Review: The Build Up by Phillip Gwynne

this review was originally posted to Reactions to Reading on 31 August 2009

Dusty Buchanan is a Detective with the Northern Territory Police in Darwin. As the book opens a phone conversation with her over-bearing mother causes her to miss being there when a body is found in the long-running McVeigh case and so she is removed from the case. Instead she focuses on a tip-off she received from one of the blokes at the local camp for Vietnam veterans. He says his fishing line got caught on the body of a woman in the billabong. When Dusty is further isolated from her colleagues she’s forced to look to some unlikely people for help.

Reading The Build Up reminded me how much fun it is to read a book with language, cultural references and the odd ‘in’ joke that only locals will understand. It’s a bit like watching one of those kids’ movies that has a few strategically placed lines especially for adults and, in me anyway, provoked the same kind of knowing smile. I love a story that provides a sense of its location and this one stamps Australia in general and Darwin in particular lovingly on every page. I share a fellow blogger’s curiousity about whether or not the book will generate interest (or understanding) outside Australia (what would they make of Up There Cazaly for example) but I am delighted that Gwynne doesn’t seem to have written with one eye (and his bank balance) on the international publishing scene. In real life and in this book crude language and political incorrectness exist alongside spectacular places and down-to-earth people you can rely on in a crisis. You have to take the good with the bad or you get neither.

The build up of the title refers to the in-between period between Darwin’s two seasons: the dry and the wet. It’s a period known for provoking odd behaviour in people: suicides rates go up, other crime rates go down. Everyone is affected in some way. There’s also a build up in the way the book says what it has to say about its characters and the world they inhabit. The solving of either case, while being what drives Dusty, is almost incidental to the creation of a quite detailed picture of the place and the people who live in it. It’s an almost linear narrative but not always and the sequence in which what happens is revealed makes for deceptively powerful story telling. Just like the weather, the book teased me into thinking it was a fairly laid-back sort of a tale which left me completely unprepared for the-sucker punch of an ending.

Gwynne has created some truly memorable characters here. Dusty is the only human who is fully fleshed out (the other character that receives the full treatment is the Northern Territory itself) and she is terrific. She’s imperfect but not cripplingly so and is smart, funny and the sort of copper I hope there are plenty of. The rest of the people are generally quite brilliantly depicted via fairly brief but very descriptive scenes. No amount of extra words could have created a better image of a bloke called Trigger than a scene in which he can’t perform with a prostitute unless she’s wearing the football jumper of the player he believed responsible for his sidelining from the game he adored.

As often happens when I read the best ‘crime’ fiction I again thought about how genre labels ruin reading. They set silly expectations and make people worry about unimportant things when what really, really matters is for a book to capture a reader’s heart and imagination. If a book spirits you away for a while or makes you think about things in a different way, if only for a moment, then does it matter how many of the genre tick-boxes it gets right?  This book should be required reading for Aussies and while I’m not sure it’ll make complete sense to the rest of you I’d recommend you try (and I’ll happily provide translations and explanations if required).


my rating 5/5
Publisher Pan MacMillan [2008]
ISBN 978140503849-2
Length 339 pages
Format paperback

THE BUILD UP, Phillip Gwynne

This review was originally posted on her blog Petrona on by Maxine and  is reprinted here with her kind permission.

In the oppressive heat of Darwin, capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, you can’t even swim in the sea to cool off because of the giant jellyfish. Detective Dusty (Frances) Buchanan is a tough, smart, 30-something female cop who is single after the end of a live-in relationship with a lawyer, and who before the novel opens has been instrumental in identifying a leading suspect in the murder of a British backpacker – the region’s highest-profile murder case since Lindy Chamberlain’s baby Azaria was taken by a dingo.  The presumed perpetrator, a man called Gardner, is in jail awaiting trial. Dusty is uneasy about his guilt, but is taken off the case by her new boss, “the big C”, and put onto more mundane tasks.

