Review: ZERO AT THE BONE by David Whish-Wilson

Zero at the BoneDavid Whish-Wilson’s ZERO AT THE BONE captures the Windy City gangster era feel and brings it to boom town Perth at the height of mining’s golden age. Police are mob, yet few dare tread where the hardest criminals fail – for PI Frank Swann, his footprint leaves traces of the dead and imprints of a failed justice as he chases down a sinister scheme which all started when geologist, Max Henderson, allegedly committed suicide prompting his wife, Jennifer Henderson, to enlist his services.

The former detective still feels the pain and loss stemming from the events in LINE OF SIGHT, the predecessor to this novel. The strong sense of continuity is apparent with the protagonist referring back to the past events, with the present day plot (circa 1979) very much attributed to the earlier novel. For Swann, this case unearths a deeper plot and exposes the criminal element attached to the Rosa Gold stake.

Drug dealers, bad cops, bent bookies, jewel thief’s, and a widow’s questionable motive ensure ZERO AT THE BONE keeps reader’s guessing while providing plenty of criminal and good old fashion detective action.

Blue blood still runs rife within the veins of Swann with him coming across more cop than PI during the course of his investigation. I liked the balance in maintaining this persona from LINE OF SIGHT as it further built upon the Swann’s already well articulated passion for truth and justice. Yet what most impressed me about ZERO AT THE BONE was the long game of revenge which played out in surprising and shocking fashion.

ZERO AT THE BONE is a distinctly Australian yet all consuming crime fiction novel that grips the reader from page one and demands attention through to its violent conclusion.

When the smoke clears and the smell of cordite resonates in the air, the sticky blood red writing on the wall reads that David Whish-Wilson is a force to be reckoned with in crime fiction.

The most impressive Australian crime fiction in 2011

It’s list making time of year so here at Fair Dinkum HQ we’ve each made a list of the five Australian crime fiction titles that impressed us most this year. Not all are 2011 publications and some have yet to be released beyond our shores but this mixture of new titles by favourite authors and outstanding debuts is a cracker of a collection if I do say so myself.

Kerrie speaking here…

I’ve only read 16 Australian titles this year, and am already formulating New Years Eve resolutions that I will do better in 2012. Nevertheless the problem in picking my top reads is that so many of them were so good and it was difficult to draw a cut off line. Not all of the titles were 2011 publications either.

So here are my top 5.

My top pick was THE WRECKAGE by Michael
Robotham, published in 2011, in which our old friend Vincent Ruiz teams up with a new character, investigative journalist Luca Terracini. THE WRECKAGE is a contemporary thriller set against the background of both the world financial crisis and the attempts to build Iraq in the face of both greed and terrorism. It reflects both Robotham’s meticulous research, and his ability to create great fictional characters. He describes the main characters in a way that makes you really care about what happens to them.

I really can’t choose between the other four, so the order in which they appear is not preferential.

In Katherine Howell‘s COLD JUSTICE, published in 2010, paramedic Georgie Riley and Detective Ella Marconi are travelling similar paths, returning to work after traumatic incidents that resulted in hospitalisation and being off work for some months.  Katherine Howell has used a formula similar to the one she used successfully in both THE DARKEST HOUR, and her debut novel FRANTIC: parallel plots that advance in tandem, each generating their own sense of suspense. The link between the two plots is Detective Ella Marconi. Again the paramedic characters are new, while Marconi provides the common thread from one novel to the next.

WHISPERING DEATH, published in 2011, affirms that Garry Disher is a master storyteller, a tight and consummate plotter, a writer who could sit on any international podium along with richer and more famous crime fiction writers. This is #6 in Disher’s Hal Challis series, firmly bedded in the 21st century, and reflecting on the problems of maintaining a strong police force, chasing rapists, armed robbers, and home invaders, in the face of diminishing funding and stretched resources.

Set in post-war Australia, this time post World War Two, with a policeman returning to work in a world that will never be the same, THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL by Geoffrey McGeachin, published in 2011, reminded me a lot of the Charles Todd series. Like Ian Rutledge in that series Charlie Berlin was in the police force before the war. Although the police force was an exempt trade he volunteered for service and was posted to the RAF in Britain. He took off on 30 missions over Germany, but, in his words, landed only 29 of them and ended up in a P.O.W. camp. For me, Geoff McGeachin has hit on a winner with this new series and I hope we see more of Charlie Berlin. It appealed to me on several fronts – historical, crime fiction, Australia.

