Garry Disher’s latest novel is a standalone story (at least for now) set against the backdrop of greater Melbourne, occasionally stretching as far as Geelong. UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS opens in a small town on the urban fringe. A dangerous snake has hidden itself under an old, unused concrete slab in the backyard of a young family’s home. When the slab is dug up as part of snake catching efforts a skeleton is found. We meet the book’s central character, Alan Auhl, when the cold case squad he works with is called in. At first they must identify the person, not easy due to the house’s history as a rental home, before moving on to discovering what led to their death and burial. The process the team has to go through is well depicted, giving a good sense of how painstaking it must be to investigate cases from even the relatively recent past.
Several other strands play out alongside the story’s main plotline. Auhl is contacted for news each year by the daughters of a man killed some years ago whose murderer has never been caught. Then there’s the tangled case of the doctor who alerts the police that his wife might be a murderer. Auhl is skeptical because he believes the doctor has killed two of his previous wives but was clever enough to get away with it. And we haven’t even gotten to Auhl’s personal life yet. He lives in the big old house he inherited from his parents and rents rooms out to a mismatched collection of waifs and strays. These include Neve Fanning and her daughter Pia who are trying to escape the clutches of Neve’s abusive ex husband who has the money and connections to use the legal system to his advantage.
These days picking up a new police procedurals is a bit risky as the trend for damaged central characters can make for repetitive reading. But Disher is a true master of his craft so manages to make Auhl stand out from the pack without using tired tropes such as the almost ubiquitous addiction. That doesn’t mean he’s all sweetness and light though. His nickname in the office is Retread because he’s returned from retirement and is the oldest person in the team by quite some years. I can attest personally to the authenticity with which the complexities of being an ‘older worker’ in a workforce entranced by youth is depicted. His marriage is…awkward to say the least and at one point he crosses a behavioural line that will surely haunt him but all this just makes for an interesting character that doesn’t feel like a rehashing of all those who have come before him.
And the story itself is a ripper. Disher juggles all the threads expertly and maintains just the right levels of suspense and heart. Readers aren’t led to believe that strange cold cases can be solved in a moment but nor are we bored to tears by too much detail. There is a good mix of the personal and professional too with Auhl’s home life offering lots of interest.
It doesn’t really come as a surprise that Garry Disher has produced another fantastic book but when someone is as consistently good as Disher it can be easy to take them for granted. UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS could easily be the start of a new series but stands equally well as a single novel, and is highly recommended for fans of top notch procedurals. It’s fast paced, sparsely written and genuinely surprising.
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
Length: 285 pages
Source of review copy: Borrowed from a friend