Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Barry Maitland is one of Australia’s most respected crime writers. He has a slew of titles to his name, but according to the press release that came with my copy of Crucifixion Creek, his latest novel represents a “triumphant change of direction” for him.
I haven’t read any of his earlier work, so I can’t say if that is true or not. But what I can say is that this is a rather dark, noirish crime thriller, one that blurs the lines between the good guys and the bad guys, and feels like something Peter Temple might have come up with if he set his novels in Sydney rather than Melbourne.
The Belltree trilogy
Crucifixion Creek was shortlisted for the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for Australian crime writing. The book is the first in a trilogy (the second, Ash Island, is already available) revolving around homicide detective Harry Belltree, a former soldier turned maverick cop, who doesn’t mind bending the rules it if suits his purposes.
He’s married to Jenny, a former researcher in a big city law firm, who was blinded in a car accident and now freelances at home, using a voice interface on her computer to carry out expert searches for clients. That same car accident resulted in the death of Harry’s parents — Danny Belltree, the first Aboriginal judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court, and his wife — when on a trip to northern NSW a couple of years earlier. Harry believes the trio were deliberately run off the road, but has never been able to prove it.
But while the accident and its aftermath haunts Harry — as does his experience in Afghanistan — that’s merely the back story to what turns out to be an adrenalin-charged novel, full of twists and turns and rather shocking revelations, which builds to a rather momentous finale typical of the genre.
Crimes that are linked
There are two central crimes in Crucifixion Creek: the double suicide of an elderly couple in a restaurant, and the brutal murder of a builder — Harry’s rich and successful brother-in-law — found dead in a street in Sydney’s suburban west. The incidents appear to be completely separate, but Harry thinks they are linked. He also thinks there may be some connection with his parents’ deaths. But because he’s in trouble with his superiors (for investigating his brother-in-law’s stabbing without revealing his family connection) he has to go “off-grid” to make enquiries.
That’s where local reporter Kelly Pool comes in to play. As Harry feeds her off-the-record information that earns her a succession of scoops for her newspaper, both put themselves in increasing danger. They also put friends and colleagues in danger too.
Throw in corrupt politicians, dodgy finance arrangements, a property development that looks less than squeaky clean, an outlaw bikie gang and links to some shady goings-on in Indonesia, and what you get is a rather frenzied, fast-paced and complex plot. But you also get a lot of shocking violence, a horrid rape, a series of gruesome murders and lots of morally dubious decisions. It’s not a story to take lightly.
A noirish police procedural
I don’t mind hard-hitting police procedurals, but this one felt a bit too noirish for me.
It’s got some punchy dialogue and there’s a lyrical style to Maitland’s writing which makes it effortless to read. But the narrative is unrelenting, with no humour to lighten the load, though some of the plot developments had me laughing inside. That’s because there are some incidents which seem too ludicrous to be true (I can’t outline them here because that will spoil the plot) and I found myself quickly having to suspend belief.
It didn’t help that I had no faith in the authenticity of Kelly Pool and her working practices, which seemed incredibly outdated and unrealistic. (I mean, what local newspapers in the current climate, and indeed in the past 10 years, has the money to properly fund investigative journalism and doesn’t kick up a fuss when one of their employees jumps ship to work for a competitor without working their notice period? Sorry, rant over.)
That said, the storyline — of high-level corruption and sexual crimes — feels genuine and could, indeed, have been lifted out of today’s news. And there’s plenty of suspense and tension to keep you turning the pages. I can’t say I will bother with the remaining two titles in the trilogy, but as a fast ride into some dubious moral territory, Crucifixion Creek presented me with plenty to think about.
This is my fifth book for #ReadingAustralia2016.
Crucifixion Creek was published in the US late last year and has just been published in the UK.