It’s September 1957 in Melbourne and Detective Sergeant Charlie Berlin has been, somewhat grudgingly, given a week’s leave from his job investigating the worst of the city’s missing persons cases. Looking forward to building a dark room for his wife, Rebecca, in their back yard Charlie thinks nothing of first talking to a friend of Rebecca’s who noticed some peculiar behaviour by the undertaker when organising her husband’s recent funeral. A combination of conscientiousness and curiosity prompts Charlie to visit the funeral home where he learns some things that trouble him. When his seemingly innocent questions result in one of his few friends being beaten up, Charlie feels unable to let the matter drop.
It’s quite brave of an author to set their second book in a series more than 10 years in time from the first. Keep up that gap period and the series will be a short one indeed by today’s standards. But it’s an excellent way to allow the central characters to display genuine personal growth between books and McGeachin made full use of the gap for that purpose. The series’ protagonist is still a policeman, still something of a loner professionally and still haunted (literally) by his wartime experiences as a RAF pilot then POW. But now he has a much-loved family, his nightmares are less frequent and he has a greater control on his behavioural excesses. With reasons to live he is an even more engaging and interesting man than when we first met him in THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL when he was not long back from the war. His attitude and approach to life has a very authentic feel to me and not only because in it I recognise traits of my father’s, like the way he can’t always put into words how much he loves his family but shows it in wonderfully practical ways like carefully shining all their shoes with polish and brushes each week (the scene in which this is depicted brought back vivid memories of my own family’s shoes being lined up for weekly polishing every Sunday night).
His wife is a strong character too, willing and ready to support and nourish Charlie when needed but there’s no hint of downtrodden housewife in Rebecca as she forges her own career and takes charge of the couple’s love life. Minor characters are nicely drawn too including a Hungarian journalist-turned-hearse driver (who is one of the good guys) and a poncey British doctor (who isn’t).
McGeachin has excelled at drawing out the small details of life that depict a time and place to perfection and I had no trouble picturing the edge-of suburbia setting of Charlie’s home, the sinister institution where nefarious activities were taking place or the inner city streets of Melbourne alive with a post-war (and post-1956 Olympics) mish-mash of cultures as immigration made its presence felt. Even the political environment of the time gets the same deft treatment as McGeachin shows us that it’s not only in the current day that governments are prepared to keep the masses in the dark ostensibly for our own good. In an odd way I found it kind of comforting to think that we probably have been through the same kinds of things as we’re experiencing now and managed to pull through with at least a shred of collective humanity and backbone intact. Perhaps there is hope after all.
Finally, though in some ways most importantly, Blackwattle Creek is a ripper of a yarn. I had no idea where the story was going to take me and needing to know kept me up late into the night. For a crime fiction author to be able to generate in me the same sense of shock as was being experienced by the book’s protagonist as he uncovered the frightening (and frighteningly credible) facts of the case is a fairly rare thing these days and I revelled in it. Although I thoroughly enjoyed this book’s predecessor I think BLACKWATTLE CREEK is an even better book and one I can’t recommend highly enough.
My review of McGeachin’s first book in this series, THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL
My rating: 4.5/5
Publisher: Penguin 
Length: 282 pages
Format: trade paperback
Source: I bought it