovered. He has been assigned to one of the worst jobs in the force in hopes he will resign. But when a body, or part of one, washes up on shore in a small mining town six hundred kilometres south east of Perth, Cato has a second chance to prove that he is, or can be, a good cop after all. At the same a cold case that had its origins in northern England more than 30 years ago rears its very ugly head.
I’m normally a little kinder to debut novels than I am to the output of more seasoned writers but Alan Carter really doesn’t need my gentle handling: this is an exceptionally good novel. One of the many things about the book which have lingered in my mind since I finished it is its very strong sense of place. This comes across in a physical sense with the depiction of the geographic isolation of the area and the elements you might expect of a small, relatively isolated town even if you don’t specifically know Hopetoun. In addition to this though is a marvellously current sense of the social and economic impact of Australia’s mining boom. Because Cato’s investigation ultimately leads him to the new mines near Hopetoun we see the way that the new money both helps and hinders the town depending on your point of view (and your entrepreneurial abilities). While some people are making their fortunes others, often migrant workers brought in using special classes of visa, are exploited sometimes without even knowing it.
Another standout feature of the novel are the characters who are not always, or often even, likeable but they are believable and intriguing. Cato is a strong protagonist being far from perfect but not completely dysfunctional. At times I found his lack of willingness to take responsibility for his involvement with the frame-up that derailed his career annoying (I’m not alone, one of his colleagues did too) but it was a very realistic depiction. And because he didn’t wallow in self-pity most of the time I did enjoy getting to know him and was genuinely gripped by wanting to know if he would persevere or not. There’s a really strong ‘cast’ of supporting characters too including Stuart Miller, an ageing ex-cop from England whose inability to find the man who brutally murdered his wife and son as Sunderland beat Leeds in the FA Cup final in 1973 changed the course of his life. He gave up policing and migrated to Australia but never forgot this particular case and when he learns South Australian police are re-opening a case that involved an eerily similar murders a few years later he once again gives in to his obsession with the original murders. This strand of the novel unfolds parallel to the other thread though, as is the way of things in fiction, they meet up eventually.
Prime Cut does not wear its political heart on its sleeve but nevertheless deals with a range of ‘hot-button’ issues such as racism and police corruption in an intelligent, thoughtful way. I hate being preached at or told how to think by the fiction I read but I do enjoy seeing hard subjects depicted in a way that makes me pause and consider my own thoughts on the topic. Here for example I really did stop and think about the difficulties police must face every day when the ‘know’ a person is guilty but they don’t have the evidence that would ensure their conviction. What might make me cross the line from honest to…not? Is there room for grey? Other issues were tackled equally deftly, including the realistic depiction of the way indigenous communities interact with their physical environment. Carter has a light but direct touch which I really enjoyed.
The book is brim full of compelling characters, minor threads and major events that I haven’t had a chance to mention here but you can discover them all for yourselves if you track the book down as I strongly recommend you do.
Kerrie has already reviewed Prime Cut here at Fair Dinkum.
- this book at Boomerang Books (Australian online store, does ship overseas)
- this book at eBooks.com (in a range of formats)
- this book on Kindle (I can’t tell if this is available to all geographical regions or not, sorry
my rating 4.5/5
Publisher Fremantle Press 
Length 316 pages
Source borrowed from a book club friend