Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Karen Herbert, Publisher, Setting

‘The River Mouth’ by Karen Herbert

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 256 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Karen Herbert’s The River Mouth is an impressive debut crime novel set in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

An old case is re-opened

It has been 10 years since local teenager Darren Davies was murdered. He was shot dead and found floating face down in the Weymouth River. No one has ever been convicted of the crime.

But now his mother, Sandra, receives some unexpected and disturbing news: her best friend, Barbara, has been found dead in the Pilbara, in the north of the state, and forensics have discovered a match — her DNA matches the DNA found under Darren’s fingernails all those years ago. Did Barbara kill her best friend’s son, and, if so, why did she do it?

The story alternates between the present day  — following Sandra as she tries to make sense of the situation and the newly reopened police investigation (she refuses to believe her friend had anything to do with the murder of her son) — and the past when Darren and his friends hung out together in the 25 days leading up to his death. The case is clouded by a series of rapes (or attempted rapes) of teenage girls around the time that Darren was killed.

As these twin narratives unfold, the author provides a steady drip-feed of new information and clues to help shape the reader’s perception of what might have happened and who might be involved. There’s a list of potential culprits, including Darren’s trio of teenage friends and his adopted father, which is only matched by a series of well-kept secrets involving everything from teenage romance to money made in illicit ways. The small-town intrigue resonates off the page.

Great cast of characters

The story is populated by a strong cast of characters — the teenage boys are particularly well-drawn and Sandra, who is a nurse at the local hospital, is a strong, resilient lead, the kind of woman who just gets on with things and sees the best in everyone.

The sense of time and place, swinging backwards and forwards by a decade, is expertly done. There’s plenty of cultural references — to movies, music and TV shows, and even the ubiquitous visit to a video store — to provide the right level of historical “flavour”.

The River Mouth also brilliantly captures the minutiae of small-town life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do).

It’s incredibly well-plotted, so much so I failed to guess the culprit. But this is not a twist-driven novel (thankfully); its pacing is gentle as the twin storylines take their time to unfold. And the resolution, which caught me by surprise, feels believable, unlike so many other crime novels which tend to tie things up in preposterous ways.

I really look forward to seeing what Karen Herbert comes up with next!

This is my 23rd book for #AWW2021. I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters because the author grew up in Geraldton on the midwest coast of Western Australia and now lives in Perth. 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.

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‘Consolation’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 394 pages; 2020.

Consolation is the third book in Garry Disher’s “Constable Paul Hirschhausen” series of crime novels. Last week it won Best Crime Fiction at the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards.

I have previously read and reviewed the two earlier novels in the series — Bitter Wash Road and Peace — and thought both immensely rewarding crime reads. Consolation is more of the same.

Crimes in winter

In this novel, which is set in the middle of winter (about six months on from the previous book in the series), things are relatively quiet for Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen, who runs a one-man police station in Tiverton, a small town about three hours north of Adelaide. Much of his work is proactive and community-based. Twice a week he carries out long-range patrols, driving through cold and muddy conditions, to visit remote properties to check on residents.

The only thing that is causing concern is the presence of a “snowdropper” — Australian slang for someone who steals clothing from a clothesline — in town. He (or she) has a penchant for old ladies’ underwear and is causing a bit of a stir.

But that ongoing crime soon gets superseded by a string of other potentially more serious crimes, including a stock agent said to be ripping off local investors in a failed “get rich quick” property scam. The agent has pissed off two investors, a father and son team, who have decided to take the law into their own hands, with potentially devastating (and violent) consequences.

Meanwhile, a school teacher tells Hirsch that she is worried about one of her remote students whom she teaches via the internet. When Hirsch drives out to the property to carry out a welfare check, he finds the girl living in appalling conditions, tied up in a caravan, and has to take drastic action to save her.

And no sooner is Hirsch investigating that situation than he is alerted to another problem: an elderly lady in town has discovered that she’s been defrauded of thousands of dollars. But who is the culprit? Her hippy niece? Or the well-meaning neighbours who have eyes on her property?

