Tag Archives: Australian crime fiction

Resurrection Bay: Emma Viskic

Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay, a novel about organised crime and police corruption, is published by Pushkin Press Vertigo, and it’s the first in a series featuring Caleb Zelic. Private Investigator Zelic and Frankie Reynolds, his alcoholic, ex-cop partner specialize in corporate security, and they are hired to investigate a string of warehouse robberies with net losses in the millions.  When the book opens, “Gaz” Senior Constable Marsden, who was moonlighting for Zelic “earning a bit of extra cash,” is brutally executed in his home.

It had been a flash of fuck-I’m-good inspiration over Friday-night beers with Gaz. A solution to a job that was way too big for them. One that Frankie had tried to talk him out of accepting. Why the hell hadn’t he listened to her?

Zelic, who is deaf, received a panicked text from Gaz right before Gaz was murdered, and Zelic is the one who finds Gaz’s brutalized body.  As Frankie and Zelic dig into the case, trying to find a connection between the robberies and Gaz’s murder, they meet a terrified witness. It soon becomes clear that they are on the scent of something big….

Resurrection bay

Zelic, Frankie and Zelic’s ex-wife team up to solve the robbery case and Gaz’s murder. It’s one of those situations where they have little choice. The police are hostile and smell a connection between the murder and Zelic’s drug-dealing brother, and so Zelic and Frankie are squeezed into continuing the investigation even though they are being warned off. Whoever is behind Gaz’s murder makes sure that Zelic and Frankie feel intimidated; they’ve made someone very nervous–someone who doesn’t like loose ends.

Zelic’s deafness, obviously, in his line of work, presents some unique challenges. Viskic shows the casual cruelty heaped upon the disabled, and how Zelic has learned to cope with nastiness, prejudice and the inference that his deafness is often equated with mental deficiency. We also see how Zelic’s deafness has spurred the development of other skills-including the realization that he’s often underestimated.

How to read people’s hands and eyes. How to know when a sideways glance meant he should run, when it meant he should throw the first punch.

Resurrection Bay is getting a lot of good press. With an emphasis on action, the book swerves into thriller territory, which isn’t my favourite crime presentation.  I’ve been impressed with Pushkin’s Vertigo line of crime reads, but contrary to popular opinion, I wasn’t wild about this novel. I guessed one of the major baddies from almost the beginning of the book, and then the whole ex-wife thing seemed a little cliched.

This is my second entry in the 2018 reading Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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Crucifixion Creek: Barry Maitland

Crucifixion Creek is the first novel in the promised Belltree Trilogy written by Barry Maitland and featuring Homicide detective, army vet, Harry Belltree. Belltree is the son of Australia’s first Aboriginal judge of the NSW Supreme Court who was killed along with his wife in a mysterious car accident three years previously. There’s just one clue that festers in Belltree’s brain–a swipe of white paint on his parent’s demolished car and a “patrol car reported seeing a white tow truck further down the highway.” Everyone tells Harry that he needs to move on, but his brother-in-law, builder Greg, suspects that the reason Harry became a homicide detective resides in the deaths of his parents.

The novel opens with a hostage situation which ends badly in Crucifixion Creek, but this is just one in a series of incidents which take place in the drab, mostly deserted neighbourhood inhabited and dominated, with just a few exceptions, by a Bikie Group known as the Crows. One of the murders drags Detective Belltree, already under a cloud in the department, under closer scrutiny “for a fitness for duty assessment,” but it’s ambitious reporter Kelly Pool who works for the Bankstown Chronicle who begins to connect the seemingly random events.

crucifixion creek

With Belltree very personally involved in one of the murders, he steps beyond orthodox police work and begins a parallel investigation of his own. This involves his wife, Jenny, blinded in the same accident that killed Belltree’s parents. Before the accident, Jenny was a researcher for a law firm, and now with a special computer, she still works part time from home. Belltree, driven by the imperative to investigate the connection between the recent killings and the murder of his parents, relies on his wife’s computer skills.

This brings me to the one beef I had with this novel. I can understand someone being a whiz at computers, but Jenny’s abilities strain credulity–some of it I could buy but some of her hacking seemed to exist to further the plot, so much so that I almost abandoned the novel. It’s to the novel’s sheer readability that I pushed on, and I’m glad I did.

