‘Bitter Wash Road’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 336 pages; 2013.

Bitter Wash Road (published as Hell to Pay in the US) by Garry Disher is the first in a trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”. It has been described as the “gold standard for Australian noir” — and I’d have to agree. I haven’t enjoyed a distinctively Australian crime novel as good as this for a while.

Set in South Australia’s wheatbelt, three hours north of Adelaide, the hot, dry landscape is as much a character as the city policeman “Hirsch” who has been exiled to a single-officer police station.

It shares certain traits with Jane Harper’s best-selling The Dry — which arguably put Australian crime novels on the international map in recent times — but predates it by three years and is far more accomplished, evocative and complex.

Whistleblower exiled to a small town

The story goes something like this. As a whistleblower, reporting on corrupt colleagues, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen has had his promising city career cut short. Now, exiled in Tiverton, a tiny speck of a town in the wheatbelt, he deals with low-level crime.

As if adjusting to life alone in a strange town isn’t enough, his new colleagues in the nearest big town, where his boss is based, hate and despise him, and he is constantly on alert because he knows there are certain people who would rather he just disappeared.

In the opening chapter, when he’s called out to investigate gunshots on the isolated Bitter Wash Road, Hirsch realises he’s completely exposed. If anyone is going to kill him, this is the perfect place to set up an ambush. But who could it be? The very police officers who should be providing him with back up? Or the pair of fugitive killers who had last been seen in town, heading for Longreach, more than 2,000km away, in a distinctive black Chrysler?

He’s wrong on both counts, but it sets up the mood for the rest of the novel, for Hirsch is a policeman whose integrity and honesty is challenged at almost every turn, a man who fears for his life, who worries about his city-based parents who have been threatened in the past, and struggles to fit in to a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business but tend to keep themselves to themselves.

UK edition

Complex murder mystery

Once the character of Hirsch has been established, the book gets into the nitty-gritty of a complex murder investigation in which a teenage girl is found dead, lying facedown in a ditch by the side of the road, a victim of a suspected hit-and-run.

The investigation is far from straight forward and before long Hirsch realises that there are vested interests and hidden agendas at work. As an outsider in an isolated country town, getting answers out of anyone proves increasingly difficult. What are people hiding? And does it have anything to do with his role as a police whistleblower?

Bitter Wash Road, with its multiple plot lines, focuses on a disturbing murder that highlights how no police force (or station) is immune from corruption and vested interests. It also shows how the closing of ranks against an outsider can obscure the pursuit of justice — with devastating consequences.

Intelligent crime novels don’t come much better than this — and I’m looking forward to reading the rest in the series, which comprises Peace (2019) and Consolation (2020).

Bitter Wash Road was shortlisted for Best Crime Novel at the 2014 Ned Kelly Awards and won the German Crime Prize in 2016. It is widely available in all territories.

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