Depressed by the office politics at the station and frustrated by her single status, the resolutely upfront and unspun Dusty keeps herself fit by swimming in the pool in her yard and by running on the beach. For much of the first half of the book we become immersed in her life and that of the people in Darwin, fascinatingly portrayed with great local colour, as we gradually become aware that sinister events are occurring – possibly connected to a local Vietnam Veterans’ group, or possibly related to a local brothel whose location remains obscure to Dusty (and the rest of the police, who are all more concerned about the Gardner case than in anything else).

Dusty is a great character. She gives as good as she gets verbally as well as physically, but at the same time she’s vulnerable and sympathetic. She’s friends with Trace and Miriam, two very different aboriginal Australians, and the author portrays vividly the coexistence of these cultures at the edge of this hot land. As the build-up to the inevitable storms and rains continues, so does Dusty’s conviction that there is a murder to be investigated whatever her boss might say. With the aid of a German birdwatcher (there is a delightful sequence where Dusty picks him up in a bar), Dusty manages to get herself busted back into uniform and ostracised for an almost-fatal accident (which emphatically was not her fault). Undeterred, she makes an unlikely ally and sets forth to follow up what leads she can under the radar – and in the process finds some evidence that completely changes the earlier case.

There are so many great touches and themes to this novel – I can only urge you to read it. It’s full of what I call “grown up” humour, and there are so many clever nuances where Dusty’s straightforward and “straight down the line” methods bring rewards in unexpected ways, not least her caring attitude towards animals – the scenes with the pig, and their part in revealing the plot, are particularly great. The reader eager to learn about life in other regions will be well-rewarded with plenty of vernacular and vignettes. Yet along with the unsentimental and upfront telling, the novel also represents an emotional core – the author is very wise about emotions and failings; above all there is bags of humanity in the book. Combine this with an attractively independent heroine, plenty of action and humour, and a wonderful sense of place and culture, and you could want no more from a book. I do hope very much to meet Dusty again one day.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading for so kindly sending me a copy of this excellent book.  Her review of it is here.

Review first posted at Petrona, October 2010.

THE BUILD UP, Phillip Gwynne

Pan Macmillan Australia, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4050-3849-2, 339 pages.

It is late September, and the Wet is coming to Darwin. Or rather the Build Up is happening. The temperatures and the humidity are rising, every day just a little more. 33 year old Detective Dusty Buchanon of the NT Police Force is originally from Adelaide. Until recently she had a boyfrined. Now she doesn’t.

Dusty has been working on the McVeigh case for nearly two years. Now a body has been found in the desert and it is almost certainly the abducted woman. But Dusty’s new boss has decided to take her off the case. Even before the body had been found, a case had been brought against a suspect, but he walked free.

But the Top End is never long without crime. Two weeks later there are rumours of a female body in a billabong. The location is very near a Vietnam Veterans bush camp, but when Dusty and her partner investigate there is nothing to see. Still the rumours persist, and when Dusty eventually locates a body buried near the billabong it is male not female.

There is a lot to like about THE BUILD UP. If you’ve ever been to Darwin you’ll recognise the names of streets and cafes, and somehow Gwynne has captured the essence of the place. I felt as if culturally I had been dropped right in it. And there are some wonderfully drawn characters including Dusty herself, newcomer Flick Roberts-Thomson, ex-footballer Trigger Tregenza, the Dutch policeman Tomasz, Viet veteran Barry O’Loughlin, and Trace born as the cyclone raged. Dusty seems to move effortlessly through a number of communities: the itinerant aborigines who camp in the parklands around Darwin; conversing in Indonesian with waiters in restaurants.

It is not just the interesting characters he draws though. Gwynne writes in a language that feels at once local and authentic. I couldn’t help wondering whether the book will have much appeal outside Australia. Are there too many idioms that will puzzle? There are references to cases like Azaria Chamberlain, places like the Emerald City – I wonder what a non-Australian reader will make of that? Perhaps it won’t matter.

If you read Australian crime fiction, then this is certainly a book to look for.
My rating: 4.7

THE BUILD UP has been shortlisted for the 2009 Ned Kelly Awards.
SBS have announced that they will be making a 13 part television series set in the Top End, in and around Darwin. Titled Dusty, the show will follow the trials of the crime-fighting police detective working in the self-styled ‘capital of the second chance’.

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