I say to my friends every year, ‘I’m going home for Christmas.’ Last year someone pulled me up on that: ‘Why do you call it home?’ And she was right, I left there when I was 17. I lived in inner Melbourne for 20 years. I’ve lived on the Mornington Peninsula for 26 years.
Perhaps home is where the heart is. In this case, the mid-north of South Australia, wheat and wool country three hours north of Adelaide and three hours south of the Flinders Ranges. I grew up on a farm there. Family members still live there. I went to school in Burra, where Breaker Morant was filmed and in fact one of my cousins played a Boer War horseman in the film. A cottage row in the town is named after my mother’s family. The region continues to exert such a pull on my imagination that I keep returning to it in fiction—mostly recently in the Hirsch (Constable Paul Hirschhausen) crime novels Bitter Wash Road and Peace.
All writing is driven by a question. Even our shopping lists: What do we need for dinner tonight? A common question driving crime fiction is: Whodunit (who committed the crime)? Because in some of my crime novels we know from the start whodunit, other questions prevail: What manner of person done it, and why, and how will he or she be caught? The question driving my Wyatt caper novels is: Will he get away with it? If there’s no question nudging us, we only get as far as writing ‘Chapter One’ at the head of the first page.
But a theme may pose a question and therefore drive a book. We don’t generally think of crime novels as having a theme. You read one at the beach and leave it behind in the holiday house, fingerprinted with sunblock.
I think crime novels can tell us more about human frailty and the world we live in than literary novels. What more profound theme than crime and punishment? But one of fiction’s enduring themes is the search for a true home—a place; the arms of a lover; peace of mind.
When I wrote the first Hirsch novel, Bitter Wash Road, I asked myself: Who is going to filter the story to the reader? An insider? Most urban-based investigators are insiders: Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus in Edinburgh, for example. We readers might find Edinburgh unfamiliar or unsettling but can rest assured that Rebus, our guide, has always lived there and possesses wide-ranging and penetrating insider knowledge.
But in a cluster of recent Australian crime novels, termed ‘outback noir’, the investigations are carried out from scratch by figures who are outsiders or newcomers to varying degrees. They lack experience and full or recent local knowledge.
My character Hirsch is a city boy, a disgraced Adelaide detective who’s been ‘busted’ down to uniform and sent to a little one-officer police station in the outback. He’s no V. I. Warshawski, familiar with every Chicago alleyway. In Chris Hammer’s Scrublands we have a big city journalist writing an investigative piece about a mass shooting in an outback town he finds baffling. In Jane Harper’s The Dry a federal policeman, returning to investigate a family annihilation in his childhood hometown, finds that he must learn the place all over again.
These investigators never feel quite at home, in other words—reinforced by the fact that their actual homes are circumscribed. Hirsch lives in three cramped rooms at the back of the police station—which is itself the front room of a little house on a rural highway—when he’s not spending all day in his other ‘home’, his police SUV. In Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore the main character resides mostly in two rooms of a house in need of repair (indeed, owing to injuries, he spends long periods in an armchair by an open fire). Home for Chris Hammer’s Scarsden in a motel room, and for Jane Harper’s Falk a room above the bar of the town pub, a space he shares with a huntsman spider. Makeshift, unloved, unlovely homes that underscore their outsider/newcomer status.
And so we have a double investigation in these novels, one tied to the other: a character trying simultaneously to decipher a crime and a place. This imparts an extra layer of energy and suspense to outback noir and helps to account for its current popularity.
Bitter Wash Road by Garry Disher. (published by Viper Books) Out now.
One dead-end posting. One dead body, a tragic accident? That’s what they want you to think... Constable Paul 'Hirsch' Hirschhausen is a whistle-blower. Formerly a promising metropolitan detective, now hated and despised, he's been exiled to a one-cop station in South Australia's wheatbelt. So when he heads up Bitter Wash Road to investigate gunfire and finds himself cut off without backup, there are two possibilities. Either he's found the fugitive killers thought to be in the area. Or his 'backup' is about to put a bullet in him. He's wrong on both counts. But Tiverton - with its stagnant economy, entrenched racism and rural isolation - has more crime than one constable can handle. And when the next call-out takes him to the body of a sixteen-year-old girl, it's clear that whether or not Hirsch finds her killer, his past may well catch up with him.