I suppose the noticeable lack of crime fiction set in my home state has the advantage of not making me peer worryingly around every corner lest the figments of imagination come to life but it can make a local fan feel like a poor relation with nothing to bring to the feast that is Australian crime fiction. So I was particularly thrilled to learn that one of the country’s best crime writers, South Australia’s own Garry Disher, was publishing a new crime novel set right here. The wait, as is so often the case, was worth it: BITTER WASH ROAD is about as good as it gets.
It is the story of Tiverton, a tiny scrap of a town several hours’ drive north of Adelaide, and the policeman posted to its one-man station as his punishment for being mixed up in a corruption scandal at a suburban station. Paul Hirschhausen, inevitably known as Hirsch, displays a complex mixture of bitterness, pragmatism, paranoia and determination as he settles uneasily into the role of general fixer, father figure and upholder of those laws it suits the locals to uphold that is the lot of a country cop. Those locals are wary of Hirsch unless they want something of him; the cops from the nearest town are overtly antagonistic to someone they view as a traitor and Hirsch is looking for a place he can call home without having to sleep with one eye open.
He does so against the backdrop of a deceptively simple case in which a teenage girl’s half-naked body is found by the side of the road. Hirsch is the only person willing to treat it as anything other than the hit and run first appearances suggest, and he fights an uphill battle to gain access to forensics and interview subjects. But fight he does…slowly building up a picture of who has power in the area and what sinister uses some of that power is put to. It is a worryingly plausible depiction of the narrowness of the margin that separates good people from bad ones; and even more disturbing is the sense that the bad guys look just like everyone else.
Hirsch’s first encounter with the book’s eponymous road is just the first of many examples of Disher’s skill at drawing the reader in, making it impossible not to imagine the places and people he has created
Five kilometres south of Tiverton he turned left at the Bitter Wash turnoff, heading east into the hills, and here there was some movement in the world. Stones smacked the chassis. Skinny sheep fled, a dog snarled across a fence line, crows rose untidily from a flattened lizard. The road turned and rose and fell, taking him deeper into hardscrabble country, just inside the rain shadow. He passed a tumbled stone wall dating from the 1880’s and a wind farm turbine.
When her turns his keen observation skills to people it is, on more than one occasion, enough to make me squirm. There is, for example a passage of no more than 10 or so lines about half-way through the story that made me put the book down in something akin to horror. As Hirsch dozes in the back seat of a car the two constables up front chat breezily about their new female colleague and what they’d do to her in a heartbeat that is repugnant in its contempt for her particularly and women in general. So much so that I can’t even bring myself to quote it here to illustrate my point. But for days afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about these lines and their realism; wondering how many men there are in the world who think like constables Nicholson and Revell.
For all its darkness BITTER WASH ROAD does not leave its readers in complete despair and some moments of redemption come from pleasantly surprising quarters. Even so it is the harsh landscape and tough people that linger in my mind. That and the fact this is probably the best book I’ve read all year.
Publisher: Text 
Length: 325 pages
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