Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 210 pages; 2020.
To kick off Southern Cross Crime Month I thought I’d start with the type of novel you may not normally associate with Australian crime fiction.
Death Leaves the Station, by Alexander Thorpe, is billed as “cozy crime”. It’s the type of old-fashioned mystery more commonly associated with the likes of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh (more on her later in the month) and the Crime Classics recently reissued by the British Library.
Thorpe has taken that very British construct, with all its well-trodden rules and conventions, and plonked it slap bang in the middle of the Western Australian wheat belt circa 1927 and then let things play out under a hot Australian sky. It makes for an entertaining read with a distinctively Southern Cross twist — and I loved it.
A missing body
The story begins with the disappearance of a corpse on Halfwell Station, which is about 30 miles from the nearest town of Mullewa, in Western Australia’s mid-west region.
Detective Sergeant Arnold Parkes, renowned for his large moustache (which he hates but refuses to shave off because he believes to do so will cause his wife emotional harm), is called in to investigate. He describes the case as “the rummiest tale to come ringing down the telegraph wires since the Great War”. This is the nuts and bolts of what has happened:
A man is discovered on the edge of the desert, lying in a pool of his own blood, miles away from anywhere. Less than twenty-four hours later, he vanishes completely, with no apparent effort being made to either clean up or conceal the crime and nothing in the way of footprints or wheel ruts nearby. To top it off, there are no reports of anyone going missing from any of the surrounding towns or settlements and no reason whatsoever for a man of any description to be wandering around this far-flung corner of the country in the normal course of affairs, especially in the wee small hours of the morning.
The only person who saw the corpse is 18-year-old Mariana (Ana) Harris, the adopted daughter of the Sation owners, who likes to go for walks at night because she’s obsessed with the stars.
She keeps this frightening discovery to herself, but when an unexpected stranger — a mendicant monk who has no name (because he has given it up) — arrives on their doorstep en route to Mullewa, she gives him a brief tour of the property and confesses all. However, when she goes to show him where she saw the body, it is no longer there.
What ensues is a mystery of the finest order starring Ana (as the star witness) and a trio of investigators comprising the friar, the detective and an Aboriginal tracker. Their inquiries take them east to Geraldton, on the coast, and then south to Fremantle, as they try to find the missing corpse, determine his identity and work out who committed the crime.
A fun read
Death Leaves the Station is a fun read that marries an old-fashioned if somewhat quirky mystery with an adventurous road trip — by motor car and train. It’s written in formal prose — with tongue planted firmly in cheek, it has to be said — but with a liberal dose of humour. The characters are distinctive and well-drawn, and the plot, albeit reliant on maybe one too many coincidences, is well thought out and believable. The historical setting only adds to the evocative atmosphere of the mystery.
I especially liked the way that Thorpe has included indigenous Australians in the story and shown how attitudes of the time were intolerant and harmful without making this an explicit part of the text — the reader is left to come to their own conclusions, rather than be told what to think.
I’d love to see this novel develop into a series… I’d certainly read the next one!
About the author¹: Alexander Thorpe is from Fremantle, Western Australia. He has written advertising copy for pool cleaners and concrete supply companies, taught English in Joseph Stalin’s hometown, and written for news outlets, travel journals, marketing companies and educational providers. Death Leaves the Station is his first novel. (1. Source: Fremantle Press website.)
Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK and US it is available in ebook format only. You can order it direct from the Fremantle Press website.
This is my 1st book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021, a month-long celebration of crime writing by authors from Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more by visiting my Southern Cross Crime Month page.
And because the author grew up in Perth and lives in Fremantle, this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.