In The Spotlight: Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road

SpotlightHello, All,

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


Filed under Bitter Wash Road, Garry Disher

30 responses to “In The Spotlight: Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road

  1. I have enjoyed visiting and browsing through your fine blog, and I’ve added a lot of great ideas for my “must read” list. Now, though, may I be bold enough to change the subject and invite you to visit my blog? I am a retired federal government court reporter and paralegal, and I am an avid reader and reviewer of crime, detective, mystery, espionage, and historical fiction; the new edition of my blog, “Crimes in the Library,” is where you will able to find regularly posted book reviews and commentary. Here is the address: I hope you will stop by and comment often. Thanks, Harper

  2. Col

    Skimmed the spotlight because I have this on the pile. Disher’s one of my favourites!

  3. Sounds like an interesting setting, and a good strong plot. I’m on a cosy and/or historical kick at the moment, but this might be an author to look out for when my taste for something a bit darker returns. Great spotlight as always, Margot!

    • Interesting, isn’t it, FictionFan, how we go on kicks like that. I’ve done it, myself. Well, when you do feel you want to do something different, I hope you’ll like this one. And thanks for the kind words.

  4. Howard

    Thanks for this. I’ve read Disher and really liked his stuff. I just put in an interlibary loan request for this book. Now to see if I can get it…

    • I hope you can, too, Howard. I think this is a good ‘un. And I agree with you; Disher is very talented.

      • Howard

        Ha, they turned me down. Book is too new, and no libraries that have it will turn it loose for a few months.

        I’ll try again later; hopefully I will remember. In the meantime, I hope somebody is reading it.

        Some of the obscure books I’ve obtained from interlibrary loan have appeared to be virtually new, having sat on shelves for years without ever having been read.

        • I’ve seen that happen, too, Howard. I’m sorry to hear that you weren’t able to get this one. Hopefully it’ll be available at some point. It’s sometimes tough to get good Australian crime fiction in other markets, but when you can, it’s often worth it.

  5. I haven’t read anything set in Australia for ages. I’m putting this one on my list! Thanks, Margot.

  6. I’m a big fan of Garry Disher’s work — he is known in Australian crime writing circles as ‘The Master’, which speaks volumes about how his work is perceived in general. And the sense of setting in Bitter Wash Road is so well done, I use extracts for my workshops on ‘Setting and Sense of Place’. Great to see this book feature on In The Spotlight, Margot.

    • I’m not surprised he’s got that name, Angela. Disher really is very talented. Both his novels and his short stories are, I think very well done. And yes, the sense of setting in Bitter Wash Road is phenomenal. I think it’s an excellent choice to show how to create context. What I like about it is that Disher uses physical setting, but also nuances such as dialect and so on, in a way that’s not forced. Little wonder it evokes rural South Australia so well.

  7. Margot, I always find such interesting authors and new (to me) books to add to my ever growing list of TBR from your spotlights. This one sounds quite interesting.

  8. This book’s been on my Wish List for ages, in the hope it’ll be reduced to a couple of quid one day. Doesn’t look like it – it’s been ages. Guess I’ll just have to buy it anyway! Another great “In The Spotlight”, Margot!

    • Thanks, Crimeworm. I must admit, that’s one thing I’d wave a wand about if I could. Sometimes it’s very hard and very expensive to get hold of good Australian crime fiction. I splurge once in a while, and I’ll admit I’ve some lovely generous Australian friends who send me books. But it’s a costly passion! This one’s worth it, though.

  9. Kathy D.

    Thankfully, a thoughtful library buyer decided to purchase this book. It had been on my TBR list for awhile, and so I read it recently. Appreciated the sense of place and the protagonist. Sad stories all around, but very well-written book.
    Hopefully, the detective will reappear in another mystery. He is a good guy, doggedly trying to find out the truth while dealing with awful colleagues and hostile residents. A book not to miss.

    • I’m very glad you got the chance to read this one, Kathy. I agree with you. It is a really sad story, but as you say, Hirsch is a well-drawn character, and as you say, he’s a good guy. I’d like to see him back for another story, too.

  10. I really must read some Garry Disher another to add to the wish list Margot 🙂

  11. Thanks for highlighting this Margot, it sounds really interesting. I love the use of Hirsch being a whistleblower and how this makes him perceived by his colleagues. I think I might just put this on my TBR! Thank you 🙂

    • I think you’d like it, Rebecca. It does show how different police view Hirsch, and what I like about it is that it’s not one of those, ‘All cops are bad’ sort of stories. And it does show what it’s like to be a police officer in a very small town. If you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  12. This one sounds good. I think I have only read one book by Disher (the first Inspector Challis). I did not realize he had written so many stand alone books.

    • I didn’t either, Tracy, when I first started getting to know his work. But he really is a versatile writer that way. This one is a very well-written novel, I think. Certainly it’s a very authentic look at life in rural South Australia.

  13. Mel McKissock

    I loved this book too, Margot. It had a terrific sense of place, and he writes with such clean, sparse prose, well matched to the landscape. I’m lucky enough to be seeing him in conversation with Sophie Hannah on Saturday, as part of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

    • Oh, you are lucky, Mel! And I’m glad you enjoyed this novel. I agree that Disher writes with a fine sense of place. You make a well-taken point about the writing, style, too. It’s clean and sparse, without being lacking. And he has an ear for the way people really speak.

  14. I’ve not read this author to date, but this does sound good, and I like the idea of reading more Australian fiction. On the list it goes…

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