Review: THE DRAGON MAN, Garry Disher

Cover image, THE DRAGON MAN, Garry DisherThis 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)

Review: THE MISTAKE by Wendy James

As a child Jodie Garrow’s dreams were modest: to be one of the normal grown-ups she sees in town, with high heels, a station wagon and a handsome husband. But even modest dreams are hard work when you are the neglected child of a poor family in a small community that confers worth and status only to people with the right background. When THE MISTAKE opens Jodie has achieved that dream but her world starts to crumble when her teenage daughter Hannah breaks her leg on a school trip to Sydney and by chance is taken to the same hospital where Jodie once had a baby that none of her family knows about. When she goes to pick up Hannah Jodie meets a nurse who had been present at the earlier birth and she is forced to tell the woman that she had the baby adopted out. However the nurse follows up and learns the adoption, if it took place, could not have been a legal one and she alerts the authorities. Jodie is forced to share the secret of her mistake with her family and all their lives are irreversibly affected as she is effectively put on trial by the media and the community of her small New England town to the north of Sydney.

To say I enjoyed THE MISTAKE would not be quite accurate but only because I spent a good deal of my reading time either spluttereringly angry at some of the horrid, judgemental characters in it or deeply sad at the realism of the wider society the book depicts. But to say I didn’t enjoy the book would give entirely the wrong impression too because I found it so engrossing that at several points I had to be physically dragged away from it in order to attend to real life obligations. There is a lot to both like and admire about this book.

The complex characterisations are one of the standouts, particularly Jodie Garrow who steadfastly refuses to conform to people’s expectations of her. At first she won’t remain in the poverty-stricken life she was born to, then she won’t become the beaming mother those at the hospital assume she will want to be and finally she won’t be the crying, forgiveness-seeking, soul-bearing woman that the media demands when her past is revealed. For all of these refusals she is pilloried by strangers and friends alike, portrayed as uncaring and murderous in the media and misunderstood by almost everyone, even by her family.

Several comparisons are made in the book to the real-life case of Lindy Chamberlain (whose baby daughter Azaria’s disappearance in 1980 prompted truly vile media coverage primarily because Chamberlain was not a ‘typical’ blubbering mess on camera) but as I was only 12 when that took place the events this book reminded me of were more recent. In 2001 two English tourists were kidnapped in the Australian outback and while the woman of the couple, Joanne Lees, escaped the man has never been found (though someone has been convicted of his murder). Local media coverage quickly moved from sympathy for Lees to scathing commentary to all but accusing her of nefarious involvement in events and all because she didn’t cry and appear suitably emotional on camera. In THE MISTAKE James depicts a similar kind of non-conformance from Jodie and her community’s brutal retribution for that failure to conform is also shown with saddening perfection. For, not surprisingly, Jodie’s harshest critics are other women.

Perhaps because I have been reflecting for the past few weeks on the sad reality that in this National Year of Reading only one of eight books voted to represent Our Story was written by a woman, I was struck by what a wonderfully Australian story this book by an Australian woman is. I don’t just mean that it mentions notable locations and so on but it is a story that I think would play out differently if it were set elsewhere. Here aspirations of the sort held by the young Jodie Garrow, for a different life to the one she was born to are not really admired in the way they would be in other places (America for example) and, again, I think James has encapsulated this reality into the book very naturally and credibly.

The book is also about secrets; what happens when they’re kept and what happens when they’re revealed. And Jodie isn’t the only person to have them. Her husband Angus and daughter Hannah have their fair share of things they don’t want anyone else to know. It is quite fascinating to see whether or not the characters will realise that their own desire to keep secrets is the same thing that has been motivating  the actions of the wife and mother that both have struggled to forgive for visiting such tribulations upon their family.

THE MISTAKE is a cracker read, almost guaranteed to generate discussion and disparity of opinion amongst its readers, perhaps depending on their own life experiences. For example I was particularly cross at the meddling, busy-body of a nurse who prompted the revelation of Jodie’s past but a colleague who has read the book thought the nurse did exactly the right thing! It is one of those books I know I will recommend over and over again, especially as I think it only dances around the edges of the crime genre so it will be palatable even to those of my friends who profess not to like crime fiction at all.

Thanks to Angela Savage whose review of the book prompted me to buy it. You might also want to check out Book’d Out where Shelleyrae gave the book a glowing review and then interviewed Wendy about her writing.

I’m counting this as my fifth book towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge for the year.

My rating: 4/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Michael Joseph [2010]
ISBN: 9781921901041
Length: 277 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I bought it
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A fair dinkum month – February 2012

We reviewed five books this month

We also posted the answers to our Australia Day historical crime fiction quiz and discussed the TV adaptation of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. 

Reviews of Aussie crime fiction elsewhere on the web

Andrew at Pulp Curry reviewed Adrian McKinty’s THE COLD, COLD GROUND and proclaims it “sharp, well written, combining political analysis with a hard noir edge.”

Crime writer Angela Savage reviews Wendy James’ THE MISTAKE calling it “a compelling, gut-wrenching novel that is not easily categorised. Part family drama, part psychological thriller, it pushes the boundaries of the crime genre”. Angela talked about this book along with Peter Corris’ THE COMEBACK on Radio National last week too.

Angela also reviewed Peter Corris’ THE COMEBACK saying that “reading Cliff Hardy novels is like sitting down with a favourite uncle in a pub and getting him to tell his best stories over a few beers”.

Sarah at Crimepieces went outside her comfort zone to read Kathryn Fox’s SKIN AND BONE and enjoyed the plotting.

Jon at Bite the Book reviewed Tony Cavanaugh’s debut novel PROMISE, which he found brutal and shocking but compelling.

Shelleyrae at Book’d Out reviewed Katherine Howell’s latest novel SILENT FEAR which she found so exciting she read it in a single sitting. Meanwhile Jason Nahrung tackled Katherine’s first novel FRANTIC for the Australian Women Writer’s challenge which he found “a methodical tale, competently told, with attention to detail — leaves in drains, the smell of food — and no grandstanding.

At Petrona Maxine reviewed Y.A. Erskine’s THE BROTHERHOOD and labelled it a “a superb police-procedural with a difference”. 

Margot Kinberg added Peter Temple’s BAD DEBTS to her thoughtful In The Spotlight series and described it as “a ‘hardboiled’ novel with depth and character, Bad Debts is also a believable group of crimes with a believable set of motives in a distinct setting”.

Australian crime fiction in the news and on the web

There’s a new free cookbook based on Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman novels available for download (click on the cookbook cover to access the PDF document) (Hat tip to Janet Rudolph)

A reminder that it’s never to late to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge or the Aussie Authors Challenge (or both) to motivate your 2012 consumption of Aussie crime fiction. 

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