Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, a strong sense of place and local culture can add a great deal to a novel. And the nuances of setting and context can be conveyed in many ways, without overburdening the reader with detail. Let’s look at an example of how context is conveyed, and turn the spotlight on Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road.
Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has just been stationed in Tiverton, in rural South Australia. He’s there under the supervision of Sergeant Kropp, and under a dark cloud, as far as other coppers are concerned. He got a reputation as a ‘whistleblower’ as the result of an internal investigation, and was basically exiled from Adelaide because of it. So, right from the start, he knows that his boss and fellow officers will make life as difficult for him as they can. And they do. ‘Maggot’ is one of the nicest things they call him, and they do everything possible to embarrass him, threaten him and make his job harder.
Still, Hirsch has a job to do. One day, he gets a call about a grim discovery. The body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan has been discovered by the side of Bitter Wash Road. One explanation is that she was hitchhiking and was accidentally struck by a car, then rolled (or dumped) out of sight. But there are other possibilities too, and Hirsch begins to explore them.
He soon discovers that very few of the locals are interested in helping him. Most of them assume that he’s in league with the other police, and the locals have every reason not to trust him on that score. Little by little, Hirsch hears stories of police abuse of authority, particularly harsh treatment of Aboriginals, and more. So one of his challenges will be to overcome that barrier. It won’t be easy, though, considering that his fellow officers have more than earned the contempt of the people they are supposed to serve. And they are not inclined to support him.
Still, Hirsch begins to get a picture of the victim. She was, as many people put it, ‘a sweet kid.’ But she was also a little wild, and quite possibly involved with some dangerous people. Very slowly, Hirsch gets a few answers about Melia’s whereabouts in the days leading up to her death, and what might have happened to her.
Then, there’s another death. This time, the victim is Allie Latimer, whose husband Ray is a good friend of Kropp’s. She seems to have committed suicide, and that is possible. It’s certainly the line that Kropp wants Hirsch to take, and he does everything he can to ensure that Hirsch doesn’t pursue the matter. But a few pieces of evidence suggest Allie might have been killed, either accidentally or deliberately. Bit by bit, and with some help from the few friends he’s made, Hirsch puts together the pieces of the puzzle. It turns out that all of these events are woven together into a much bigger case than Hirsch imagined. It all comes down to the old saying that power corrupts.
One of the most important elements in this novel is, as I mentioned, the sense of setting and context. The story takes place in rural South Australia, and Disher depicts the area clearly. It’s a region of small towns, a warm, dry climate and long stretches between stops. Disher also uses lifestyle, dialect and local culture to give a sense of the context.
The main focus of the novel is the dusty, dry, small town of Tiverton and the surrounding towns, and we also get a solid sense of the characters who live there. Like many small communities, it’s insular, and there’s history among the residents. That certainly plays its role in what happens in the novel.
Also playing an important role in the novel is the police culture. There is a very deeply held belief that you don’t ‘do the dirty’ on a fellow officer, and several police characters add ‘no matter what’ to that. That said though, Disher does not paint all of the officers with the same proverbial paintbrush. There are several who try to do their jobs the best they can, and without spoiling the story, I can say that Hirsch doesn’t solve this case alone.
But Hirsch is the central figure in the novel, so we learn a good deal about his character. He’s a pariah among the police because he violated their ‘code of conduct.’ He’s the ‘good guy’ in the story, but he isn’t sanctimonious and he’s not perfect. In fact, more than once in the novel he does things that one might question. And we learn that he’s tired of being a whistleblower. He just wants some peace and to be able to do his job. He’s not overly sanctimonious in dealing with others, either. Although he has nothing but contempt for police who abuse their power, he isn’t particularly judgemental about other things. He’s quick-thinking, too. More than once, he finds ways to outwit people ranged against him.
In some senses, this is a noir story. There are plenty of characters who are not what they seem, and Hirsch soon learns that he can’t be sure who is trustworthy and who isn’t. And the truth behind the deaths of Melia Donovan and Allie Latimer is very sad. There are characters whose lives are wrecked as a result of what happens in the story. It’s also worth noting that the larger truths that Hirsch uncovers are unsettling – even disturbing. I can’t say more without spoiling the story, but this is not an easy book to read. Readers who prefer lighter fare will notice this.
That said though, there is a sense that life will go on, and that things can even be good again. We also see Hirsch slowly settling in to his new assignment as the story evolves, and even coming to feel a strong connection with some of the people of Tiverton. If you want to call it getting a sense of peace, that works as well as anything.
Bitter Wash Road is the story of corruption and power in a small town. It has a distinctive South Australia setting and context, and features a copper trying to do his best in a world where you have to be very pragmatic. But what’s your view? Have you read Bitter Wash Road? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 31 August/Tuesday 1 September – A Bad Day For Sorry – Sophie Littlefield
Monday 7 September/Tuesday 8 September – Berlin Game – Len Deighton
Monday 14 September/Tuesday 15 September – Drop Dead – Swati Kaushal