Review: THE DRAGON MAN, Garry Disher

Cover image, THE DRAGON MAN, Garry DisherThis review was first posted on Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan and is republished here with the author’s kind permission.

The Dragon Man by Gary Disher (1999) – The first Hal Challis mystery is set in the Peninsula on the edge of Melbourne at Christmas time. It is hot and dry and young women are being sexually assaulted and killed.

Detective Inspector Challis has few clues. The killer wears latex and does not leave his vehicle to dump the bodies. The victims have no connections. No one has seen anything.

Uncommon tire treads are a slender lead. As the only real clue the police make a major effort to track down sales of these tires.

Within the local police station few of the officers are looking forward to the holiday. Strained or broken relationships have left them with more dread than joy of the year’s greatest family celebration.

The solitary life of Challis is punctuated by calls from his wife in jail. She has been imprisoned for attempting, with her lover, to murder him. The calls are as sad as any I have read in fiction.

Christmas arrives in the midst of the investigation. It proves a difficult day for the police and their families. It is a blue Christmas on the Peninsula.

Aggravating the police and frightening the public are a series of letters from the killer to the local newspaper mocking the police investigation.

While police resources are concentrated on finding the killer they must still deal with the continuing local crimes.

Unlike most crime fiction involving the police there are multiple detailed police characters. Sgt. Ellen Destry, Sgt. Kees Van Alphen, Const. Scobie Sutton, Const. Pam Murphy and Const. John Tankard all have extensive roles in the book. The police station comes alive through their portrayals. Each of them has significant personal issues.

With the investigation stalling pressure builds upon the police. Superintendent, Mark McQuarrie, more skilled at detecting political currents than solving crimes, presses for results.

Challis keeps his men and women searching but clues remain elusive. When the break comes the book builds to a dramatic conclusion.

The Dragon Man, written over a decade ago, is an impressive debut mystery. I appreciate Kerrie from her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, and Bernadette at her blog, Reactions to Reading, for their recommendations of Disher.

Disher does an excellent job of the setting on the Peninsula. The semi-rural area adjacent to the big city has a varied population of working class people and the well-to-do. All are coping with the draining heat of Christmas in Australia. Just as Canadian writers know real cold Disher convincingly writes about real heat. (Feb. 22/12)

Review: THE WILL OF THE TRIBE by Arthur Upfield

Canadian crime fiction fan and blogger Bill Selnes from Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan has been reading more Aussie crime fiction and has kindly allowed us to re-post his review here. It is interesting, and a little sad, to see that a book 50 years old is, in many ways, still relevant in that it explores the inequalities in the treatment of indigeneous Australians.

Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is in the remote reaches of northwest Australia in the vicinity of the Kimberley Mountains. He has been called to investigate the death of an unidentified white man found in the centre of Lucifer’s Couch, a crater formed from a meteorite crashing into the earth.

Unlike other Bony investigations the authorities are less interested in finding the killer than in determining how this man reached the area unnoticed. Thus the book is a most unusual twist on the locked room mystery. Here the body is found in the middle of a room consisting of thousands of square miles of territory. How did he get there? He had to travel hundreds of miles to reach the crater. A horse or a vehicle would have drawn attention. A plane would have had to fly from an airport. It is impossible to see a white man travelling the vast spaces on foot without ample supplies.

Bony settles in at the Deep Creek cattle station with Kurt and Rose Brentner and their two daughters, Hilda and Rosie. Among those working at the station are Tessa and Captain, members of the local aborigine tribe who have been educated and given responsible positions at the station.

The book, one of the last Bony books, is the most challenging of the Bony mysteries I have read because of its treatment of the Aboriginal characters.The white characters definitely consider themselves superior. While no longer acceptable by the early 1960’s, the book makes clear it was not long before that time that it was acceptable for a white man to thrash an aborigine he considered disobedient.

The attitudes, particularly of the white people, felt accurate to me. I can well remember as a child in Canada 50 years ago the way Indian people were generally looked down upon by white society.

The aborigines of the area are divided into three groups. The wild blacks are some distance away in the desert. The station blacks are dependent on the station while living in their own camp. The educated aborigines, Tessa and the Captain, live at the station.
It is an era of transition. The lifestyle of the wild blacks is gradually being eroded. Official Australia would like to see the aborigines assimilated into the white population. The same approach was in place in Canada at that time. For decades it was our Federal Government’s policy to assimilate the Indian peoples of Canada with white Canadians.