All these myriad crimes, which have to be investigated concurrently, occur just as Hirsch’s boss, the sergeant based in the next biggest town, is forced to take sick leave. This means Hirsch is now acting sergeant, leading these investigations while looking after two younger officers only a year out of police school. Is he up to the job?

UK edition

For those that have followed this series from the start, Consolation offers some rewarding character development.

Hirsch, a whistleblower banished to Tiverton from the city in the first novel, has finally found his feet after a rocky start. He is familiar with the area now, knows all the people who live in it, and even has a steady girlfriend: Wendy Street, whom he first met in Bitter Wash Road. (The charming relationship he has with his girlfriend’s daughter is particularly edifying and is one of the nicest things about this book.)

He’s more “rural wise”, too, and knows how to handle the roads, the conditions and the remoteness of the area, constantly looking for those “two bars” on his mobile phone whenever he thinks he might be entering dangerous territory and in need of quick communication.

Realistic police procedural

I think what’s interesting about this series is that Disher isn’t solely focused on throwing in one big crime and having his protagonist solve it. In this novel, Hirsch is dealing with multiple crimes, from fraud to child neglect, and running the investigations on a shoestring, sometimes with the help of more senior police from the city, but always having to do it against the clock while managing local sensitivities.

Perhaps the only element of Consolation I wasn’t too sure about was a storyline involving Hirsch being stalked by a lonely woman who takes a shine to him, only because it didn’t always ring true.

That aside, this is another fine example of “rural noir” by Garry Disher and I hope he’s penning a new one in this series. If he is, I will be the first in the queue to buy it!

This is my 20th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store when it was published late last year.

Literary prizes, News

Ned Kelly Award winners announced

The winners of the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction and true crime writing have been announced.

Best Crime Fiction went to Consolation by Garry Disher. I am three-quarters of the way through this novel at the moment and it’s excellent, so expect a review soon.

Best Debut Crime Fiction went to The Second Son by Loraine Peck , which I read earlier in the year as part of my Southern Cross Crime Month.

Best True Crime went to Stalking Claremont: Inside the hunt for a serial killer by Bret Christian, which has been on my TBR since publication last year and which is another I hope to read soon seeing as it’s about an investigation that happened right here in Perth.

Best International Crime Fiction went to We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker.

You can find out more about the awards and what the judges said about the prize winners via the announcement on the official website.

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‘Peace’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 432 pages; 2020.

Peace is the second in Garry Disher’s trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”.  I read the first, Bitter Wash Road, late last year and considered it one of the best Australian crime novels I had ever read.

This one is just as good, but it’s (pleasingly) not more of the same. There’s a shift in focus to rural policing and the insidious ways in which city crime can seep into isolated locations, helped partly by the rise in social media. There’s also a minor narrative thread about an unrecognised massacre of the local indigenous population by a pioneer of the district, suggesting that crime has always permeated the ground upon which Hirsch now treads.

In fact, it’s the isolated rural setting (the northern part of South Australia, about three hours from Adelaide), which gives this police procedural a distinctive Australian flavour.

In this dry farmland country, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen runs a one-cop station and spends a lot of his time on the road carrying out welfare checks and following up on petty crimes such as vandalism and the theft of household items. But in this novel, set during the supposedly festive season, the crimes Hirsch has to investigate escalate from the predictable Christmas time pub brawls, drunk driving offences and traffic accidents to more serious incidents, including murder.

First, a middle-aged woman from the local “crime family”, crashes her car into the local pub. Later, a young child is locked in a hot car and almost dies.

But when the local pony breeder has several of her show ponies slaughtered in a vicious attack, attracting the attention of the national media, the entire community feels put on alert and Hirsch knows he’s not going to have a particularly peaceful Christmas. Who would brutally stab animals and leave them to die slow, painful deaths? What sort of criminal is living in the town’s midst? And will he (or she) turn their attention to humans next?