Strong on atmosphere and characterization, Crucifixion Creek argues that we never really know anyone or just what they’re capable of. Belltree has a number of revelations regarding his brother-in-law, Greg March, a man who appeared to have a lucrative business and plenty of money, yet Greg, who maintained an affluent lifestyle in an architectural wonder of a magazine-worthy home, had many problems which all began and ended with money. Greg March’s accountant may or may not be bent, and here he is in a poky, smelly little office–another character who’s making ends meet and who may be open to making money on the side.

The accountant’s office is in a suburban shopping centre, above a fast food outlet. Sam Peck is a small, rotund, cheery man and he has a bag of golf clubs sitting in the corner of his office, like a promise to himself. This, together with the smell of old grease that seems to have saturated everything, does little to fill Harry with confidence.

This is a very dark, tense, fast-paced crime novel, a story of twisted power and absolute corruption with blurred lines between conflicting loyalties, justice and the law. Belltree never hesitates to cross those lines; there’s no moral quibbling as he plunges into the very personal investigation of his parents’ death. Initially his brutality is shocking, but it meshes perfectly with the rest of the novel.

While this story of shady moneylenders, crooked politicians and meth-dealing bikies ends, it’s clear there are still loose ends for Harry Belltree to pick up in book 2. I’m in.

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The Refuge: A Confession by Kenneth Mackenzie

This thought brought my mind back to the vision of night stretching ahead, as certain and as mysterious as a wet and unknown road stretching beyond the delimiting headlights of a car driven by a stranger. It led somewhere”

Kenneth Mackenzie’s novel The Refuge, set in post WWII Sydney, is narrated by middle-aged crime reporter Lloyd Fitzherbert who is working late one evening, reluctant to go home because he’s expecting a call from the police regarding a body that will be found in the harbour. While the body will be identified and thought a suicide, Fitzherbert knows the truth; as the murderer, post crime, pre-discovery of the body, he tells us he “had waited for that hour, with, as I thought, no feelings whatever.” Fitzherbert with cold calculation, has murdered a young woman he loved named Irma–a refugee from war-torn Europe who sought ‘refuge’ in Australia. Recalling the crime, he “felt again the terrible emotion of triumph mixed with and outweighed by black and utter despair.”

The RefugeThere’s no small amount of irony that Irma, a very slippery, beautiful and exotic young woman who joined both the Communist and the Nazi parties pre-WWII, making deadly enemies of both, should find a different type of final ‘refuge’ in an Australia which proves to be more deadly than the Communist agents that pursue her. This is a tale of an unhealthy bond between two people who appear to be in perfect control of their emotions, and yet when it comes to passion and love, there is something dead or missing in both Fitzherbert and Irma’s emotional make-up. He’s opted, after the tragically early death of his wife, to lead an emotionally sterile life and devote himself to his only son, Alan, who’s raised by his grandmother. Fitzherbert carefully maintains a distance from his son, but his devotion towards him includes morbid thoughts. Here he worries about 8 year-old Alan  growing up in a world at war:

how profound had become my mistrust of a world in which wars could still come into evil flower, and in which individuals could play with and brutally alter the myriad personal fates of whole nations of men and women. In such a world I thought I could find plenty of cause to be concerned for Alan; in such an insane, dangerous world, where the very soul, unawares, was vulnerable, I could impersonally imagine a father willingly and painlessly ending the life of a son before that life should fade and fray into the common background pattern of greedy passions and deliberate violence which is also the pattern of inevitable self-destruction.

Irma, part of the chaotic detritus of pre-WWII Europe floats into Fitzherbert’s sterile existence and he falls in love with her. Irma is a very young woman who’s led a life using her body for political gain and also for survival. When she meets Fitzherbert, he’s the next male stepping stone, and while common sense should tell him to tread cautiously, there’s a magnetic attraction which he cannot resist even though he’s initially repelled:

What I did feel was a sense of shock and disappointment, that so much youth and vitality and feminine beauty should have been so well-schooled in the mouthing of spiritless clichés; for I could not then and cannot now believe that the passion for their maggot-eaten homelands which these people so readily put into words is a real passion of body and mind and spirit, and not largely a guileful parade of perfected artifice. What I did believe is that they were profoundly glad Australia did exist and was there unguarded for their exploitation.