My final choice is FINAL CUT by debut West Australian author Alan Carter, also published in 2011.  What makes this novel remarkable is the way the author ambitiously forwards two plot strands in tandem. It took a bit of getting used to at first. There is little to tell the reader that you’ve changed from one plot to another, just a change of characters. Often, but not always, the plots are basically at the same point, like the interviewing of a suspect.

But there’s much more than that to keep the reader involved. There are prior links between some of the characters which are gradually teased out for us. There are genuine murder mysteries with lots of attendant red herrings. There’s a good feel for the climate in Western Australia, both physical and economic. And there is some excellent characterisation.

And now it’s Bernadette’s turn

So far I’ve managed to read 35 books by Australian crime writers this year. I’m about half way through another one which is enjoyable but I already know it’s not quite good enough to nudge any of these off the list so I don’t feel too concerned about finalising the list a few days before the end of the year.

Y.A. Erskine’s debut novel THE BROTHERHOOD absolutely blew me away. Partly this is because I had no expectations when I opened the front cover (I knew nothing about the book other than it was written by an Aussie woman) but mostly it’s because it’s bloody brilliant. A Tasmanian policeman is shot while on duty and the events of the day are recounted from different points of view – his rookie partner, the Police Commissioner, his estranged wife, the culprit etc – who each get a single chapter from which a whole picture of the leadup to and ramifications of the shooting emerges. I loved everything about this book – the structure, the flawed but believable people, the way the story kept surprising me, the themes that Erskine explored. This book is vying with one other title for the very top spot on my favourite books of the year (Aussie or otherwise) and my only complaint is that is hasn’t gotten the wide attention it so richly deserves.

Like Kerrie I’m not going to list the rest in order of preference, they’re all worth your attention.

Kathryn Fox‘s DEATH MASK was one of the first books I read this year and it ended up being the book I voted for in the reader’s choice category of this year’s Davitt Awards. It starts out simply enough with a young woman testing positive for a sexually transmitted disease that she cannot understand how she contracted given her sexual history and so she assumes there has been some mistake at the clinic. The story’s dark turn reveals the betrayal that led to her contracting the disease which in turn prompts the protagonist of the series, Dr Anya Crichton, to study the psychology of male sporting teams. It’s a topical storyline but tackled intelligently and without the moralising, quick-fix answers that mainstream media devotes to the subject and it reminded me that the best crime fiction always examines some aspect of our society or collective behaviour in addition to telling a jolly good yarn.

Australian-born, Scotland-living Helen Fitzgerald‘s THE DONOR tackles the simple but hideous premise of what a single father is to do when his twin daughters both develop a genetically inherited kidney disease. Perhaps a life of crime wouldn’t be everyone’s choice but hapless Will Marion seems somewhat short of options to save the daughters he loves. The book is both darkly funny and almost unbearably sad but not remotely maudlin which is, I think, a remarkable achievement. The father in this story is a wonderful creation: the type of person you want to slap for being so inept one minute but the next moment you want to wrap him in a giant bear hug for trying so hard.

Sulari Gentill‘s A DECLINE IN PROPHETS is the second novel set in 1930’s Australia to feature world-wandering dilettante Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and I adored it. Rowly and his friends start the book on board a cruise liner where a grim murder occurs and by the time all the players are in Australia things look very rocky for poor Rowly who unwilling caught up in an odd spiritual movement and may end up being considered an unsuitable role model for the young members of his conservative family. Whenever I talk about this book or its predecessor (something I do as often as I can) I break out in a wide grin as there is something quite joyous about the amusing, life-embracing characters that inhabit Gentill’s world, which is full of sumptuous details of the period. But there is sadness in Rowly’s life too and it’s this juxtaposition with his fun-loving ways that provides the spark of something special to the book. I am lucky enough to have an advanced copy of the third book in the series awaiting my perusal in early January and I am already grinning at the prospect. This book also wins my award for best cover of the year.

LINE OF SIGHT by David Whish-Wilson is another superb debut, this time set in Perth in Western Australia. It is a fictionalised account of the real life murder of a local brothel owner in the 1970’s and focuses on the struggle by one good cop to uncover the truth about the crime which appears to have been perpetrated by his fellow officers. What impressed me most about this book was its perfect capturing of the time and place (it really does feel like another country which is not surprising as the state has flirted with secession more than once). The characters stand out too, especially the man who was charged with heading up a Royal Commission into the case and who slowly came to realise that he’d been set up to find nothing at all. It was a somewhat brutal but entirely credible characterisation and I have thought about Justice Partridge many times since finishing the book.