The UK edition of Peace

A slow burner, but worth the effort

Peace is a bit of a slow burner and not quite as complex as its predecessor. This novel is more about small-town life, the characters that live in it, the (small) power plays that go on between citizens and the grudges and resentments that people harbour against neighbours and acquaintances.

To get to the bottom of what’s going on, Hirsch must use his social and networking skills as much as his police skills.

It’s only when the “heavy-duty” crime occurs — a murder of a woman in an isolated farmhouse — that the book becomes a proper page-turner involving car chases, line searches and a dogged hunt for the perpetrator. The investigation, which isn’t straightforward, draws in other police, including those from Sydney, some of whom have questionable agendas of their own.

It all makes for a cracking read, one that addresses bullying, animal cruelty, domestic violence and police corruption.

As ever the characterisation is spot on whether Disher is writing about the small town crims, the local male meddler, the dedicated GP, the troubled community “outcast”, the shop girl or the neighbouring police sergeant.

I raced through it in no time, and look forward to reading the final part of the trilogy soon.

Peace was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and was a Sunday Times “crime pick of the month” in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store in November 2020.

News

2021 Ned Kelly Awards shortlists announced

Here’s some good news for fans of crime writing: the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction and true crime writing have been announced.

Established in 1995, these awards are administered by the Australian Crime Writers Association (ACWA) and are named after Australia’s infamous 19th century bushranger Ned Kelly.

The awards are split into four separate categories as follows (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):

BEST CRIME FICTION

  • Consolation by Garry Disher (Text) (on my TBR!)

  • Gathering Dark by Candice Fox (Penguin Random House)

  • A Testament of Character by Sulari Gentill (Pantera Press)

  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan)

  • The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Tell Me Lies by J.P. Pomare (Hachette) (on my TBR!)

  • When She Was Good by Michael Robotham (Hachette)

  • White Throat by Sarah Thornton (Text) (on my TBR!)

BEST DEBUT CRIME FICTION

  • The Good Mother by Rae Cairns (Bandrui Publishing)

  • The Second Son by Loraine Peck (Text)

  • The Bluffs by Kyle Perry (Penguin Random House) (abandoned this one)

  • The Night Whistler by Greg Woodland (Text)

BEST TRUE CRIME

  • The Husband Poisoner by Tanya Bretherton (Hachette)

  • Stalking Claremont: Inside the hunt for a serial killer by Bret Christian (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Public Enemies by Mark Dapin (Allen and Unwin)

  • Hazelwood by Tom Doig (Penguin Random House)

  • Witness by Louise Milligan (Hachette)

BEST INTERNATIONAL CRIME FICTION

  • The Guest List by Lucy Foley (Harper Collins)

  • The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman (Allen and Unwin)

  • Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar (Text)

  • We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker (Allen and Unwin)

  • Broken by Don Winslow (Harper Collins)

The winners will be announced at an award ceremony next month.

You can find out more about the Ned Kelly awards on the ACWA website. All previous category winners are listed on this Wikipedia page.

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‘The Night Village’ by Zoe Deleuil

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 244 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Zoe Deleuil’s debut novel, The Night Village, is billed as a thriller, but it’s more accurate to describe it as a quietly unsettling portrait of new motherhood and how we should always trust our inner-most instincts.

In this tale, Simone, an Australian living and working in London, has her plans for fun and adventure thrown into disarray when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. She moves in with her boyfriend, Paul, a relatively well-off guy who works in the City, even though she doesn’t think she loves him. But he’s the father of her unborn child and he wants to look after her and she knows her lowly wage working on a magazine won’t be enough to support a baby.

This is just back story, for when the book opens, Simone is in the hospital giving birth to her son, Thomas. The event is traumatic for her and she’d like to stay in hospital to rest and recuperate, but Paul seems oblivious to her distress and urges her to come home pretty much straight away. From thereon in Simone’s life is a fug of breastfeeding, sleeping and nappy changing.

