Book reviewer ANNA CREER finds herself drawn to murder and crime on the South Australian coast…
WHEN Jane Harper’s “The Dry” was published in 2016, a new sub-genre of crime fiction, Australian Rural Noir, was born.
Many authors have since followed Harper’s formula of crime in a small country town, some more successfully than others.
Award-winning author Margaret Hickey has lived most of her life in small rural towns and her PhD focused on depictions of landscape in Australian literature. Both experiences have informed her writing. “Cutter’s End” (2021) explores the dangers of Australian deserts, while “Stone Town” (2022) highlights the secrets that can be hidden in the Australian bush.
“Broken Bay”, her third novel featuring her Greek-Australian Detective Sergeant Mark Ariti, is set on the Limestone Coast of SA, a region known for its treacherous underwater worlds of sinkholes and caves, where Ariti is on holiday.
Broken Bay, four hours from Adelaide is “a small town, though full of ugly buildings and squat houses. Perhaps it was on the verge of discovery by sea-changers, but the wave of city cash seemed a while off yet.”
The town is buzzing with the news that Australia’s leading cave diver, Mya Rennick, has died while exploring a newly discovered sinkhole on the land of wealthy farmer, Frank Doyle.
However, when the rescue team brings her body to the surface they discover it’s not Mya but Eloise Sinclair, who had disappeared 20 years earlier.
As there isn’t a full-time police presence in Broken Bay, Ariti’s boss orders him to stay and assist the police investigation.
Ariti discovers the long-running rivalry between the Doyles and the Sinclairs. The Sinclairs had been wealthy from lobster fishing while the Doyles were poor dairy farmers. But the fishing failed and land prices rose at the same time. Murray Sinclair had to sell off his fleet of boats and his house in town. When his French wife Juliette committed suicide, Murray turned to drink and died of a heart attack, leaving four children. Eloise was the youngest.
The Sinclairs tell the police that although the family enjoyed both cave and sea diving, Eloise couldn’t dive. They had been too protective to allow her to be exposed to the danger. They therefore cannot explain how she has died in a sinkhole in full diving gear.
The truth is as shocking as it is unexpected.
In “Broken Bay”, Hickey creates a town full of distinctive characters, from the irascible motel owner to the elderly owner of the town takeaway and Chomp, a fisherman who lost his arm to a shark. Her detective understands the role of gossip in small communities and talking to the locals helps him uncover the past history of the Sinclairs and the Doyles.
The end result is a cleverly crafted story of love, infidelity, obsession and the breathtaking beauty of the underground world of the Limestone Coast that most of us will never see.
REBECCA Heath also sets her debut crime novel “The Summer Party” on the coast of SA.
Lucy Ross has returned to the beachside town of Queen’s Point. Her grandmother has died and her house needs clearing, Lucy has been reluctant to return, but a newspaper article about human remains discovered on the nearby beach is “the prod she needed to finally make the two-hour trek” from Adelaide.
Suppressed memories of the summer of 2000, that she’d spent here with her grandmother, “jostle for prominence”, the year she’d met the wealthy Whitlams, whose house on the hill still dominates the town.
The town has changed. “Trendy cafes have replaced empty shops. Chic gift shops and slick surf shops sit where once there was only a second-hand clothing store… And on the corner, across from the pub that’s been renovated into a gorgeous hotel, sits the glass-fronted, elegantly lit Whitlam Homewares.”
Lucy remembers her naïve 15 year-old self, seduced by the glamorous lifestyle and the charisma of the teenage Whitlam siblings, culminating in the annual summer party held at their house.
Lucy brings her own troubles with her. Her husband has recently died and her successful career in finance is on hold, after an outburst at a client. Vulnerable and lonely, Lucy once more becomes emotionally entangled with the Whitlams.
Inevitably, buried secrets are uncovered, as the body buried on the beach is identified and Lucy has to confront distressing truths about the past.
Heath’s debut shows real promise but the Whitlams? Depending on your age, it either conjures images of Gough and Margaret or the Band or the Canberra suburb.
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Ian Meikle, editor