Fiction – paperback; Penguin Viking; 253 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the author.
Proving that it can take me years to get around to reading books sent to me for review, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight has been in my TBR for six years. I know this because tucked inside the front cover I found a note from the author (who sent the book to me in the days when I accepted books from authors) dated 19 October 2010. Oh dear.
Set in Perth, Western Australia in 1975, Line of Sight is a dark, noirish crime novel that doesn’t fit the conventions of the genre. There’s a crime at its heart — the murder of a brothel madam — but there’s no dramatic denouement, no neat conclusion. The story is not wholly focused on finding the culprit. Instead, it shines a wider light on corruption in political, business and legal circles in Perth at that time. It fleshes out the grey areas and the moral ambiguities and looks at what happens to whistleblowers who stand up for what they believe in.
The central character, Superintendent Frank Swann, who is on sick leave, believes that the people responsible for the murder of Ruby Devine are the same people leading the investigation. He’s spoken out against his fellow police colleagues before and the ways in which they profit from organised crime, and he knows he’s a marked man. Indeed, when he attends the Royal Commission into Matters Surrounding the Administration of the Law Relating to Prostitution as a witness he looks around the court room and thinks:
An assassin might already be in the room, waiting for his chance.
Swann’s not entirely squeaky clean himself. He’s not shy about dishing out his own form of justice in the shape of his fists, and he has links with a string of seedy underworld characters.
He’s also had an affair with a younger colleague that ended in dramatic circumstances — his teenage daughter ran away from home when she found out and is still missing when the Royal Commission gets under way. He is plagued by fears she may be in danger because of his outspokenness and spends much of this novel trying to track her down.
The story also focuses on the man heading the Commission, the Right Honourable Justice Partridge, who has come out of retirement in Victoria, on the other side of the country, to take on the task. But before long he begins to realise the process is a bit of a charade and has limited terms of reference. When he, himself, speaks out about this, he can’t quite believe the response, but it does confirm his suspicions about the shady goings on at the highest levels.
Everyone is on the take
Line of Sight isn’t a pleasant read. It’s hard hitting and relentlessly bleak, presenting a world where everyone’s on the take regardless of which side of the law they are on. There are all manner of crimes here — dodgy tax schemes, business scams, drug smuggling, bribery and corruption — and joining the dots between them isn’t an easy task. Indeed, the author is careful not to tell you everything — you’re treated with intelligence and left to figure it out yourself. This makes for a particularly powerful, if occasionally confusing, read.
There are lots of strong, fascinating characters — I longed for a dramatis personæ so that I could keep track of who was who — but what I most liked about the book was its historical setting. There’s never any doubt the story is firmly rooted in the 1970s through the references to cars, clothes, music, food and sport, but it’s done in a subtle, stylish way.
But perhaps the book’s real strength is the claustrophobic atmosphere it evokes. The paranoia, fear and violence practically resonate off the page with only a light dusting of humour to lighten the load. Apparently based on real events, Line of Sight is a heavy, fatalistic look at how Perth has been shaped by events of the past. I don’t know why I waited so long to read it.
The book is only available in Kindle format in the UK and Canada.
This is my 22nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016.