At the beginning of the sixth Challis and Destry novel, set on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne, Inspector Hal Challis is saying a temporary goodbye to his colleague and girlfriend Ellen Destry as she heads of to Europe for some intensive study that will enable her to establish a new Sex Crimes Unit on her return. The timing proves to have a dark irony to it when a young woman is raped by someone wearing a police uniform. At the same time as the investigation into this vicious crime gets underway there are warnings that the man responsible for a series of armed bank robberies looks to be making his way to the area and Challis gets himself in hot water with his superiors over speaking out about the lack of resources available to him.
All of this accounts for about half the threads in this brilliantly constructed novel that offers all you could wish for in a police procedural. The complex story could easily be a disaster in a lesser writer’s hands but Disher manages these storylines and half a dozen others with seemingly consummate ease. There’s no chance of becoming bored as readers move from a burglar’s pre-crime survey to the examination of a crime scene to a witness interview. So that the pace doesn’t become so fast the poor reader is in danger of whiplash the book provides a good mixture of emotionally gripping scenes, like interviewing the rape victim, and those which allow the reader’s heartbeat to slow down a little. My favourite of these are the ones depicting the delicate investigation into a socially conscious graffiti artist who is spray painting messages like A CASHED UP BOGAN LIVES HERE and I’M COMPENSATING FOR A SMALL DICK on the driveway entrances of the area’s rich and tasteless residents.
The character development is equally strong with both one-off, bad-guy characters and members of Challis’ team all receiving attention at some point or another. Challis, who has had his fair share of professional and personal troubles in the past, is pretty happy here and is readying himself for a new phase in his life as his relationship with Ellen grows stronger. With her out of the action for most of the novel we spend more time with DC Pam Murphy who has some troubles of her own, not least of which are the physical symptoms which result when she stops taking anti depressants. She proves to be an interesting character to get to know more deeply and is a nice counterbalance to poor Scobie Sutton who doesn’t seem to be quite cut out for the darker side of police work and isn’t as creative as he really needs to be either. Sometimes in fiction long-running characters feel like they’re in a kind of suspended animation so that each time we meet them they’re having the same problems (such as an unresolved sexual tension between two characters). Disher allows his regular characters to move on in their professional and personal lives in a way that is very natural and more satisfying for the reader, though it probably means the author has to work harder to find new sources of suspense and tension in each story.
To round out the novel there’s also a nice undercurrent of social commentary about important issues such as police resourcing, the investigation of sex crimes against women and the problems that arise in societies where some people have nothing and others seem to have everything. It is thoughtful without preaching on any particular issue.
A final positive note to Whispering Death is that it doesn’t demand readers have read all the previous novels in the series in order to fully enjoy this one. I’ve read the early books in the series but somehow missed the last couple but did not feel at any disadvantage. There’s enough back story provided to enable someone brand new to the series to feel ‘clued in’ but not so much as to provide too many spoilers for those who might choose to read the previous novels after reading this one. So you have no excuse then not to track down this truly outstanding example of the modern police procedural. Now.
My rating: 4.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website: http://www.garrydisher.com/
Publisher: Text Publishing 
Length: 330 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: Borrowed from library