The Stoning by Peter Papathanasiou

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The Stoning by Peter Papathanasiou

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A gruesome and wash-your-hands-after-reading Australian thriller, that may be more successful at getting the reader to examine their prejudices than it is at getting them to examine the sparse clues.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: October 2021
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978-1529416978

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In a town sleazy enough to make sh*tholes elsewhere look glamorous in comparison, a teacher has been transported across town at night in a shopping trolley, and she's been taped to a tree and she's had rocks bowled at her as if she were the world's tallest cricket stumps. When she's discovered by the town gossip everyone, including the local cops, are quite confident the culprit has come from the immigrant detention centre the place is reluctantly home to. An arson attack on that shows the feeling – and it's only fair, is the general opinion, for the occupants are often setting their own fires in protest at their conditions. Cue the arrival of George Manolis, a higher rank from the city, to sort everything out. Because such an aggrieved, insular community is really going to welcome a Greek-heritaged city boy laying down the law...

Make no mistake, this book is not going to be welcomed by the Australian tourism industry. The place, Cobb, and all the people in it, are revolting – the heat keeping everyone lifeless, the alcohol flowing to the Aborigines doing them no favours, and attitudes against newcomers and change impossible to get with the times. The town's cop barely moves once the immigrant centre can be seen as the home of the stoner. If anybody does anything of note, anything that changes something, it's to put someone else down, through violence, destruction or sexual abuse, not to bring themselves up. The white half of the place hates the black half, and vice versa. The only thing that might unite them is hatred of the inhabitants of the detention centre.

And all that sleaze, added to which is the wildlife kindly reminding everyone that it was there first thank you very much, and the torpor and sweat and isolated helplessness of the town, really makes for a grim milieu. It's really hard to read these pages and not end up judgemental of the whole shooting match. These people, boorish, drunken, ill-mannered and idling – and that's just the police, ha ha – don't make for the best company. Now of course, all this is here on the page for a reason – it's a book that wants the spotlight shone as it is here on such a situation – although under the Australian sun we see here, no spotlight is really going to make a damned bit of difference. And anyway, this is definitely a crime book, so we ought to look less to the use of the setting and more to the genre stylings.

And it's not looking hugely great here, either. You get Manolis' frustration at a town full of potential suspects, yet with so little to go on. You get he wants everyone to stop with the antagonism, racism and drinking yesterday, so he can have an easy path to the case's solution. But just as the sun makes everything else a languorous loll in whatever shade there is, the book lolls as well, drifting through the procedural that forms its heart with less vigour than was needed. Whether the fillups are good – finding a first clue after acres of page – or bad – the grapevine carrying word of retribution – they come few and far between, and often pass with zero consequence.

Still, what it all provides is a twisting story – a story that twists our thoughts to our own prejudices. I haven't been to Australia and so don't know the truth of the anti-Aborigine/Aborigines' anti-white feelings, but this isn't the first book to allege they're there. But things are at play here – the story takes great effort to show us how all the detained visa-seekers have each done a lot more to improve their lot than the whole town their camp overlooks. So which of the three sides we would be fingering for the crime is sure to vary from reader to reader – although to my mind the baddies were not exactly surprising in the big reveal.

Ultimately, this has a lot that will turn readers off – vivid conversations with racism in every word, C-bombs going off left, right and centre, and a bleakest of bleak looks at a place with no seeming redemption. Your average beach read it ain't – but I was still grateful for the chance to read it. Knowing before I started that it was intended to launch a series concerning Manolis, I did wonder what similar, emotion-causing issues the follow-ups would cover. They'd have to have that opinion-dividing theme somewhere, otherwise they'd look gutless in comparison with this first book. And gutless is the last thing this read is...

I was pretty much inspired to come here because of Emma Viskic and the effect her trilogy of thrillers managed. I have to recommend taking The Low Road by Chris Womersley, too.

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