BLACK ICE, Leah Giarratano

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

Black Ice by Leah Giarratano
Bantam, 2009.

The third installment of this searing Australian series finds DS Jill Jackson working undercover, using the name Krystal Peters, in the slums of Sydney. She’s identifying plenty of low-life drug dealers, to the pleasure of her bosses, but is finding it a bit of a strain to maintain her facade. When she was a child, she was kidnapped and abused. Although she has superficially recovered from her ordeal by conquering her excessively ritualised life and achieving a degree of closure (described in Vodka Doesn’t Freeze), she’s still suffering, not least in her difficult relationship with her sister Cassie, a glamorous model and, unknown to her family, drug addict.

Jill’s story is one theme of this book. The other follows Seren (short for Serendipity), a young mother who has been wrongly imprisoned for a crime she did not commit – carrying large quantities of “ice” – and who has been abandoned by the man who was actually responsible, a smarmy lawyer who when he is not dealing drugs himself is getting other dealers acquitted and becoming very rich in the process of both activities. Seren reaches the end of her sentence (after some brutal descriptions of life in a women’s “correctional facility”) and, in order to be reunited with her 10-year-old son, acquiesces to a dull life in a cheap flat and a menial yet horrific job slaughtering chickens at a meat-processing plant. Seren, of course, is secretly plotting revenge on the man who got her into this trouble.

Black Ice has a lot going for it. It has an exciting, gritty plot and an attractively capable list of women characters. I am not quite sure, therefore, why I was not more involved in the story and the dilemmas these women face. Partly, I think the book is too sensationalistic without providing enough depth to the characters, giving the whole a bit of a soap-opera feel. People are not who they seem after being described positively for some time,  but it isn’t explained why.  Details are glossed-over, for example some pages are spent on describing just how broke Seren is on her release from prison, then in one sentence it is said that she has possessions “in storage” – with no indication of how she pays for this. Everything just seems to be that bit too exaggerated, and too much of the plot depends on accidents and mistakes – for example one character drops a camera being used to secretly film a drug deal, and another is recruited as an informer yet given a mobile phone to use which has crucial information on it leading the villains directly to ruin an investigation. Jill herself is a sympathetic character, but she’s like a moonstruck, wimpy teenager every time she meets a half-way handsome man (two colleagues and a drug dealer), which does not fit with other sections of the novel in which she is portrayed as a dedicated, focused professional.

Black Ice is certainly an exciting page-turner, and raises tough questions about the value of punishment and rehabilitation as well as the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.  The relationship between Jill and Cassie is perhaps the strongest element in my estimation. But the harrowing themes of the book are presented rather in the manner popularised by Martina Cole: Seren’s compulsive purchasing of $1,000 designer shoes and her spending every cent of her rent money on high fashion does not gel, for me, with her stated principles and adoration of her son, especially as the pages describing the shoes and the sexy clothes she buys are more detailed and involved than those describing the boy and his life. The physical descriptions of the women (particularly Seren and Cassie) could come from a glossy, airhead magazine. Something about this book’s odd combination of romanticised fiction with the shocking details of drugs and violence does not really ring true for me, although I do not doubt the sincerity of its intentions.

Review first posted at Petrona, October 2010.

KITTYHAWK DOWN, Garry Disher

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

Kittyhawk Down, the second in the Hal Challis/Ellen Destry series of police procedurals set in the fictional Old Peninsula district in southern Victoria, Australia, is even better than the first, Dragon Man, and that’s saying something.
The characters have gelled and the author is more assured in his plotting and pacing this time round.

Hal Challis is an Inspector in the Homicide Squad,

    “tall, thin but hard boned, and looked slightly out of date in his jeans, scuffed flying jacket and plain leather shoes. His sunglasses were not an accessory perched above his forehead but shaded his eyes. He’d never worn a T-shirt as an undershirt or tracksuit pants out of doors. He’d never owned a pair of runners. His hair was straight, dark and lifted a little in the wind. It was cut once a month by a young woman who worked beside her father in a Waterloo barbershop. She was skilful and attentive, and for the sum of $10 returned him to the world with a neatly shaped head.”

Challis is investigating the case of an unidentified dead body that has been washed ashore, and slightly uneasily settling in to his relationship with the editor of the local newspaper, Tessa Kane. His sergeant, Ellen Destry, is herself on the trail of a man who attacks “courting couples” in parked cars at night, and pretty soon gets a good result, thanks to solid policing of the team, including the attractive character of constable Pam Murphy, her less attractive partner John Tankard and the sensitive Scobie Sutton. The thoughts and actions of these five policemen and women are the backbone of the novel, as they go about their professional and personal lives – personal lives that are intertwined in the local community and as such bring them into contact with people who may be of professional interest concerning various petty and not-so-petty crimes.

Challis’s somewhat desultory investigation and his ambivalence about Tessa and his imprisoned wife are swept aside by a series of incidents, starting in a small fashion but escalating way out of control. “The Meddler” is a person who writes anonymous letters to the newspaper complaining about petty infringements of the law by various residents or about failings of the local authorities. Tessa has made these letters into a regular column, but out of this initiative and an (uncharacteristically cruel) article she writes about a man who walks around with a pet ferret on a lead, are the seeds of some ghastly future events.