When Paul’s cousin Rachel arrives, moving into the spare bedroom and announcing she’s here to help with the baby, Simone isn’t quite sure this is the godsend everyone is claiming it to be. There’s something about Rachel she doesn’t trust, but she can’t quite pinpoint what it is that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t help that Simone is sleep deprived, hormonal and finding it difficult to reconcile her old life with her new one.

The baby lay with his arms flung above his head in an attitude of complete abandon, his chest moving very slightly as she leaned closer and started stroking his head, right at the fontanelle where I knew there was no bone protecting the brain, only a layer of skin. I had only touched it once myself, by accident, and recoiled from the feeling of the ridged bone giving way to soft skin and nothing else between it and the baby’s brain, but she stroked it, again and again, her hands trembling slightly, and I had to bunch my hands into fists to stop myself from clobbering her.

The mood of the book is suspenseful, with a slight tinge of paranoia, and for the reader, you’re never quite sure if you can trust Simone as a narrator. Is she hiding something from us? Is she imagining things?

The evocative London setting, specifically the residential (and arts) complex known as the Barbican Estate (a place I know relatively well), adds to the mood. This housing estate on a former World War two bombsite is an example of British brutalist architecture which was dominant in the 1950s and is characterised by function over design, with rough edges, geometric shapes and lots of concrete. Visit the Barbican on a miserable London day, with its grey concrete turned black by rain, and it gives off a creepy Gothic vibe. It’s the perfect setting for a story like this one.

The Night Village is an intimate account of new motherhood thrust upon a young woman who doesn’t feel quite ready to embrace this life-changing event. And yet, when a stranger enters her domain and begins making claims on her baby, her protective instincts kick in. The tension lies in whether there really is something to worry about or whether it’s all in the mother’s head. This is a delicate balance to pull off but the author has done it exceptionally well.

I’m not really into books about motherhood, but I found this one riveting.

The Night Village will be released in Australia on 3 August. UK and US readers will be able to get the Kindle edition in August; a paperback will follow in November.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2021 and my 10th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a very early review copy of this from Fremantle Press having flagged it in this piece about upcoming Southern Cross Crime novels and have been patiently waiting to read the book closer to the August publication date.

And because the author is from Perth (but now lives in Germany), 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.

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‘The Rúin’ by Dervla McTiernan

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 380 pages; 2018.

Dervla McTiernan’s The Rúin is an excellent police procedural set in Galway, Ireland. This is the first in the DI Cormac Reilly series, which continues with The Scholar (published in 2019) and The Good Turn (2020).

Dead from a drug overdose

In this debut, it’s 1993 and rookie Garda Cormac Reilly is called out to a decrepit Georgian manor house where Hilaria Blake, a known alcoholic, lies dead in her bed from a heroin overdose. Her two children, 15-year-old Maude and 5-year-old Jack, show signs of neglect. The boy, in particular, is covered in unexplained bruises. There’s not much Reilly can do, except take the children to the hospital and let social services take over.

Fast forward 20 years and Reilly has left his high-flying career as a detective in Dublin and is about to take up a new post in Galway so that he can be with his partner, Emma, a successful academic.

But easing into a new police station isn’t straightforward. Someone is spreading nasty rumours about him and he’s not sure who to trust.

Complications arise when the Blake death and those two neglected children return to haunt him. Jack, now an adult, has been found dead in the River Corrib. The police claim it’s suicide, but Jack’s girlfriend, a promising young surgeon, begs to differ. Yes, the pair had argued over an unwanted pregnancy, but Aisling doesn’t believe that would be enough for Jack to want to deliberately drown himself.

When Maude returns to Ireland after having lived on a remote sheep station in Western Australia for most of her adult life, there is pressure on Reilly to interrogate her over the death of both her mother and her brother. There’s a hidden agenda going on and trying to unravel it is the nub of this complex but compelling novel, which is written with great sensitivity and humanity.

Dual narrative

The narrative, which switches between Aisling and Cormac’s point of view, moves things along at a clip and gives the reader a well rounded view of events, both past and present.

