Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Australian Noir Gets Complicated: HELL TO PAY, Garry Disher

Garry Disher's mysteries have come in two basic flavors: crime with a dash of satisfaction in the investigation (try his Hall Challis/Ellen Destry series), and crime from the point of view of sociopaths who make it their lifestyle -- and then find themselves puzzling out some humanity around the edges (that's the Wyatt series). I'd be willing to call them bittersweet chocolate and unsweetened dark.

But with HELL TO PAY, Disher begins what looks like a new series from Soho Crime, featuring Constable Paul Hirschhausen, known to himself and others as Hirsch. The stakes are far different, and the emotions more complex, as Hirsch buckles down to his new assignment as a local constable in a stretch of barren back-country, on the Barrier Highway, under the thumb of the malevolent Sergeant Kropp, his superior officer. Everything appears bitter and painful as the book opens (especially the situation with Kropp and his associated bullies). And it gets worse, as Hirsch's own past becomes clear: He's in disgrace, assumed to have been the whistle-blower who informed on his own "boys in blue" allies in the metropolis of Adelaide, Australia.

That's the reason Hirsch is isolated, despised, tormented by the local police and by Sergeant Kropp: no loyalty to his own kind.

So when Kropp sends Hirsch to respond to a report of "shots fired," Kropp's tone is nasty from the start, even though the call is probably related to some sheep farmers taking pot shots at rabbits or something similar: "No dropkicks on my watch, and no smartarses," Kropp warns Hirsch. An air of unease out at "the scene" turns dangerous as shots fly at Hirsch himself, nearly killing him. But nothing's as it seems -- not the shooters, or their reasoning. And almost before this opening foray into back-country life has resolved, Hirsh is on call again from Kropp, for a body next to the road, possibly from a hit-and-run. When he finds the body, all his instincts and experience go on alert.
So he ran crime scene tape around the area and sat down to wait.

Late afternoon before the accident investigators arrived. Hirsch wanted to hang around, he wanted to propose his theories, but they ignored him, two men and one woman conscious of the dwindling light, the sun smearing itself across the horizon, long shadows playing visual tricks. They took their phtos measured distances, crouched and poked and grid-searched and marked up their diagrams.

"You're blocking the light," the female offices said, her tone indicating she knew exactly who Hirsch was.
His reputation means his efforts are consistently misread, but Hirsch soon has reason to probe this death of a 16-year-old girl more deeply.  Like everything else Hirsch connects with, this isn't what is seems, and his efforts to uncover the truth put him repeatedly into danger, both physical and at the level of soul and self-esteem, as word spreads of who Hirsch is and what he's done in the past.

All of that spells darkness, "Australian noir," and Disher makes us work for insights into Hirsch's character: not a man defend himself fruitlessly, or to lay his grief and fears out in public. But unlike Disher's iconic character Wyatt, Hirsch is readily touched by the pathos and stress of the communities and families around him -- their confusion and sorrow and anger harmonize with his own -- and small details in the way he treats people and the way, despite himself, he falls under the back-country spell of sere beauty win us to his side.

Disher makes a feast out of this layered complexity where personal reserve and the careful distance of career policing mean that the heart is often silenced. There's no gratuitous gore here, no horror show -- but plenty of insight into simple and more intentional evils, and into what it takes to bring goodness back into the light, among those long twisted shadows.

I'm already hungry for the next "Hirsch" book from Disher. I can even let go of the other two series for a while, to fall in with the power and potential redemption ahead in this (presumed) series.

If you're collecting Disher already, buying HELL TO PAY is an easy decision; if you're new to this author, HELL TO PAY is probably his most accessible and rewarding book yet, and a great place to start getting to know his work.

PS: Disher's author site often isn't up to date, but it's still of interest, with extra tidbits giving insight into this well-established author: http://www.garrydisher.com.

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