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Australian Crime Fiction

GONE BY MIDNIGHT . . . Between the covers

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Candice-Fox1Australian crime fiction suffered two body blows in 2018 when the two great Peters – Temple and Corris – died within months of each other. While they can never be replaced, there is, thankfully, a younger generation stepping up to the plate, and Candice Fox (left) is in the first rank of these. No-one needs to be reminded of the great detective duos of the past, but Fox has created a partnership for the 21st century in the persons of Ted Conkaffey and Amanda Pharrell.

Conkaffey is a former Sydney cop whose life has been consumed, chewed up and spat out by the media after he was wrongly accused of sexual offences against a teenage girl. His former colleagues have dropped the case, but mud sticks and, like Sisyphus, Conkaffey is doomed forever to push the boulder of public memory up the metaphorical hill. He has, however, earned a serious reputation for solving crime as a PI in the distinctive company of Amanda Pharrell.

Candice Fox is a Sydney girl born and bred, but she has picked Ted Conkaffey up and set him down 1200 miles further north in the steamy tropics near Cairns in Queensland. Conkaffey is brought in by the local police who are baffled by the disappearance of a young boy from a room in the White Caps Hotel. Richie Farrow’s mum had been down in the restaurant along with the parents of three other boys, with the lads apparently safe upstairs together in room 608, watching DVDs, playing computer games and larking about, with the parents taking turns to check up on them every hour. When Sara Farrow takes her turn, she is horrified to find there are only three boys in the room, and it is her Richie who has gone.

A frantic police investigation ensues, but there is neithr sight nor sound of the missing boy, and Chief Damien Clark reluctantly calls in Conkaffey to help with the search. Conkaffey agrees, but only if his partner is involved. He’s aware that Pharrell is held in greater disregard by the police than he is, but she is a formidable talent despite her unconventional manner and appearance.

“There is something deeply wrong with Amanda Pharrell.
Whatever it is, it defies logic. It’s a slippery indefinable thing that arms her with an eternal supply of social confidence, while at the same time preventing her from doing anything except horrifying, disturbing or annoying people everywhere she goes……I was only mildly surprised to see her there in the doorway, materialised out of thin air, in a gold sequined minidress and six-inch stiletto heels painted with red flames.”

gbm coverRichie Farrell’s disappearance is less of a conundrum than a downright impossibility.  There is no obvious motive, no forensic evidence, and no sign of him – or his abductor – on the plentiful CCTV footage in and around the hotel. When the solution does come, it is extremely ingenious, and owes its surprising nature to the characters in the story – and us readers – making the kinds of assumptions that the great consulting detective of 221B Baker Street was so good at avoiding.

Before Gone By Midnight concludes dramatically in a crocodile infested mangrove swamp, Candice Fox has us suffering in the fierce Cairns humidity, wiping the sweat away with one hand while swatting the predatory. ‘mozzies’ with the other. Conkaffey’s determination and decency as he tries to keep his personal life together combines with the extraordinary perceptive and observational skills of Pharrell to make an intriguing narrative. Yes, the diminutive and feisty investigator is considerable larger than life, but this is crime fiction after all, and crime fiction right out of the top drawer. A beautifully devious plot, memorable characters, a totally authentic setting and cracking dialogue. What more do you need? Gone By Midnight is published by Century/Penguin Books and will be out on 24th January.

MY CHRISTMAS POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Fox, Fraser-Sampson & Noon

GONE BY MIDNIGHT by Candice Fox

The Australian author has a popular series featuring Sydney based ‘tecs Frank Bennett and Eden Archer, and she has also joined the long list of writers who have collaborated with the prolific James Patterson. Now, however, she has written a standalone novel, set in the Queensland city of Cairns, specifically the White Caps Hotel. Parents out enjoying a meal while their child is left in the hotel room? What could possibly go wrong? Except that this child was not left alone. He had his three brothers for company, but now Richie has disappeared. Controversial PI Ted Conkaffey is asked by the police to investigate what appears to be an impossibility – one boy vanishing from under the noses of his brothers, none of who saw or heard a single thing. Gone By Midnight is published by Century and will be available from 24thJanuary 2019

 THE HOUSE ON DOWNSHIRE HILL by Guy Fraser-Sampson

This is the fifth in Fraser-Sampson’s delightful series, The Hampstead Murders, and we are reunited with the investigators from Hampstead police station, led by the urbane and unflappable Detective Superintendent Simon Collison. Although the action is very much present day, Fraser-Sampson’s love of the crime novels of a gentler age shines through as the death of a mysterious recluse and the dark secrets of his past cast a shadow over the genteel Georgian terraces and elegant vistas of London’s most exclusive ‘village’. Published by Urbane Publications, The House On Downshire Hill is out now.