Did you read any Aussie crime fiction that impressed you in 2011? Do share.

Ned Kelly Awards – short list announced

Announced 8 pm Tuesday 2 August

Best First Fiction

Alan Carter Prime Cut Fremantle Press

David Whish-Wilson Line of Sight Penguin Books

P.M. Newton The Old School Penguin Books

Best Fiction

Angela Savage The Half-Child Text

Geoffrey McGeachin The Diggers Rest Hotel Penguin

Chris Womersley Bereft Scribe Publishing

True Crime

Geesche Jacobson Abandoned- The Sad Death of Dianne Brimble Allen & Unwin

Ross Honeywill Wasted Penguin

Lindsay Simpson & Jennifer Cooke Honeymoon Dive Macmillan

 S.D. Harvey Short Story Award

Robert Goodman Southern Hemisphere Blues

A.S. Patric Hemisphere Travel Guides: Las Vegas For Vegans

Details of this year’s Ned Kelly Awards ceremony to be held as part of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival.

Review LINE OF SIGHT, David Whish-Wilson

In Perth, Western Australia in 1975 Ruby Devine, brothel madam and mother of three, is shot and killed in her car by the side of a highway. Some months later there has been no arrest and, some would argue, no proper investigation to speak of. Superintendent Frank Swann of the WA Police has accused his fellow officers of the crime and its subsequent cover up. Although his accusations have led to the establishment of a Royal Commission (the highest form of official enquiry possible in Australia) Swann’s life and the lives of his family are at real risk. In fact his oldest daughter has disappeared and Swann is fairly sure she is dead at the hands of the same cops who killed Ruby. Unfortunately he doesn’t have enough evidence, or enough living witnesses, to put them away.

Living my middle-class existence I have, with a few exceptions more notable for their rarity than their drama, gone through my 43 years without knowingly encountering much in the way of real criminality. It is only when I read a book like this, which blurs the boundaries between crime fact and crime fiction in a sobering way, that I am reminded of my level of blissful ignorance. In LINE OF SIGHT Whish-Wilson has created a story based on the real murder of Shirley Finn who was a Perth brothel madam and whose murder remains unsolved to this day. He has deftly depicted the layers of criminality and corruption at all levels of the society he portrays and, far more importantly, he has made me believe it all. There’s the palpable fear displayed by the informants and prostitutes that Swann asks desperately for details of their encounters with corrupt cops. And the not-so-subtle atmosphere of menace that Justice Partridge, flown in from Melbourne to oversee the Royal Commission, endures when dealing with the Police Minister and other authority figures. And there are the things that Frank Swann sees and knows but cannot prove. All of this produces a very real sense that people with power and little morality are very comfortable with how much abuse of their power they can get away with.

I don’t know enough about the real case to know how many liberties Whish-Wilson has taken to create this fictional version of her story but it does seem clear that Shirley Finn and her family didn’t have a policeman like Frank Swann on their side. He is the ultimate hero, not because he knows all the answers or can fight off bad guys with a single blow (he doesn’t and he can’t) but because he doesn’t sit idly by when he sees the corruption around him. He does the sorts of things that we’d all like to think we’d do in similar circumstances but which, history tells us, most people don’t. His working class background and tough present circumstances are juxtaposed nicely with those of Justice Partridge whose more privileged background has, perhaps, not prepared him for this kind of battle. It is interesting to see how finds his own strength from watching the way Swann handles himself in the trying circumstances.

LINE OF SIGHT captures its time period and its setting beautifully. The language, the cultural and political references, the policing methods, the isolationist stance that Western Australians had (still have?) are all ably shown in a myriad of small ways and I really did feel transported back in time. There are many scenes of utter desperation and despair in the book but these are, for the most part, balanced out by the inclusion of Swann’s perseverance and Partridge’s slowly dawning strength to provide a really satisfying and highly recommended read. I only hope it prompts someone somewhere to come forward with information that might provide answers for Shirley Finn’s family.


LINE OF SIGHT has been reviewed at Aust Crime Fiction and Crime Down Under


My rating: 4/5 stars
Author website: http://www.davidwhish-wilson.com/
Publisher: Viking [2010]
ISBN: 9780670073740
Length: 250 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: provided by the author for review

Currently reading LINE OF SIGHT

The Whitlam Dismissal

I’ve been transported back to the middle of the 1970’s with David Whish-Wilson’s LINE OF SIGHT. The Prime Minister of the country has just been dismissed in controversial circumstances (this is still discussed regularly today), muscle cars rule the roads, Elton John was still a party boy and, apparently, the state of Western Australia was as corrupt as it gets.