The Refuge is Fitzherbert’s confession, and that leaves the reader as the judge and jury. The tale moves backwards from the discovery of Irma’s body, back ten years before when Fitzherbert met Irma for the first time and, as her savior of the hour, became involved in her life. Neither Fitzherbert nor Irma are particularly sympathetic or attractive characters, and once involved, it’s clear that they are both out of their depth. In spite of warning signals, Fitzherbert plunges deep into this relationship with a much young woman who trades her body for favours, and Irma treads dangerous waters when she begins a relationship with Fitzherbert, a type of man she’s never known before.

In the introduction, Nicholas Rothwell addresses the novel’s flaws and asks, “Can a work of genius, a masterwork–a classic–be imperfect, flawed in its essence? Can a great book be made from unbalanced or ill-fitting parts, and can those flaws and quirks actually be the crux of its strength?” These are good questions which ultimately, each reader will ask as they read The Refuge. It is a stunning book, full of the most incredibly beautifully written sections in which Fitzherbert’s lonely, painful observations ooze through the pages. While I found myself highlighting quote after marvelous quote, I also experienced no small amount of frustration with Fitzherbert’s wordy, unfocused confession/justification of his crime. In the final judgment, however, the power of Mackenzie’s heart stopping writing overrides the novel’s flaws, and his narrator’s meandering approach towards his confession grants insight, arguably more than Fitzherbert intended.

The novel’s structure is unusual–presenting a crime committed by the narrator who then proceeds to languidly detail select parts of the ten years before the murder and the events that led up to this act. Fitzherbert is in no hurry to wind up his tale, so, for example, he’ll spend pages describing the structure of his son’s face, and pages recalling discussions he had with a workmate–although that may seem to have little to do with the tale. But Fitzherbert is telling his tale his way, and explaining, with painfully long detail at times, his emotional justification for his crime. Fitzherbert’s idiosyncratic method of telling his story allows the reader glimpses inside the mind of obsessive man whose morbid thoughts dominate his actions. Fitzherbert methodically builds his case that his actions are justified and ultimately the only option available, but the reader knows that that simply isn’t true. Of course, one intriguing question must be asked: Is Fitzherbert, always in control of the narrative, as honest with himself as he appears to be? When the book opens, he presents himself as a man who has adjusted to the brutal nature of the world, but there are some vital components missing, and this absence floats to the surface when he falls into a one-sided love affair with Irma:

No one would describe me as a nervous man. Years of police reporting give necessary control of all emotion, not merely a command of the show of it. I have seen men hanged, and the raped and mutilated bodies of young women, and children’s bodies that fire has burned, and drowned people on whom fish have been feeding; and for such sights great calmness of spirit is essential One does not even allow an inward weeping for pity, or for shame at being oneself a man. One looks, and makes notes, and forgets. Nervousness does not come into it.

Rothwell describes The Refuge as a tragedy, and if we accept it as such, then Mackenzie’s approach to what may seem like a crime novel, makes much more sense. Fitzherbert is a murderer–an Othello without Iago, and he’s murdered the woman he loves. Now, in the lonely post-mortem of his crime, he explains and dominates the back story of the rocky, fateful path that led, inevitably, to this point.

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One Boy Missing: Stephen Orr

Stephen Orr, the author of One Boy Missing also wrote The Cruel City: Is Adelaide the Murder Capital of Australia? The latter book covers the more infamous cases that occurred in Adelaide, and one of those cases is the 1966 disappearance of the three Beaumont children. And it’s one of the reported sightings of the Beaumont children I thought of when I read One Boy Missing, for the novel begins with a man witnessing a strange occurrence; he sees a small boy, dressed in pyjamas, being thrown into the boot of a car. The man, a local butcher, is so stunned by what he sees, at first he can’t compute it, wrestling various scenarios around his head until he calls the police.

one boy missingDetective Sergeant Bart Moy is the small coastal town of Guilderton’s only detective, so he’s the man who starts investigating the event. Orr depicts Guilderton as a dull, oppressive, poverty-stricken town–the sort of place you can live for forty years and still be considered an outsider. Right away Moy struggles with inconsistencies about the case–no one is reported missing; all boys in that age group are accounted for. The case begins to eat away at Moy for personal reasons. Moy has returned to Guilderton, a ruined, depressed man, after the death of his only child and his divorce. He’s there, ostensibly, to take care of his aged father George who lives in independent squalor, and since this is a small town where everyone knows each other, Moy’s neighbor persists in bringing over unappetizing casseroles in a relentless “Catholic mission” to make sure Moy eats.