SLOW MOTION GHOSTS by Jeff Noon

The latest book from the Brighton-based novelist, short story writer and crime fiction reviewer takes us back to 1981 and, like many other London coppers, DI Henry Hobbes has had his certainties shaken by the violence and mayhem of the Brixton riots. A murder, however, is as good a way as any of focusing his attention back to normal policing, but this killing is anything but routine. Is there an occult connection? Why has the killing been elaborately staged? The search for the killer impels Hobbes to answer questions about himself and London’s the world he inhabits, and it takes him to places he thought only existed in nightmares.

Also out on 24thJanuary, Slow Motion Ghosts is published by Doubleday.

PETER TEMPLE (1946 – 2018) . . . A tribute

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The distinguished Australian crime writer Peter Temple has died of cancer at the age of 71 at his home in the Victorian city of Ballarat. When some modern writers might have their output weighed rather than critically assessed, Temple wrote just nine novels and devoted much of his career to journalism – at which he excelled – and teaching others how to write. Nine novels only, but each is a gem – polished, hard, multi-faceted and brilliant. If he is known at all among casual readers of crime fiction in Britain, it may be for his four novels featuring the gritty private investigator, Jack Irish.

Irish, a former lawyer, inhabits an Australia which might surprise those who have never lived and worked in Melbourne. November through to March in the Victorian capital is pretty much the stereotype beloved of those who caricature Aussie life. It gets bloody hot, you don’t leave home without fly repellant and, across at the MCG, cricket fans, with the obligatory Eskies full of beer, are baying at the opposition players. But visit Melbourne between April and October, and you see a different city. The winter rain is usually an incessant but penetrative drizzle rather than a downpour and the wise supporter wraps up well to go and support his ‘footie’ team on a Saturday afternoon. The world of football – that strange hybrid we know as Aussie Rules – is one of the two contrapuntal themes in the Jack Irish novels, the other being the big business of horse racing. Whereas Jack Irish comes no closer to football than gloomy suburban pubs where old men rage against the dying of the light – and the current losing streak of their local team – his horse racing connections are far more potent. He has an uneasy relationship with a millionaire former jockey and the ruthless minder who looks after him, and his loyalty to the pair is sometimes repaid in cash but, on other occasions, with supportive but devastating violence.

The four Jack Irish novels are all in print, as follows:

Bad Debts (1996)
Black Tide (1999)
Dead Point (2000)
White Dog (2003)

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Never content to rest comfortably in the arms of a literary formula, Temple also wrote five other novels, each with a different protagonist, as follows:

An Iron Rose – featuring Mac Faraday (1998)
Shooting Star – featuring Frank Calder (1999)
In The Evil Day – featuring John Anselm (2002)
The Broken Shore – featuring Joe Cashin (2005)
Truth – featuring Steven Villani (2009)

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In The Evil Day is the only one of Temple’s works that has an international flavour. John Anselm is an ex-Beirut hostage who is eking out an existence working in surveillance in Hamburg, but becomes involved with a beautiful investigative journalist in London and an unscrupulous  mercenary. Messrs Faraday, Calder and Cashin, on the other hand,  ply their trade in deeply conservative country towns a couple of hours up the highway from the bright lights of Melbourne. Steven Villani, however, is back in Melbourne (which may seem more English than England, with its daily evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, and its exclusive gentleman’s clubs) but there is nothing cosy or quaint about the corruption and venality that the hard-bitten police officer must confront.

Peter Temple was a fine journalist. Part of his training would have involved being cudgeled by hard-nosed editors into saying as much as possible in the fewest words. In his novels he added the imagination of a poet and the compassionate humility of a medieval saint. We have lost a writer who employed a style that was so terse and direct that it gave him the space and time for moments of such grace and perception that they take the breath away.

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THE DRY …Between the covers

janeharperauthor2The town of Kiewarra is a dusty five hour drive from Melbourne. Five hours. Six, maybe, if you weren’t that anxious to get there. Five hours, under the same relentless sun, but it might as well be fifty, for all the similarity there is. Melbourne, with its prosperity, its glass and steel central business district, its internationally renowned restaurants and its louche air as a cosmopolitan city. Kiewarra. A pub, a couple of bottle shops and a milk bar; a run-down school, starved of funds; a farming economy choked and parched by two years without rain; families turned bitter and taciturn by the shared misery of failed crops and burgeoning overdrafts. Author Jane Harper (left) takes us right into the deep dark blue centre of this community.

It is to Kiewarra that Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns. It is his home town, but he expects no palm leaves to be strewn in his path, no hymns of rejoicing. The only hymn he hears is the obligatory and badly sung offering at the funeral of an old friend, Luke Hadler. Falk and Hadler grew up together. Hadler stayed to work the family farm, while Falk and his father left for Melbourne under a very dark cloud.

thedrySeeing the coffin of a contemporary being carried through the church is bad enough for Falk, but when it is followed by two smaller ones, one being very much smaller, that is a different thing altogether. For the other two coffins are occupied by Hadler’s wife Karen, and his young son Billy. The story has played out across the mainstream media as a suicide-killing. Luke Hadler, driven mad by debt, failure, jealousy, despair – who knows? – has shot dead his wife and son, and then turned the gun on himself, albeit leaving his thirteen month old daughter Charlotte in her cot, screaming, terrified, but very much alive.

