The second in a series set in London and a debut legal thriller show some of the exciting variety of Australian crime fiction on offer.
In A Bitter Taste, Catherine Berlin, still suffering from the injuries incurred in In Her Blood (2012), has been fired from her job with the Financial Services Agency in London, and despite all her protestations she’s reduced to doing a matrimonial investigation for a local grocer in exchange for basic supplies and cheap Scotch. To make it worse, she’s also suckered into a missing persons investigation, looking for the runaway ten-year-old daughter of an old acquaintance.
Neither investigation pans out in anything like the way Berlin expects, while her own life muddles along in the predictable maelstrom of addiction and the lengths an addict goes to just to survive. The story is structured in a series of sections in which the tension rises along with the increasing temperatures of an English summer.
Crossing the courtyard, she noticed that the trees were losing their withered leaves. They were pretending it was autumn so they could endure the searing heat of summer. Lying to themselves to survive.
The trees aren’t the only ones lying to themselves in this book – the question really is who is aware of doing it.
In the heat and grime, Berlin struggles with her physical problems, her addictions, the outcomes of her investigations, and most surprisingly of all for her, a touch of unexpected emotion.
The world Berlin inhabits is relentlessly dark, and confrontational. It’s the world of junkies and their exploiters, crime and deprivation. It’s full of neglect, disregard and self-loathing, set against an ongoing power struggle – to survive or to control. It’s also a world in which a casual disregard for life, human and animal, is breathtakingly matter-of-fact. It’s not a comfortable world for Berlin and the people she comes into contact with, nor for the reader pulled into it; in fact it’s often almost a painful experience to read. Berlin is an unrepentant addict, somebody who, in this book, feels the attraction of the homeless life, and who fights desperately against the sneaking feeling of care and concern for another human being.
The plot is strong, complex and clever, where absolutely nothing is as it seems and the character of Berlin has a sort of car-crash fascination that is oddly hypnotic. While the balance between plot and character works well, Berlin remains the focus of the book and most of what readers are likely to take away with them. She’s not a particularly likeable character, but likeability is not the point. Berlin is an education. She’s an unrepentantly flawed human being. An addict with very little interest in recovery, most of her energy is devoted to ensuring that if not heroin, at least the morphine supply, prescribed as a result of her injuries, is ongoing. This makes some of the twists and turns of the plot, and relationships, no matter how fractured or dysfunctional, more startling than they might otherwise have been.
This is a very interesting series. It’s hard to say readers are going to love these books, but if you’re a fan of crime fiction that gets in under your guard and makes you sit up and think, then they are fascinating. Reading them in order is recommended: while the events in both books probably make sense on their own, Berlin is going to work much better for readers who know the whole story.
The opening of the book sets up a very realistic sense of place. You can just about see the building the practice is in:
Grove, Quietly and Garrison lay in a narrow alleyway off the main strip in Melbourne’s legal district. Nestled behind the Supreme Court, it sat in the shadow of the larger glass-fronted firms. What it lacked in the scope of its client base it made up for in its discretion and focus as a boutique law firm for criminal defence practice.
You can also see Will Harris striding around the legal district of Melbourne, the quintessential defence lawyer: besuited, walking with a sense of purpose, aways in a hurry, deep in thought. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he is still grieving the loss of his fiancée Rachel in a diving accident, Will is confronted by the senior partner with an unusual situation: a high-flying local barrister has finagled the firm into the role of instructing solicitor in the defence of a man charged with the murder of a young girl.
While distracted by the simultaneous need to defend Mischa, Rachel’s young sister, in a complicated possession case, one of Will’s biggest problems is that the murder witness, Peter Kovacs, who seems to promise the most for the defence, allegedly saw the crime happen – in a vision. This sort of evidence doesn’t get before a jury without a fight.
I’ve never been completely convinced by legal thrillers. Somehow the idea of lawyers also getting involved in the investigation, or in the crimes themselves, seems a bit of a stretch. In Blood Witness however, Hammond comes up with a clever multi-threaded plot that allows the defence lawyer to be deeply involved in the legalities of what seems like insurmountably inadmissible evidence, while he’s also actively investigating the mess that Mischa has apparently got herself into.
This approach allows Will to be partly an action hero (well, take a few punches) as well as a serious lawyer. He is also drawn strongly to Kovacs, who is dying of terminal cancer. A trial proceeds, bad people get caught out (sometimes), good people win out (sometimes), and Will finds himself in more bother when a local journalist makes some allegations about his professional conduct. Things get complicated, and fraught.
For once I found the scenario of the lawyer actively investigating a couple of threads – one legal and one criminal – reasonably believable, although it got a bit overcomplicated at points; a touch too much of the world versus Will, perhaps. There is a hefty dose of the personal while Will comes to terms, finally, with the death of Rachel, his sense of responsibility towards Mischa, his physical attraction to the young, spirited friend of Peter Kovacs, his compassion for Kovacs and his responsibility for just about everything. This journey of self-awareness is a little heavy-handed, but Blood Witness is a debut novel and frequently this sort of character set-up requires a crane and a bit of loud shouting to get sorted. The ending of the novel hints that there’s an ongoing role for Will Harris in the search for truth, justice and the Australian way – and that should be interesting to watch develop.
Annie Hauxwell A Bitter Taste Penguin 2013 PB 312pp $24.99
Alex Hammond Blood Witness Penguin 2013 PB 320pp $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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