Moy glimpsed his face in the wing mirror. He was getting fat, he knew; he’d lost his chin, gained a blush on his cheeks. He didn’t care anymore. He’d passed into his forties with little or no fuss: the stomach had arrived, the trainer-bra boobs along with a sort of giblet effect under his arms, but his legs were still strong, his buttocks tight, his mind sharp. Growing old didn’t bother him; the glib childhood promises of career and wealth had long since given way to gas bills and self-pollution. Now life was just movement–a slow progress through the world in the dawning realization that you were stuck with your own company for the rest of eternity.

Moy is seen as a “curiosity, a ‘boomerang,’ “–someone who managed to get out of Guilderton but who has now returned. The narrative creates an incredibly strong sense of place; this really is a miserable town with a depressive atmosphere, and at one point, Moy acknowledges the best course of action for outsiders who live in Guilderton, is to embrace one’s fate.  To him, “the message was clear: just do your time. Survive, marry a local girl and buy something decent, or piss off.”

As Moy left the town behind the road turned to gravel. The houses along Creek Street started spreading out. Dead orchards and wrecking yards; chooks, and a few sheep. These were the backblocks: fences overgrown with prickly pear, goats that hadn’t been shorn in years, whole yards full of door-less fridges and lidless washers, children that ran mostly naked through forests of salvaged fence posts.

Moy had visited a family on Creek Street a couple of months back. There was no father and the mother would tie a rope around the three-year-old boy’s leg and tether him to the front porch when she went out. A neighbor, sick of the crying, had eventually called the police. Inside the house Moy had found an old box with a rug, a bottle for the boy to piss in and a scattering of shit left by the family of rodents that helped him eat the food left for him every second night.

Moy is initially mystified by what he calls this “non-case.” No child has been reported is missing, yet from the above quote, we understand that what some families consider ‘normal,’ is far from it, so is this case a domestic abuse scenario rather than a stranger abduction? Moy begins to wonder if the butcher really saw what he thought was an abduction, but then the boy is found, silent and obviously terrified. Where did he come from? Why has no one stepped forward to claim the child?

It would be wrong to say that One Boy Missing gives the sense of the Wild West because there’s no ‘wildness’ here–but the strong impression of an isolated town with a sole detective evokes a tamer, yet more dysfunctional version of the old cowboy West.  Moy’s superior, Superintendent Graves, is just a disembodied voice on the phone. This is a town where the social and cultural gravity of the place overpowers any individual ambition. Moy lives in neglected and decaying government housing that you don’t want to fix as repairs only increase the rent. With almost no social services, and without the spectre of inspection and investigation, standards have slipped into oblivion. The Chinese restaurant is symbolic of everything that’s wrong with this town: even though people know that there’s a good chance they’ll get food poisoning if they eat there, they still, in a despairing acceptance, patronize the place. They accept the risk and plunge ahead as though food poisoning is normal and acceptable.

Guilderton had nothing resembling a health inspector. Apparently teams were sent from town to spend their days trawling the pubs and takeaways. Ineffectually, since he always got sick.

Just as Moy gets food poisoning from the local Chinese restaurant, it also strikes the town’s social worker, so with her down for the count, Moy takes the boy home. Because the boy is close in age to Moy’s dead son, the case is close to the detective’s heart, yet it’s a fine balance between questioning the boy for information and possibly damaging him further. The novel loses some of its pacing when Moy is forced to bide his time in the hopes that information leaks from the boy gradually, and the conclusion seemed a little rushed. But apart from that, this is a riveting crime novel for its incredible sense of how the environment impacts the town’s inhabitants.

He cruised the length of Gawler Street, a succession of creambrick government houses full of teachers, nurses and coppers who’d come from other places, marooned in the wheatbelt, biding their time, planting vegetable gardens to soak up weekends with absolutely nothing to do. The smart ones loaded their cars on Friday night and drove to town, returning in a semi-depressed state every Sunday night, deadening the rest of week with overwork and alcohol. But mostly it was just the hum of harvesters, conversations about reflux and milk teeth, the taste of microwave means and snowdrift CSI, no matter how big your antenna.