Although fictional, the book about the murder of a Perth brothel madam and the police corruption and organised crime links which surrounded that murder is based on the true story of the murder of Shirley Finn in 1975. I always find these kinds of fictionalised true stories the most difficult to read, especially when they depict a world as harsh as this one. My inner Pollyanna likes to believe in a clear line between crime fiction and crime fact because books which blur that line make me look askance at everyone I meet for a while afterwards.

A Dodge Phoenix (I think)

However, LINE OF SIGHT has well and truly got me hooked. There’s an honest cop named Frank Swann whose just gotten himself beaten up rather badly because he’s telling anyone who will listen about the corruption in the Force and I’m not entirely sure he’ll make it through to the end of the book. Off to find out…

Recent Acquisitions #1

Since Kerrie and I decided to re-launch this blog as Fair Dinkum Crime with a focus only on Australian crime fiction I have been uncovering new books to read wherever I turn. So far this year I have acquired 12 new (to me) titles by a total of 8 different Australian writers and there’s a mixture of historical fiction, police procedurals, legal thrillers and a noir thrown in for good measure. Something for all my personalities 🙂

Andrew Croome’s DOCUMENT Z has already been reviewed here and is a combination historical fiction/political thriller based on the real defection of a Russian embassy worker/spy to Australia in 1954. I found it compelling.


Belinda D’Alessandro’s DISCOVERING WOUNDED JUSTICE: CRUEL MENACE was a book I discovered on the auction site of writers who were auctioning books to raise money for the Queensland flood appeal and I won the auction for this book. This is the publisher’s blurb for Queensland-born Belinda’s debut novel

Alyssa Giordano, a first generation American, never thought being a woman in this day and age would be a disadvantage… until she met her first boss. Her grandmothers, one Irish, the other Italian, fought so hard to be seen by other women as their husbands’ equals. But Alyssa’s grandfathers, and her father, knew who really ran things.

Barely a year into her career, the young lawyer couldn’t believe that Duncan Kennedy would accuse her of a double cross and sack her after she’d rebuffed his advances. Nor could she believe that his partner, Lydia Price, refused to support her. As she leaves behind her first job in the only career which she’d ever wanted, Alyssa, pride wounded, loses faith in the one thing she’d grown up believing in: justice.

After struggling to get her career (and her life) back in order, Giordano finally hits the big time and finds that roles are reversed. Kennedy is labeled a swindler and a leading journalist, a woman no less, holds his fate in her hands. But as he vanishes in a cloud of lies and creditors before he can be brought to justice, Giordano’s faith in it, justice, freefalls again.


David Whish-Wilson’s LINE OF SIGHT has been send to us for review and is based on a true story:

When a brothel madam is shot on a Perth golf course in 1975 it should be a routine murder enquiry. But it isn’t. In fact there’s barely an investigation at all, and Superintendent Swann thinks he knows why. Heroin is the new drug in town and the money is finding its way into some very respectable hands.

It’s the brave or the foolish who accuse their fellow cops of corruption, and sometimes not even Swann is sure which he is. Especially when those he’s pointing the finger at have mates in every stronghold of power in the state – big business, organised crime, the government. He might have won the first round by forcing a royal commission, but the judge is an ailing patsy and the outcome seems predetermined. If that’s not enough to contend with, Swann’s teenage daughter has disappeared, he doesn’t know whether she’s alive or not, and the word on the street is he’s a dead man walking.

Line of Sight is classic crime noir, a tale of dark corruption set in a city of sun and heat.


Gary Corby’s THE PERICLES COMMISSION has already been reviewed by Kerrie but I am looking forward to reading this historical fiction work myself. It’s awaiting me on my eReader. I had been hearing about the book for a while but though it was available elsewhere last year it only became available here in Australia this year (due to the annoying vagaries of territorial copyright restrictions).


Katherine Howell’s COLD JUSTICE is her third novel to feature Sydney Detective Ella Marconi and I only realised as I was buying her fourth one VIOLENT EXPOSURE, a couple of weeks ago that I had missed one in her series. We can’t have that can we? I finished reading COLD JUSTICE (about a cold case of a murdered boy) in the early hours of this morning so there will be a review within the next couple of days. VIOLENT EXPOSURE, which I’ve still to read will offer this

When Suzanne Crawford is found stabbed to death and her husband Connor is discovered to be missing, it looks like just another tragic case of domestic violence to Detective Ella Marconi. But as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Why is there no record of Connor Crawford beyond a few years ago? Why has a teenager who worked for the pair gone missing too? Is trainee paramedic Aidan Simpson telling the truth about his involvement?And above all, what was the secret Suzanne knew Connor was keeping at all costs – even from her?

