Thursday, April 23, 2015

Australian Crime Fiction: Cato Kwong Series, Alan Carter

There are two significant anchors for Australian crime fiction, and they couldn't be more different: At one pole are the "Bony" investigations by Arthur Upfield, published from 1928 to 1963, taking the "puzzle mystery" into serious terrain with half-caste Aborigine Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. If you pride yourself on knowing your Agatha Christie and think you'd enjoy a more  gritty terrain of both landscape and character conflict, look for one of the Upfield paperbacks that still rattle around. (Caution: They're engrossing. You may want them all.)

At the other pole, much more darkly, are two series from today's grand master of Australian mystery, Garry Disher. His Wyatt books work from inspiration in the Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) character of Parker and endow Wyatt himself with more bitterness, fewer emotions, and a single vulnerability -- and a career as a jewel thief, loner, and sociopath. In extreme contract, Disher's other series, featuring Hugh Challis and Ellen Destry, fingers the social fabric of Australia's Mornington Peninsula, southeast of Melbourne, through the emotional tension of being police investigators who fall into a complex love affair that becomes serious and committed -- and a challenge for two workaholics.

Now add a third significant author to the Australia crime fiction shelf: Alan Carter.

Born in 1959 in the United Kingdom, Carter emigrated to Australia in 1991 and worked as a TV documentary director. With 2011 publication of his first crime novel, GETTING WARMER, Carter shot onto the award lists, and his second in the Cato Kwong series is PRIME CUT. Both were released in the United States in 2014; the third book is due this year (Bad Seed) but seems to have hung up in the publication process, as it's now past due.

And what a series. Detective Senior Constable Philip Kwong -- nicknamed Cato, a dig at his Chinese heritage (after the Chinese character in The Pink Panther) -- has sunk so low in the opinion of the police administration that his assignment at the opening of PRIME CUT is to the Stock Squad: the team that investigates dead cows among the ranches. It's dull and demanding at the same time, and it's utterly humiliating. So when Cato has a chance to fill in on a real investigation, he's quickly engaged in the only part of a mining-town crisis that nobody else seems to care about: the discovery on the shore of a headless, armless, legless human torso that nonetheless suggests Asian origin.

Even though he's clearly destined to be shipped back to his tedious assignments, Cato clings to the case day by day, and finds motive, means, and opportunity among the hardscrabble workers and bosses at the booming and brutal mining operation. When he starts to pry into the Chinese workers and their situation, he sets off a cascade of further brutality.

Cato's a complex investigator, hungry for his work and career but caught up in both the social stratification that pushes Asians downward, and his own mistakes in rushing both evidence and accusations. Half the pleasure of reading PRIME CUT is seeing him fall, rise, fall, and possibly move forward.

So it's a delight to have the second book in the series already on hand. GETTING WARMER takes Cato Kwong back to an urban policing slot, where he has a chance of resuming parenthood with his young son. This time, though, he's too ready to jump into a case, risking his own child's safety as well as his own. Politics in the police squad turn as dangerous as the urban criminals. And the endless summer heat and fire danger add to the tension. Soon he's assigned to work with his superior and a very unpleasant prisoner, Gordon Wellard, trying to find out where a young kidnapped girl's being held -- or been buried. It's confusing, even afterward:
The heat bounced off the prison car park. The sky was painfully blue. Cato zapped the locks of the Commodore and they drove off with the air con up to full. The fires were on again: two columns of smoke over the southern hills of the Darling Scarp out Karagullen way, and one close by in bushland near Success. Whoever chose that name for a suburb needed to be strung from a lamppost. ...
"Wellard seems to think he's in charge."


"You and him go back a long way. Aren't you meant to be the one in charge?"

"You saying I'm not?"

"Again, you tell me."
Cato's suspicion of his fellow officer turns out to be well founded. But it's all more complicated than that, and soon the summer fires will make it worse.

These books slide along the line of gritty and grim, but with plenty of emotion -- Cato may sometimes wish he doesn't feel pain or loss, but the truth is, he's involved as both an investigator and a dad. His struggles against department politics and pervasive racism add to the tension and interest, and author Alan Carter spins a taut, engaging plot that's so closely bound to the landscape, you can almost feel the grit in your teeth in some of the chapters.

No extraordinary gruesomeness, but a steady surge of urban violence here -- and a very masculine world of crime-fighting and challenge. I enjoyed both books (although I needed to get outside and walk afterward, to reassure myself that I live in an easier, calmer place). It's good to know the third one, Bad Seed, is on its way from Down Under to the American market sometime this year.

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