And while the characters in The Rúin are all flawed and deeply human, the two leads are “good eggs” who you want to cheer on. However, things do stray into caricature towards the end when the culprit is revealed and his behaviour escalates into over-the-top shenanigans.

And while I guessed the “solution” pretty early on, this is a well-plotted, deftly written police procedural about family secrets, police corruption, child abuse and how the past and present can collide in disturbing ways.

The Rúin has won numerous awards, including the 2019 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel, the 2019 Davitt Award and the 2019 Barry Award for Best Original Paperback, and been shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards, the Irish Book Awards and the Kate O’Brien Award.

Cathy at 746 Books also enjoyed this one.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2021 and my 9th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it last year. I’m not sure I’m going to succeed unless I read a LOT over the next 6 weeks.

And because the author lives in Perth (where she emigrated with her family after the Global Financial Crash), 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.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, David Whish-Wilson, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘Shore Leave’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 248 pages; 2020.

Australian crime doesn’t come much more hard-boiled than David Whish-Wilson’s Shore Leave, which is set in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1989.

The fourth in the Frank Swann series (which began with Line of Sight, the only one I’ve read), it works as a standalone. All you really need to know is that Frank was once a police superintendent but now he’s working solo as a private investigator and because he’s made a few enemies in the past, he’s always looking over his shoulder for people out to get him. He’s also grappling with a debilitating illness in which he’s unsteady on his feet, losing weight and vomiting, but trying his best to ignore it!

Murder plot

The plot focuses on the murder of two women, which might be linked to the arrival in port of the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. An African-American sailor is missing and thought to be the likely suspect.

Working together — and sometimes against — the US Navy Master-At-Arms and the local police, Frank finds himself drawn into a messy and dangerous game involving prostitution, warring bikie gangs and gun smuggling.

The third-person narrative expands beyond Frank’s point of view to also take in US Navy “cop” Steve Webb, gold miner Paul Tremain, terminally ill armed robber Tony Pascoe (on the run from Fremantle Prison), and sailor Devon Smith, a white supremacist trying to sell illicit M-16s to outlaw bikies.

These multiple narrative threads are told in alternate chapters to provide a choppy, fast-paced story detailing a dark web of corruption, greed and violence.

Gritty read

Shore Leave is a gritty read, but there’s a black sense of humour running throughout to offer some light relief, and Frank’s domesticated home life, with his beloved wife Marion and their grown-up daughters, adds a softer, more humane edge to all the violent drama.

I especially loved the historical time period and evocative setting, and had fun trying to spot the Fremantle landmarks that have become oh-so familiar to me since moving here almost two years ago!

This is a complex, cleverly plotted crime novel featuring well-drawn, memorable characters and cracking dialogue. Its dark and brooding atmosphere gives it a noirish edge, perfect if you are looking for a hard-nosed crime novel about old-fashioned investigative work before the advent of the Internet and smartphones.

About the author¹: David Whish-Wilson was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, but raised in Singapore, Victoria and Western Australia. He left Australia aged 18 to live for a decade in Europe, Africa and Asia, where he worked as a barman, actor, street seller, petty criminal, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig. David’s first novel in the Frank Swann crime series, Line of Sight (Penguin Australia), was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award in 2012. He has since written three more in the series: Zero at the BoneOld Scores and Shore Leave. The first three books in the series have also been published in Germany by Suhrkamp Verlag. David wrote the Perth book in the NewSouth Books city series, which was shortlisted for a WA Premier’s Book Award. He currently lives in Fremantle, Western Australia, with his partner and three children, where he teaches creative writing at Curtin University.   (1. Source: Fremantle Press website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia and the US in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK it is available in paperback only.

This is my 10th (and final) book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here.

It is also my 8th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local indie bookstore (in Fremantle) last year.

And because the author 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.

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‘Sheerwater’ by Leah Swann

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 308 pages; 2020.

Sheerwater by Leah Swann is one of those rare treats of a novel that marries beautiful prose with wonderfully realised characters and then combines this with a compelling, fast-paced plot and lots of thought-provoking current issues to lend it relevance.