Yet the book is far subtler than the surface portrayal of white discrimination and condescension. Bony, half white and half aborigine, has strong opinions on such matters as inter-racial marriage, aborigine connections with tribe and education of aborigines. How should the aborigines adjust to the vast white population that has taken over their continent? Should they assimilate? Should they seek to remain distinct? I found myself thinking more about the questions of culture and race than the mystery.

While I became involved in the societal issues raised the book is focused on solving a “locked room” mystery. For the vast open spaces needed to create the “locked room” it could only have been set in Australia or Canada or Russia or Antarctica.

The book is tied to the countryside and the people of Australia. Bony makes good use of his tracking skill and ability to question white and aborigine witnesses.

It is a good mystery which left me thinking not only about the treatment of indigenous people 50 years ago but how the same issues are being addressed today.


At Bill’s original review you’ll find some photos of the remote area in which the book is set.

Review: THE BUSHMAN WHO CAME BACK by Arthur Upfield

This review was originally posted to Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan and is re-published here with the permission of Bill Selnes


Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is called to the Lake Eyre region of northern South Australia about 700 km north of Adelaide. At the remote Mount Eden homestead Mrs. Bell, cook and housekeeper, has been murdered and her 7 year old daughter, Linda, has been abducted.

All attention has been focused on finding Ole Fren Yorky an itinerant stockman with a great fondness for strong liquor whose tracks were found leading away from the yardsite. Bony is suspicious when Aboriginal trackers cannot find where Yorky has gone. How do a man and a child disappear even in a vast wilderness? The limited locations of water in the desert are well known.

To find out what has happened Bony pursues information with the local group of aborigines headed by the blind Canute. There are fascinating descriptions of Aboriginal gatherings and storytelling.

Bony, half Aboriginal, is drawn into the local Aboriginal relationships. The aged Canute owns Meena, a young woman, promised to him by her mother, Sarah, when Meena was a baby. Meena and Charlie, a young member of the group, are interested in each other but denied a relationship because Meena is already owned.

Bony sets out on a personal inspection of Yorky’s fence line inspection route along Lake Eyre. Riding a horse he proceeds from camp to camp, sometimes days apart, where Yorky has stashes of food. It is a time when distance was measured by how far a horse could travel during a day.

Lake Eyre is a grim forbidding expanse of mud surviving even a multi-year drought.

Bony demonstrates his accomplished tracking skills though he acknowledges the far greater skills of the aborigines. Bony’s keen skills at observation and interpretation are far different from modern police who rely heavily on forensic equipment and tests. In his ability to obtain information from scrutiny Bony reminds me of Sherlock Holmes.

Once again Bony must deal with both blackfellow law and whitefellow law.

The language is occasionally patronizing of the Aboriginal people. The language would be unacceptable in current literature. Lacking any personal knowledge of Australia of the 1950’s it does remind me of the actual language and attitudes of Canadians toward Canadian Indians when I was a young boy.

While the language is not politically correct there is more respect for Aboriginal people and the culture than condescension.

Anthony Boucher in a 1957 review of the book in the New York Times said:

“The complex half-caste Bony is, I think, my favorite fictional detective of the past twenty years; and he’s never appeared in a novel richer in adventure, suspense, local color, folklore and absorbingly studied contrasts in cultures”.

I enjoyed again how the mystery was a part of the culture and the land and the era in which it was set. It is an Australian story. Each time I read a Bony book I learn more about rural Australia of generations past. It was shortlisted for the 1958 Edgars.


This book was originally published in 1957 and in the UK was published as BONY BUYS A WOMAN

CAKE IN THE HAT BOX, Arthur Upfield

This review was first posted on Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan and is reproduced here with kind permission from blogger Bill Selnes.

When in Launceston, Tasmania last year I was looking for Australian mysteries and came across the Pan paperback edition featuring a cover photo of James Laurenson from the “Boney” television series of the 1970’s. The story was written and takes place in the 1950’s.

