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by Garry Disher
Soho, June 2014
320 pages
ISBN: 1616953950

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Constable Paul Hirschhausen, known as "Hirsch," is not well-loved. Formerly a detective on the Adelaide police force, he has been returned to uniform and despatched to rural Tiverton, a one-cop posting in the Australian "wool and wheat" country. Two suspicions cling like a bad odour to Hirsch - that he is bent and that he is a rat fink, one who stayed out of jail by informing on his fellow officers. Neither is true, but even his parents look at him doubtfully, hoping for the best but not quite believing it.

Tiverton is a far cry from Adelaide - a scattering of houses, a grain dealer, a couple of churches, the primary school, the war memorial, and that's about it. "No bank, chemist, medical practice, lawyer, dentist, accountant or high school." Most of all, as Hirsch will rapidly discover, no community except for a blokey kind of solidarity based largely on beer and a tolerance for sex with underage girls.

His first serious callout in Tiverton is to the body of just such a girl, found on the side of the road, evidently the victim of a hit and run. No one seems overly curious about how she met her fate or who might have run her over. His sergeant, Kropp, is heavily sarcastic as Hirsch follows customary detective procedures at the scene of the incident. As he proceeds with the usual follow-up investigation, he finds that most of those he speaks to presume that he is one of Kropp's boys - racist, heavy-handed with the public at large, fond of harassing anyone they don't care for, subjects of a mounting tide of complaints. At the same time, Kropp's actual boys view him as a traitor and are fond of calling him names and threatening to shoot him when they are not trying to entrap him into violating the drunk driving laws..

Given the small population and the degree to which most are involved with one another to a greater or lesser degree, the field of suspects is narrow both for the death of the young woman and for the subsequent death of an older one. Hirsch can only progress slowly because of the reluctance of everyone concerned to dig more than an inch deep into the circumstances involving both. But Hirsch plods on, unwilling to sacrifice his self-respect as a policeman to gain a scrap of favour from those who loathe him.

This novel was originally published as BITTER WASH ROAD, which refers to the road up and down which Hirsch drives in his pursuit of answers. It makes a far better title than the current US choice, which could have appeared over virtually any reasonably gritty crime novel. (I can think of four off-hand and a quick search reveals nine in the past decade.) The original title captures the essence of this novel, which is more about a specific kind of isolation and alienation rooted in a unrewarding landscape than it is about solving a particular crime. In this regard, the book resembles a classic American Western film, with a tight-lipped hero, his narrow range of choices, his dogged if slightly tattered integrity. Even the female characters divide into the Western stereotypes of sweet pushover or feisty rebel. At times, Hirsch's dusty "ute" and unreliable mobile phone seem almost anachronistic.

It is, however, really a crime novel, a well-plotted one that leads to an unexpected and shocking conclusion. But what makes it stand out is the quality of Disher's prose, his evocative descriptive powers. Take, for example, a moment in which Hirsch sees Wendy Street, one of the residents along Bitter Wash Road, hanging out the laundry:

It was heart-stopping, seeing Wendy Street at a Hills Hoist set in the lawn, battling a great flower head of white sheets onto the line. They flung themselves about, enveloping, licking and taunting, flattening against her body and filling with air again. He watched her wreathe and dance, fighting, feeling blindly for the pegs and the line."

It is a striking passage, moving from mundane specificity to a startling sensuality in a matter of sentences. It tells us something we need to know about Hirsch, who is remarkably close-mouthed throughout, rarely uttering so much as a complete sentence, but who is here revealed as a man with a passionate inner core, alive to the world around him and to its possibilities.

Disher is best known in the US for his two series starring Wyatt and Inspector Hal Challis. He has published a number of standalone novels as well, though these seem not to have made much of an impact on the American market. It would be a pity if HELL TO PAY were also to languish - it really deserves a wide audience, despite its generic title. Writing of this quality does not come along every day.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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