It’s probably best described as a literary crime novel, though it also ticks boxes for suspense and psychological thriller, too.

The third-person narrative spans three tense days and culminates in a shocking, yet totally credible ending, the sort that could have been lifted from today’s news. I came away from it reeling and I have been thinking about it ever since.

An eventful drive

The story is framed around Ava, a young woman, who has quit her job and left her husband. With two young children, Max and Teddy, in tow, she makes a long drive towards the coast, where she plans to begin a new life in a little town called Sheerwater, somewhere off the Great Ocean Road.

But en route Ava witnesses something that will thwart her plans: she sees a light plane go down in a field and decides to stop and help. Imploring her boys to remain in the car with their pet dog, Winks, for company, she attends the accident scene, but when she returns to the car, having done all she could to help the injured, she discovers that her boys are gone. Only the dog remains.

The police are called and an investigation ensues. The boys’ father is number one suspect, but how did he know Ava’s whereabouts? And why is she on the run from him?

Multiple points of view

While the story is largely told from Ava’s point of view, we also get to hear from her husband, Laurence, and her son, Max, in standalone chapters written from their individual perspectives. This is a clever device because it not only lets us see what happens to the boys and gives us some background on Ava’s marriage, it also makes the reader question who is telling the truth? Which perspective is correct?

Max’s voice is particularly well done because we get to see the complexities of the scary adult world through a sensitive nine-year-old boy’s eyes. It is, by turns, warm and tender, heart rending and brave. I can’t be the only reader who didn’t want to step into the pages to give him a protective hug.

The ending, which draws together this trio of narrative threads, is unexpectedly shocking.

Sheerwater is a truly memorable read. It’s devastating but beautiful, too, and I’m hoping this debut author turns her hand to something else soon. If it is half as good as this novel, I will be clamouring to read it.

Sue at Whispering Gums has reviewed this one, too.

About the author¹: Leah Swann is the award-winning author of the short story collection Bearings, shortlisted for the Dobbie Award, and the middle-grade fantasy series Irina: The Trilogy. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines, and she works as a journalist and speech-writer. Sheerwater is her debut novel. Leah lives in Melbourne with her family.   (1. Source: Harper Collins website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia and New Zealand.

This is my 9th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 7th book for #AWW2021.  

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‘The Family Doctor’ by Debra Oswald

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I repatriated to Australia in June 2019 (after almost 21 years living in the UK), one of the first things that struck me was the number of domestic violence incidents, most of them homicides, in the news. This came to a head in February last year with the shocking and distressing case of Hannah Clarke, who was burned to death in the family car with her three young children, after her estranged husband set fire to the vehicle.

But despite the vital national conversation that ensued about the ways in which women are abused (physically and psychologically) in the home, it’s still clear that the media views such cases as individual events rather than as a systemic problem (something highlighted by this recent study published in The Conversation) — and nothing has changed to make women safer.

More recently, the treatment of women in the workplace has also come to a head, with disturbing revelations about sexual misconduct, including rape, in Parliament House (see this Wiki article for a good summary).

Our own Prime Minister seems incapable of understanding the extent of the problem. He says he is listening to Australian women, but actions speak louder the words. (He refused to meet with organisers of last week’s rally outside Parliament citing “security reasons”, which is ironic, given that it is the lack of safe spaces that was the crux of the whole Women’s March 4 Justice in the first place.) This curated letters page in the Sydney Morning Herald, addressed to the PM, highlights how deeply entrenched this issue is in Australian society.

I mention all this because it is important context for Debra Oswald’s latest novel, The Family Doctor, which puts domestic violence firmly in the centre of its compelling, page-turning plot. In fact, the book’s confronting subject matter — in which a family GP decides to take the law into her own hands — couldn’t be more timely. I ate this book up in a couple of days and came away from it having gone through ALL THE EMOTIONS from laughter and sadness through to a slow-burning righteous fury.