            It is set in the wild and remote Kimberley ranges of northwestern Australia. Detective Inspector, Napoleon (“Bony”) Bonaparte, because of plane trouble is forced to stay in Agar’s Lagoon. While there the local police officer, Constable Stenhouse, is found murdered and his aborigine tracker, Jackie Musgrave, is missing and presumed to be the killer.

            The investigation takes Bony into the rugged lands of the ranges talking to the widely scattered families on their stations. It takes tough men and women to survive in this country.

            It is a rare man who is not a hard drinker. The town is noted for being surrounded by a ring of empty liquor and beer bottles. Too expensive to return they are dumped.

            Bony is an anomaly in the Australia of the 1950’s. Half aborigine he has gained a position of importance and respect in the white world. In the northwest Australia of that time the aborigines are divided between the station blacks (workers and servants for the white settlers) and the wild blacks (still existing off the land).

            While the whites use radio transmitters the blacks take to the air with smoke signals that efficiently communicate messages between camps.

            As Bony investigates he becomes aware there is a parallel black investigation taking place. It was fascinating to read of the black justice system.

            Travel is slow and difficult. There could not have been a greater contrast with Mission to Chara. Bony averages 3-10 mph with stops for tea and conversation. There is a measured pace to the investigation. In Mission Colonel Phinney was traveling over 2,500 mph with decisions being made in seconds. There is less time for reflection in the 21st Century.

            It was an excellent story with a murder and solution rooted in the land of northwest Australia. In contrast to the stretched out novels of our age the book was 175 pages. I am going to search out more Bony stories. (Mar. 2/11)

****

WHILE APPRECIATING COMMENTS FROM ALL VISITORS I WOULD BE VERY INTERESTED IN COMMENTS FROM AUSTRALIAN VISITORS ON THE BONY BOOKS 50 TO 80 YEARS AFTER BEING WRITTEN AND THE T.V. SERIES CLOSE TO 40 YEARS AFTER THE SHOWS WERE TELEVISED.

You might like to visit Bill’s blog to leave a comment on his original post, but also feel free to leave it here.

MALICIOUS INTENT, Kathryn Fox

Written by Bill Selnes, this review originally appeared on Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan on 6 March 2011.
We thank Bill for his kind permission to re-print it here.

Dr. Anya Crichton is a forensic doctor in Sydney, Australia who, after leaving government service, is attempting to establish a private consulting career.

After a successful appearance for the defence in a prominent criminal case she receives numerous new calls. In her personal life she struggles with the frustration of her ex-husband having custody of her 3 year old son, Ben, and is haunted by the disappearance of her younger sister in Launceston when she was a child.  

Gradually she is drawn into investigating a series of deaths of troubled women. The circumstances vary but there are intriguing forensic clues. Most prominent are asbestos like hourglass shaped fibres in the lungs of several of the women. Local police are uninterested in the clues which they perceive as inconclusive of wrongdoing. Anya persists in seeking out more connections between the women.  

The ending is chilling and fascinating. Unfortunately, it was too easy to pick out the villain. There are touches of Australia in the thriller. I hope her next book is a more directly Australian thriller.

Paperback.

Review BLOOD SUNSET, Jarad Henry

This is a review from Canadian Bill Selnes who blogs about crime fiction (and more) at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan where he originally posted this review. 

Detective Rubens McCauley has returned to the mean streets of St. Kilda after recovering from a bullet wound to his shoulder. 18 year old street kid, Dallas Boyd, has been found dead of an apparent overdose in the alley beside a restaurant. 

Against the background of a late summer heat wave and horrific bush fires raging north of Melbourne McCauley allows himself to be persuaded it is a routine O.D. that needs but a superficial investigation. Uncomfortable with his decision McCauley looks deeper into the facts and finds a series of anomalies. Boyd has been murdered. McCauley starts down the uncomfortable path of admitting his first assessment was wrong. At the same time McCauley is re-evaluating his personal life. His mother has had a stroke and he is reaching out to his ex-wife, Ella, hoping for a reconciliation. The plot takes McCauley into a sordid degrading area of street life. While the plot is predictable it is credible. The story is firmly rooted in St. Kilda. It is uncommon, but nice, to read a police procedural with a real mix of crime and family. It is a good mystery.

******

Here’s an earlier review of this book at Fair Dinkum