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Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham

“We disappeared together, Tash and me. That was a summer of hot winds and fierce storms that came and went like, well storms do. It was on a clear night at the end of August after the Bingham Summer Festival, when the funfair rides had fallen silent and the coloured lights had been turned off.”

A few years ago I read Australian author Michael Robotham’s Suspect, the first in the Joe O’Louglin series.  In this novel, the London-based clinical psychologist, just diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, is drawn into a murder investigation and lies about his past relationship with the victim. Say You’re Sorry is the sixth novel in the series (Suspect, Lost, Shatter, Bleed for Me, & The Wreckage). Since I have a weakness for books that feature psychologists, I’d been meaning to get back to this series, but somehow, 4 of them have passed me by, so here I am with number 6. I’ve missed a bit along the way. Joe has moved back to London, and he takes medication for Parkinson’s which seems to be helping. He’s separated from his wife, Julianne, and his daughter Charlie is now a rebellious teenager. Joe works 2 days a week for the NHS and the rest of the time he works on “referrals [from] the Crown Prosecution Service.” There’s the sense that Joe’s work has become a little too routine and predictable, but all of that is about to change when Joe is pulled away from his commitments to make a psychological evaluation of a murder suspect.

The plot revolves around two crimes: the disappearance three years earlier of the two 15-year-old “Bingham girls” Piper Hadley and Tash McBain, best friends from school. Good-looking and confident Tash came from a rough home life and had a bad reputation. Fully aware of her attractiveness, she played teasing games with many of the males in her circle. Piper, who came from an upper-class background, seems an unlikely friend for Tash, and when Piper’s friendship with Tash began to lead to trouble, her parents shipped her off for to a re-education centre. But intervention from Piper’s parents inevitably backfired, and the two girls disappeared without a trace one summer night. The consensus is that the girls ran off to London.

The second crime takes during a blizzard at the remote farmhouse which used to be the home of Tash’s family. Joe is heading for a long weekend in Oxford “to talk at a mental health symposium” when he’s co-opted to provide a psychological evaluation on the suspect of a bloody double homicide. Initially the crime has the hallmarks of a classic home invasion. The husband was trying to run when his assailant bashed in his skull with a blunt object. Nasty, but the wife met a worse end. She was tied down onto the bed and set on fire. The police have a suspect–Augie Shaw, a handyman employed by the victims. The handyman has a history of mental problems and he’d recently been fired over a matter of missing underwear. The police are happy with an open and shut case, but Joe can’t fit the crime to the handyman, and then again there are some very troubling clues at the crime scene that leads Joe to think that the double homicide was linked to something else that occurred at the farmhouse.

Joe makes an interesting series character, and in this novel, former Det Insp. Vincent Ruiz (from Suspect) is back and joins Joe in his hunt for the truth. Joe finds himself investigating the cold case of the missing Bingham girls, and just as a crime scene can become contaminated as people inadvertently trammel clues, the stories about the girls have become distorted with time, and Joe has to wade through the myths built up around the two missing teenagers.

Everyone had a story about us–even the people who never liked us. We were cheeky, fun loving, popular, hard-working; we were straight A students. I laughed my ass off at that one.

People put a shine on us that wasn’t there for real, making us into the angels they wanted us to be. Our mothers were decent. Our fathers were blameless. Perfect parents who didn’t deserve to be tormented because of the posters and my collection of crystals  and my photo-booth portraits of my friends.

Narrated in turn by Piper Hadley and Joe O’Loughlin, Say You’re Sorry is the perfect distraction read, and by that I mean that you can be on a train or a plane or surrounded by annoying conversationalists, but you won’t hear them; you’ll be turning the pages of this book. On the down side (and this may seem a strange comment), I didn’t want to put this book down as by doing so, I was prolonging a crime. There’s an uncomfortable complicit feeling of reading a book while a crime is in process. I had the same feeling when I watched the film, The Cell. Almost fast forwarded the DVD for that one.

