Monday, May 05, 2008

Australian Mysteries, Part I: Garry Disher

One of the newest arrivals at Kingdom Books is a fantastic reference on Arthur Upfield and his Napoleon Bonaparte ("Bony") mysteries, and I'm working my way toward discussing all of that -- but first let me step into the field of Australian writing through a current author, Garry Disher.

Disher's books are so highly valued in the US among the few who know them, that it's been a challenge for us to get a good set of them. But as soon as we pulled together a well-stocked shelf, a collector arrived and literally cleaned out all except one title. Heartbreak! (Browse our holdings by going to our web site,, and use the Search function, which takes you directly into our ABE listings). Soho Crime has been a lifesaver in getting these into the US market.

In Australia, Disher is referred to as a "novelist" rather than as a mystery or crime fiction writer. He's been known to refer to himself, though, as wearing three hats at once, for the three genres in which he's won acclaim: young adult fiction (especially the award-winning The Bamboo Flute), literary novels, and crime fiction. But he also says that for him there's no huge division among the forms of writing -- they are all equally part of him.

Within the crime fiction area, Disher's work comes in two forms: the Wyatt series, which are thrillers, and the Hal Challis series of police procedurals. His work is strongly rooted in the northern region of South Australia (that's a province there), where his family has lived for generations.

I've just read my first of the Hal Challis series -- I chose SNAPSHOT. It turned out to be a gripping page-turner, where the emotional struggles of Challis and his police colleagues are as compelling as the plot twists. The title captures the complications raised by a set of sneaky photographs at a sex party, and the deaths that ensue. But it's also a good description for Disher's ability to seize a moment or situation in a person's life and spell out the physical and emotional intensity of it. Rarely have I read such a clear description of the complexity of modern life between and across genders in the workplace, for instance, as well as stresses among levels of authority. Here's a sample from the book:

Is McQuarrie simply waiting to be told the worst? wondered Challis, or does he know something that we don't? 'Whatever it is, we'll find it,' Challis said. You had to say things like that to your boss and a fearful public. He meant it, but he was saying it to shut McQuarrie up. Anxious to get going, he finished the conversation and returned to his office in CIU and a backlog of paperwork that owed plenty to the superintendent's cost-cutting measures. The budget destroys resources, Challis thought, the paperwork destroys time, and the jargon destroys reason.

SNAPSHOT maintained a jagged, relentless tension throughout, although I didn't feel any urge to make sure the doors and windows were locked, or to turn on more lights. Instead, I wanted, very much indeed, to know how each of the investigators would sort out the life issues that were being jacked up into pain and threat through the kind of work they did, the hours, the tragedies. Well worth reading, and I'll be fitting another Disher novel into my reading schedule as soon as possible.

Here's a list, for reference:

The Wyatt Series
Kickback 1991
Paydirt 1992
Deathdeal 1993
Crosskill 1994
Port Vila Blues 1996
The Fallout 1997

The Detective Inspector Hal Challis Series
The Dragon Man 1999
Kitty Hawk Down 2003
Snapshot 2005
Chain of Evidence 2007

Dave cautions that the Wyatt series has not been issued in the US; he's placing one Australian copy online tonight, and hopes to soon restock our shelf of the Challis series, though.

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