As Ella begins to build a picture of the Crawfords’ fractured lives, things around her are deteriorating. Her relationship with a fellow officer is hanging by a thread and her parents seem to be keeping secrets of their own. But Ella only has time for the job she loves, and she knows she has to see her way through the tangled web of deceit and lies to get at the truth – before it’s too late.


Kerry Greenwood’s first three Phryne Fisher novels were on special at Borders’ eBook store (in a collection entitled INTRODUCING PHRYNE FISHER) so I couldn’t resist and now have COCAINE BLUES. FLYING TOO HIGH and MURDER ON A BALLARAT TRAIN also awaiting me on the eReader. The books are set in 1920’s Australia and I’ve only read one before so I shall look forward to these (I like Kerry’s modern-day series of amateur sleuth books very much).


Clan Destine Press provides this information about the book:

Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt is peaceful and prosperous under the dual rule of the Pharaohs Amenhotep III and IV, until the younger Pharaoh begins to dream new and terrifying dreams.

Ptah-hotep, a young peasant boy studying to be a scribe, wants to live a simple life in a Nile hut with his lover Kheperren and their dog Wolf. But Amenhotep IV appoints him as Great Royal Scribe. Surrounded by bitterly envious rivals and enemies, how long will Ptah-hotep survive?

The child-princess Mutnodjme sees her beautiful sister Nefertiti married off to the impotent young Amenhotep. But Nefertiti must bear royal children, so the ladies of the court devise a shocking plan.

Kheperren, meanwhile, serves as scribe to the daring teenage General Horemheb. But while the Pharaoh’s shrinking army guards the Land of the Nile from enemies on every border, a far greater menace impends.

For, not content with his own devotion to one god alone, the newly-renamed Akhnaten plans to suppress the worship of all other gods in the Black Land.

His horrified court soon realise that the Pharaoh is not merely deformed, but irretrievably mad; and that the biggest danger to the Empire is in the royal palace itself.


Lenny Bartulin’s BLACK RUSSIAN is the second Jack Susko mystery and was shortlisted for best novel in 2010’s Ned Kelly awards (eventually won by Garry Disher’s WYATT). It was one of several books by Aussie authors I ordered at the Australia Day sale held by Boomerang Books (it would have been un-Australian not to right?). Here’s what I have to look forward to:

After yet another slow week at the cash register, that fine purveyor of second-hand literature, Susko Books, is facing financial ruin. Jack Susko sets off to a gallery in Woollahra to scrape up some coin with the sale of an old art catalogue. With his usual panache and exquisite timing, he arrives just as De Groot Galleries is being done over by masked thieves. Along with a mysterious object from the safe, the robbers seize a valuable first edition from Jack’s bag, too.

When the owner of the gallery doesn’t want to call the cops, Jack is offered a sizeable sum to keep silent: but when de Groot arrives at the bookshop with his heavy to renege on the deal, all bets are off. With an ease that almost constitutes a gift, Jack Susko finds himself at the centre of a world full of duplicity, lies and art theft.


Michael Duffy’s THE TOWER made its way to my bookshelves this week after I saw mention of its successor’s imminent publication. One must start with the first book in a series whenever one can so…

Young detective Nicholas Troy is basically a good man, for whom working in homicide is the highest form of police work. But when a woman falls from the construction site for the world’s tallest skyscraper, the tortured course of the murder investigation that follows threatens his vocation.

Hampered by politicised managers and incompetent colleagues, Troy fights his way through worlds of wealth and poverty, people-smuggling and prostitution. He has always seen Sydney as a city of sharks, a place where predators lurk beneath the glittering surface. Now he uncovers networks of crime and corruption that pollute the city, reaching into the police force itself.

Finally, the shadowy predator Troy has been chasing turns and comes for him, putting his family at risk. Forced to defend himself with actions he would never have considered before, Troy confronts a moral abyss. He realises it’s a long way down.

Not a bad haul for the first six weeks of the year if I do say so myself. It’s just a pity I didn’t buy extra hours in my day to read them all but I’ll find the time eventually.

Have you acquired any interesting Australian crime fiction this year? 
Or is there something you’re very keen to get your hands on? 
Is there something else new (or new-ish) out that I should be keeping an eye out for?