While Say You’re Sorry is a crime novel with a strong psychological bent, it’s also qualifies as a thriller towards the end. I didn’t guess the perp for this one, and the book kept me guessing to the end….

Mirrors have an interesting effect in interview rooms. People struggle to lie when they can see themselves doing it. They become more self-conscious as they try to sound more convincing and truthful

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Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street by Mark McShane

Fresh from reading Australian author Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I tracked down a copy of Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. This novel sets three very different characters on a collision course that will change their lives, and it reminded me of the work of Muriel Spark for the decidedly nasty edge to its humour.

The novel begins with Tom Brady, a shabby former Londoner and a rather disreputable character who now lives in Sydney. Tom has a checkered past which includes a long-distant stint as a policeman, but it’s been downhill from there. His last job as a night watchman ended 5 months before when he was caught sleeping. Now unemployed, he hangs about in the shops and watches people as a way to pass his time. Tom was married once:

love came into the life of Tom Brady. Or at any rate, during a period of indigence wherein he was unable to make his fortnightly visit to a King’s Cross prostitute, he met a girl from Brisbane who was game for anything, even marriage. They married and lived rather drearily in small furnished flats. The children which might have held them together did not come. They drifted apart without rancour, she returning to Brisbane, living with another man and bearing three children, of the last of which she died. The whole marital episode concerned Tom less than a change in jobs.

While Tom dawdles on the streets of Sydney, he runs into Jack Partridge, an affluent man who owns a profitable motorcycle repair shop. In just one second, Tom recognises Jack as a man he saw at the scene of a brutal murder that took place in London 30 years before.

Jack Partridge, unlike Tom Brady, has aged very well. Perhaps this is partially due to clean living and a lifetime of established good habits. Perhaps it’s also due to his affluence. So while Tom and Jack would seem to be opposites in many ways, Jack also has a strange approach to matrimony. He married the boss’s daughter, Mildred–a woman he did not love–who was the practical choice at the time.

So after setting up this initial brief, wordless encounter of recognition, author Mark McShane introduces his third main character, the delightful Janet Tree, a WWII widow who owns and operates a boarding house on Dimple Hill right opposite Jack Partridge’s home. And it’s to Mrs. Tree’s house that Tom Brady moves to in order to spy on Jack Partridge….

In order to supplement her widow’s pension and the income from her boarders, Mrs Tree engages in something she calls “free shopping,” and she plans her days around shoplifting excursions and trips to a local fence to sell her “unwanted birthday presents.” Here she is scoping out the first take of the day:

Mrs Tree turned into a covered arcade of shops, a window-sided tunnel full of the clattering and echoing of the feet on its tile floor. A number of shops were fronted by tables that held special bargains, which is to say, soiled articles that refused to move unless glamourized by the bargain mystique.

By one of these table Janet Tree stopped. A little hors d’oeuvre? she mused.

At the front were evening purses priced at three dollars, the foremost a packing-bloated skin of white sequins, like a pig in tight drag. Janet looked through the store window. There were two salesgirls, neither watching, one was busy applying make-up, the other stared at herself insolently in a mirror.

Forty-two-year-old Mrs. Tree is a nervous, high-strung woman. Plagued with fears that her knickers will fall down in public, she pins them firmly “fore and aft with large safety pins.” This irrational paranoia is of course part of her sexual repression, so along with the details of her throughly secure underwear are insights into her life–a life that would appear to be the epitome of boring, sterile respectability: an immaculate home and a horror of bodily functions. But then there’s her secret life and just what is her relationship with her fence, Mr. Becker? Does the private afternoon tea behind closed shutters lead to anything else?

Perhaps by this point, you can see the connection to Muriel Spark. Mrs. Tree could have stepped out of one of Spark’s novels and found herself in Mark McShane’s Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. Of course the boarding house connection helps. So the story is set in motion through a chance encounter on the streets of Sydney, and now the rest of the story plays out through its three main characters. Part of the story takes us back into Partridge’s past and his poisonous relationship with a rapacious, cruel femme fatale.

Apart from the denouement which I found a little unrealistic, I throughly enjoyed the book, loved the set-up and the three well-drawn main characters. Opportunistic former policeman Tom Brady and seemingly respectable widow Mrs Tree align against poor Partridge, and he’s arguably just as much a victim as he was 30 years before.

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