Bitterwash Road by Gary Disher

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Bitterwash Road by Gary Disher

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: As a respite from esoteric European crime take a trip down under to the outback of Australia. Disher is hailed as one of the country's foremost crime writers but pretty much an unknown name over here. We don't know what we're missing. With echoes of the best American 'badlands' writers, Disher supplies the truly claustrophobic criminality that can only exist in small towns surrounded by emptiness. A hit and run, followed by an apparent suicide, are Hirsch's welcome to his new posting - along with the fact that everyone on the local force already knows who he is - and hates him for it. Great stuff.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 325 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Text Publishing
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781922079244

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Shots fired on Bitter Wash Road, is the call that comes in, three weeks after he arrived. Hirsch is the only cop in town, so obviously it's up to him to try to figure out exactly where the tin hut might be and discover whether this is just a local looking for rabbit stew or something more sinister.

Hirsch, as he likes to be called, Paul Hirschhausen to his mother, but more likely to be called cuntstable by those officers at the nearest back-up post in Redruth, has absolutely no idea what he's getting into.

He's now the humble possessor of a one-man (sorry, single-officer – though to be fair that officer will never be a woman) station in Tiverton, a no-horse-one-street town, in South Australia. Wheat and wool country, three hours north of Adelaide. Neither wheat nor wool are doing too well at the moment, what with the drought and everything.

Hirsch is there on what might be thought of as punishment duty. It's the kind of posting no-one volunteers for. Hirsch has narrowly escaped being sent down with the rest of his metropolitan crew, a corrupt bunch who are not yet finished trying to incriminate him as they try to beat their own raps. So that's one section of the force that hates him.

The rest just hate him for disloyalty. Dog, and maggot, are the least of the names he gets called. And his reputation has followed him to the back of the beyond.

So when he's called out to Bitter Wash Road, finds the road blocked by a fallen tree and is nearly taken out by a ricochet as he exits the vehicle to clear the road... his instinct to call back-up immediately shunts into a not totally paranoiac thought that it might well be his back-up out there with the gun.

Turns out he's wrong about that.

But within a few weeks he has a hit-and-run and an apparent suicide to contend with, and despite recent events, is trusting his gut that they aren't as simple as that.

Of course they're related. In this kind of back country everything is related. Gossip travels faster than any official reports – and might prove to be a whole lot more reliable.

There's the usual cast of rural characters that you'd expect to find in the backwoods of any country on earth. The men are traditional men i.e. the unreconstructed variety who have very narrow views of the place of womanhood in the grand scheme of things. The women have a few different ideas, and generally go about paying the price for thinking.

The cops keep order, of a kind, harshly and not necessarily with the consent of the local community. But who can you complain to when everyone is connected? A newcomer in town, might be a start – especially one trailing the stink of being a whistle-blower – but folk tend to trust the devil they know. Nothing will be said. Though everything might be hinted at.

Disher does an excellent job of combining the claustrophobia of a tiny community, where everyone is keeping secrets, and the only question is who is in on which ones, with the wide open space of the country itself. Both are rendered utterly bleak under his pen.

Dirt roads and the distance between towns are leaked into the narrative, with no need for description. The hold that alcohol and drugs might have on a youth with nothing else to reach for lurks in the bleached backdrop of a community that might once have put on plays in the Mechanics Hall that is now reserved for the more sombre duty of a coroner's court.

The often unremarked racism of Australia is brutally portrayed.

There are some truly evil people at the core of this tale, but they're surrounded by a large number of others who do bad things for reasons which if not condone-able are understandable. Life is hard here. And sad. And there is little hope to be had for anyone.

None of that excuses things, but it does on occasion buy a little leeway in the application of the letter of the law. And when it doesn't, when the law is applied with all the stricture at the disposal of the unforgiving, hard-nosed Sergeant Kropp, well, just maybe he has his own hidden reasons too.

After the onslaught of Nordic noir, it might just be time to prepare ourselves for the outback backlash. If Gary Disher is a reference sample of the talent they've been hiding down-under, it's time we took a longer look at what they have to offer. More of the same please.

Meanwhile, I'll just have to go seek out the back-catalogue.

For more Ozzie misdoings you could do worse than check out Gunshot Road (Emily Tempest) by Adrian Hyland

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