A crime novel with a difference

At its most basic level, The Family Doctor is a crime novel that strides two fences: on one side, it looks at a series of domestic violence cases from the victim’s point of view; and on the other it looks at what happens when a normal law-abiding citizen, infuriated by the abuse she sees on a daily basis, decides to dole out her own form of justice. But it’s also a book about female friendship, romance, the importance of family and wider societal issues, including toxic masculinity, support services, policing and the court system.

When the story opens, Paula Kaczmarek, a suburban GP, has opened her home to Stacey, an old school friend, and her two young children who are on the run from an abusive, estranged husband. One day Paula returns home to find the trio have been murdered. As someone used to helping others, she finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t protect one of her dearest friends when she needed it most. It is this sense of guilt and her slow-burning anger that propels Paula to do more to help other women she believes are being abused in the home.

Later, when patient Rochelle Ferguson brings her ill six-year-old boy into the surgery for treatment, Paula notices Rochelle’s suspicious bruises and her son’s heightened anxiety. Rochelle admits that she is scared of her husband and that he hurts her, but she can’t leave for fear that will escalate the violence and put her son in danger. So when the husband turns up at the surgery a few days later with an injured hand demanding to see a doctor, Paula ushers him into her consulting room and makes a spur-of-the-moment decision that could have career-ending repercussions.

I can’t say much more than that because I don’t wish to spoil the plot, but what follows is a heart-hammering ride that explores a host of thought-provoking ethical issues including whether it is ever justifiable to take the law into your own hands. Is it permissable, for instance, to be proactive in order to prevent a likely tragedy than simply reacting to the aftermath even if that means you have to do something illegal? Can you ever justify taking harmful action if such action will stop more people being harmed? Where do you draw the line between playing God and letting events unfold naturally?

Murder trial

Interleaved with Paula’s storyline is that of her friend, Anita, a seasoned court reporter, who has been working on a feature article about the failure of the justice system to protect women (and children) killed by men.

This issue is demonstrated very clearly in a trial she is asked to cover in which a super-confident, good looking 36-year-old man is accused of murdering his girlfriend. He is said to have pushed her off a motorway overpass into oncoming traffic when she was fleeing him, but he claims she was mentally unbalanced and had committed suicide. He pleads not guilty.

As part of her coverage of this disturbing case, Anita befriends Detective Rohan Mehta, who is part of the prosecuting team, and becomes unexpectedly romantically involved with him. This relationship serves as an important message in the book: not all men are bad; some even go out of their way to help women and try to make the world safer for everyone.

The strength of this book lies in the ways in which it highlights, from multiple viewpoints and situations, what happens when the system continually fails the people it should be helping. Oswald, who writes with insight and care, shows the patterns of behaviour, the coercion, the power and the fear that is wielded by malevolent men to control the women in their lives, and she looks at the heartbreaking impact on the victims and their families.

This is a gripping story, never showy or sentimental, but brutally honest on all accounts, whether in its depiction of male violence or the ways in which women are conditioned to care for others or become subservient. Her cast of characters are all-too real, if deeply flawed, and their reactions and behaviours entirely credible.

Powerful, heart-rending and topical, The Family Doctor is the kind of novel that stays with you long after the final page. It deserves a wide readership.

About the author¹:  Debra Oswald is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. She is a two-time winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and author of the novels Useful (2015) and The Whole Bright Year (2018). She was creator/head writer of the first five seasons of successful TV series Offspring. Her stage plays have been performed around the world and published by Currency Press. Her television credits include award-winning episodes of Police RescuePalace of DreamsThe Secret Life of UsSweet and Sour and Bananas in Pyjamas. Debra has written three Aussie Bites books for kids and six children’s novels. She has been a storyteller on stage at Story Club and will perform her one-woman show, Is There Something Wrong With That Lady?, in 2021.  (1. Source: Allen & Unwin website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire 
A literary crime novel that explores the outfall of one young woman’s murder on her family and the local community in rural Australia.

This is my 8th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 6th book for #AWW2021.