A lonely and introspective man, Challis has one hobby, which is to restore an old wrecked plane, the Dragon, which in 1942 helped ferry Dutch refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion of Java, from Broome to Perth. The Dragon is kept in a hangar at a local aerodrome, along with other vintage planes, one of which is the Kittyhawk of the title. Its owner is Janice Casement, whom everyone calls Kitty after her plane, and Challis feels more than a passing interest in her. One day, Challis witnesses a crazy incident while Kitty is attempting to land her plane, and feels compelled to investigate. While doing so, he finds some unsettling evidence in Kitty’s “office” area of the hangar that may involve or implicate her in some more serious, drug-related, investigations.

The novel tells the story of these several, apparently unconnected investigations, set against the evocative and vivid descriptions of community life in the Peninsula.  Because we are following the lives of several law-enforcement characters, the same people who are questioned by the police in one chapter sometimes crop up in other circumstances – for example one of the policemen has a child at the same school as two “persons of interest” – and this adds a dimension to the novel that is quite unusual in my experience of the genre.  While conveying a great sense of place, however, the author never loses sight of his storytelling role, and as the pages turn the reader gradually becomes aware of threads tightening up and connections coming together – how or why is, pretty much, kept obscure until the end, whose tense conclusion is sad in parts, but also satisfying. I’ll end the review by quoting a passage that summarises one of the appeals of this series for me, concerning Challis’s visit to someone whose husband has been shot and killed.

    “She was red-eyed, her grief raw. Ostensibly he was there to ask her some gentle questions, but he learnt nothing new and hadn’t expected to; visiting and comforting the bereaved was the other side of a murder investigation. Waves of misery and anger can spread from a single act of homicide and swamp a family and its friends. Challis represented order. Where things were falling apart for the bereaved, he was competent, professional, focused, and familiar with a bewildering system.  Sometimes his relationships with bereaved families and individuals lasted years. His was a shoulder to cry on; he was a link to the beloved victim; he represented the investigation itself and so offered hope and justice. He’d provide his phone number and find himself talking calmly, patiently, at the darkest hours of the night, and visiting from time to time, and taking people who’d almost lost heart into the squad room and showing them the desks, the computers, the photo arrays – the sense of justice at work. It often meant a lot and the flow was two-way, for as the bereaved felt valued and encouraged, so did he.”

An excellent series, and one which I shall be continuing to read with eager anticipation.

Review first posted at Petrona, October 2010.

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 DRAGON MAN, Garry Disher

Dragon man The Dragon Man by Garry Disher
Bitter Lemon Press 2007 (first published in Australia in 1999).

The Dragon Man is first in a series of five, soon to be six, novels about Detective Inspector Hal Challis and his Sergeant, Ellen Destry. It’s one of my favourite kinds of novel, in that it describes in detail a police investigation into a crime, provides a strong sense of location and society, and also addresses the personal and professional lives of the detectives concerned.

The crime in this case occurs when a woman is abducted on the Old Peninsula Highway in a (fictional) area south-east of Melbourne, Australia. Challis is responsible for crime over a fairly large area in this peninsula, where constant state cutbacks to social services make the job of the police harder – not just because of the increased likelihood of crime, but in creating a challenge for people’s daily lives, for example in organising child care when nurseries are closed down and you have to work shifts.

Challis is a serious-minded policeman, whose disastrous marriage has resulted in his wife being imprisoned. His domestic history is gradually revealed via his wife’s late-night, drunk phone calls to her husband from jail – he cannot bear to cut her off completely by divorcing her. Challis is a loner, taking refuge from his less than satisfactory personal life and his heavy workload via his hobby of slowly restoring a vintage World War Two-era plane. His sergeant, Destry, is a highly competent police officer but has her own domestic struggles in the shape of a resentful husband who is also a policeman but at a lower rank, and a sulky teenage daughter – a telling subplot which I am sure reflects many people’s experiences.

The story of the crime investigation is very well paced throughout the book as we come to learn more about the day-to-day life of people who live in the Peninsula, as well as and the inner lives of the various members of the police force, positive and negative, as they attempt to find the person who is abducting and killing vulnerable women.

There are several intriguing threads to the main plot, which gradually come together in a tense climax. I have to admit that the identity of the perpetrator was pretty obvious, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this highly atmospheric novel, which transported me right into the lives and concerns of the people within its pages. I’m definitely going to seek out the subsequent novels in the series.

Part of the publisher description for this book:
Summer on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne. The heat’s ramping up, the usual holiday madness building. Detective Inspector Hal Challis is already recycling his shower water and starting to dread Christmas.
But this year there’s something more. Women abducted and murdered on the Old Highway. A pall of fear over the scorched paddocks. The media are demanding answers—and Challis’s sleepy beat is set to explode.

I decided to read this book because the author is a favourite of Bernadette of the excellent blog Reactions to Reading. Here is what she had to say about this particular book.
Other reviews of The Dragon Man are at: Australian Crime Fiction; Allreaders.com (reviewer, Harriet Klausner); and e-opinions.com.

Question and answer session with Garry Disher and Angela Savage.
Author’s website, including bibliography.