Falk’s ambivalence about returning to his home town is because of the death of a teenage girl, decades earlier. Ellie Deacon was found drowned in the local river, heavy stones crammed into her pockets. She, Falk and Hadler were inseparable companions at junior school, but as their teenage years triggered the inevitable hormones, their relationship became more complicated. The scribbled name “Falk” on a note found among Ellie’s possessions led local people to suspect that Aaron – or his father – had been involved in the death. Aaron and Luke had given each other unshakable alibis for the day of Ellie’s death, but local gossip and suspicion had forced the Falks out of town, never to return. Until now.

In the face of considerable aggression from local people, for whom the distant tragedy might have happened only yesterday, Falk is drawn into a re-investigation of the Hadler killings. Alongside a supportive local copper, Falk uncovers inconsistencies in the various stories people have told about the fatal day, even down to the hours and minutes before the carnage at the Hadler farmhouse was uncovered. As he goes about his work, however, the truth about what really happened on the day Ellie Deacon died hangs over our heads, as readers, like a miasma, malign and reeking of corruption.

This novel is a triumph on so many levels. It is a very clever and subtle whodunnit, and unless you cheated and skipped to last few pages, I doubt you will pick up the clues as to who killed the Hadlers. It is also a poignant elegy for youth, memory and the golden past which, when examined closely, loses some of its apparent lustre. It is an acutely accurate portrait of Australian rural life and how, at the margins, people with European urban lifestyles and ambitions are at the total mercy of the elements. The physical landscape could not be more real. We shield our eyes from the relentless glare of the sun, we feel the crackle of dead and desiccated vegetation under our feet, we hear the relentless drone of the blowflies who seem to be the only flourishing life form in town.

Sometimes, novels which emerge to the echoes of a great media fanfare don’t live up to the glory and resonance of the musical accompaniment. The Dry, I am happy to say, is not one of those. It is a brilliant and haunting masterpiece.

The Dry is published by Little, Brown, and is available here.

GOOD MORNING ENGLAND … and good evening Australia

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When I lived in Australia, listening to an Ashes cricket series on the old steam radio was a matter of staying up until all hours, usually with some mates and a few beverages. The same time difference works the other way as well, obviously. I’m always delighted to receive a communication of any kind from Australian friends both old – and in this case – new.

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This package looked extremely interesting, as well as carrying some very collectable postage stamps, so the old reliable murder weapon, the paper-knife was fetched from the library ….

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To reveal ….. this delightful surprise. Janice Simpson grew up in rural Victoria on a sheep farm. Miles away from friends during weekends and holidays, she spent a lot of time imagining other worlds through the many books she found on the shelves at home and in the shire library, housed in a silent and dusty hall. Perhaps this early life is best described by a passage from her travel memoir, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.

“I feel a stab of homesickness when I see the sprawling red gums that inhabit the land of my childhood, the place where I learned how to cook, garden, harvest, preserve, look after animals, read, make things, explore, ride a bike, find solace in my own company”.

Mount Martha, for those who have never had the pleasure of visiting, is what we Poms would call a seaside town, within reasonable driving distance of Melbourne. Janice Simpson’s novel is based on a real life crime from 1953, when one of those endlessly reliable discoverers of murder victims – a dog walker – found the mutilated corpse of a dead girl. The novel switches between contemporary events and present day investigations of Nick Szabo, who is drawn into the old mystery by a series of unexplained events.

There will be a full review of Murder In Mount Martha very soon, but in the meantime you can take a look at the Amazon page for the novel.

 

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … The Dry

The Dry 2AUSTRALIAN CRIME FICTION doesn’t come my way anywhere near as much as I would like. I’m a massive fan of Peter Temple, but new books from him are as rare as hens’ teeth. For snappy, PI-style reads, there’s always Peter Corris and his Cliff Hardy novels. So, it was with great pleasure that I opened the packet from Little, Brown publishers, to find that I was holding a brand spanking new Australian crime story.

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THE DRY is the work of Melbourne journalist Jane Harper, and it tells the tale of an apparent murder-suicide involving the Hadler family in the small town of Kiewarra. Luke Hadler has committed suicide after apparently killing his wife and young son, and when city cop Aaron Falk returns to his childhood home town for the funeral, he senses that things are not as they seem. His resulting investigation turns over stones, and finds all manner of unpleasant creatures scuttling about underneath. The Dry has already been a runaway success in Australia, and is now available as a paperback and on Kindle here in the UK. It will be out in hardback in January 2017. Meanwhile, you can find out more about the book and the author from her website.

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