Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hell to Pay

Whiplashed by time and place I am, thank you for that, Soho International Crime Club!   From Classical Athens to the present-day Australian Outback is a big jump, but Garry Disher's latest novel doesn't fare entirely badly by comparison.  Hell to Pay is a kind of straight-up police procedural - except that the cop in question, Our Hero Paul Hirschhausen (known as Hirsch), is in the police doghouse for having testified against another cop in a corruption case so even as the local cop here in the dry and tough outback, he is persona non grata.

You would be excused for thinking that Hell to Pay is the latest installment in a series.  It sounds like the backstory of the corruption case occupied an earlier book, but in fact, this is a stand-alone.  (And to complicate matters further, this story is published as Bitter Wash Road in Australia, so you might think that was the first story.)  The point of giving us all that background on what happened before Hirsch got to the vaguely depressing town of Tiverton is to a) tell us why he is there instead of in some more exciting metropolis; b) explain why all the other cops hate him; and c) add another bleak thread to the already bleak story.

I know that there are people who really love the Australian outback, but the slice that Disher gives us is pretty grim.  "After twenty minutes, he found himself skirting around the Razorback, driving through red dirt and mallee scrub country, the road surface chopped and powdery where it wasn't reefed and rbbed with a stuone underlay.  Very little rain had fallen here last night; it was as if a switch had been flicked, marking the transition from arable land to semi-desert."  OK, so it is desert.  But wait, it gets worse.  "Leasehold land, one-hundred year leases define by sagging wire fences, sand-silted tracks and creek beds filled with water-tumbled stones like so many misshapen cricket balls.  You might find a fleck of gold in these creek beds if you were lucky, or turn your ankle if you were not.  If was land you walked away from sooner or later:  Hirsch saw a dozen stone chimneys and and eyeless cottages back in the stunted mallee, little heartaches that had struggled on a patch of red dirt and were singking back into it.   Anthills, sandy washaways, fostails hooked onto gates, a couple of rotting merino carcasses, a tray-less old Austin truck beneath a straggly gum tree, and weathered fence posts and the weart rust loops that tethered them one to the other. . . . What he didn't see, but sensed were abandoned gold diggings, mine shafts, ochre hands stenciled to rock faces.  A besetting place."  (23)

Dry, hot, mean, lifeless, boring, and devoid of opportunity, Disher's outback has only the occasional pocket of human decency or kindness.  Hirsch is trying to make do here, and as the new (and despised) cop on the beat, is sent after every small story that unfolds.  This gives him the opportunity to see where lives intersect, which is of course necessary if you are going solve crimes, or explain accidents that you think are actually crimes but the locals keep telling to butt out.  The story opens with kids taking target practice (this is gun country) and an apparent hit-and-run victim who is mourned by many but comes from a depressing background, and the story winds in and out of her sad life, and those of others in this backwater.  The local cops are nasty and probably corrupt, and everyone hates them.  The local wealthy landowners have their own brand of profound dysfunctionality, and are probably in cahoots with the aforementioned authorities.  What Disher does well is weave together several threads that seem to have nothing to do with each other - the misbehaving swells, the nowhereseville lives of the local teens, the nasty cops, and even his own corruption case and a far-away crime spree end up connected to one another.  The resolutions surprises in some respects, but does not strain credulity, in fact the whole story builds slowly to a more complex finish than I expected.

Garry Disher is a prolific writer, with "literary" novels, short stories, a collection of young adult novels and even some non-fiction - in addition to all the crime - on his list. He may be the Henning Mankel of Australia but I'm not sure how much more hot bleakness I can stand.  I'll take the Scandinavian version.

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