Two recent Australian crime novels – a PI mystery set in Thailand and a police procedural in Canberra – give a strong sense of place.
The Dying Beach is the third Jayne Keeney book from Angela Savage, following on closely from Behind the Night Bazaar and The Half-Child. The series is set in various parts of Thailand, a country Private Investigator Keeney, originally from Melbourne, loves and feels a strong affinity for. She speaks the language, mostly understands the sensitivities of the local people, and lives and works comfortably in both rural and urban Thailand. Not quite so comfortably ensconced is her business and personal partner Rajiv, a recent addition to Jayne’s life and the series. His language skills are not as strong, his life-experience is more limited and his sense of bravado is somewhat more muted than Jayne’s, so their developing personal relationship is always complicated by their differences.
The discovery of the body of a young Thai tour guide floating in the waters of an idyllic location is quickly dismissed as accidental by all the authorities, although Jayne isn’t so easily convinced – particularly as she and Rajiv were well aware that young Pla was a very strong swimmer. After a bit of digging it appears that privileging money over environment is as devastating for small Thai rural communities as it is elsewhere. Unfortunately, cultural conventions that restrict confrontation and questioning make the situation very difficult to negotiate. Pla’s involvement with the residents of threatened small villages seems to provide a significant motive as far as Jayne is concerned, although a likely perpetrator is not so easily identified.
What’s particularly pleasing about these books is the way that the culture of the Thai people is woven into the telling of the story. The plot elements move smoothly through fascinating location after fascinating occurrence, and readers are left feeling they are learning a little about the way the society works:
‘Try not to be crying,’ Rajiv said gently to him. ‘Thai people believe the deceased will become anxious if your tears fall on them, and they will have to swim through your tears to reach heaven.’
At every turn of the page we’re met with something different in the way people behave, the way they interact with others, and the way the place and the climate affect everything they do, although none of this is delivered as a travelogue. In The Dying Beach, not only does Savage move Jayne and Rajiv around on the plot board, she pulls in a more recent Australian arrival to use as an even starker illustration of ‘otherness’. It’s a particularly elegant way to draw out the complications of personal relationships.
Having heard Savage talk about her enthusiasm for the real places and attractions used in this book (with some slight stretching of actual geography), I was alert to see how seamlessly they were woven into the overall story. There’s a scary bull-fighting scene and close encounters with snakes that are going to have some readers carefully checking the bathroom come summer, but the scenery works, the plot’s good, the investigation is sound and the resolution … well that was a surprise, though it’s exactly what you’d expect to happen in Jayne Keeney’s Thailand. You have to love a book that makes you think, that gives you such a strong sense of a place and a society so different from the one in which you spend your days. It really is impossible to finish The Dying Beach without looking forward to returning to that world very soon.
The body of popular Environment Minister and leadership contender Susan Wright turns up on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in the company of a recently deceased cat likewise dumped in the mud. Then a particularly unpopular government head-kicker (aka ‘advisor’) is found in similar circumstances, followed by further disappearances. including the kidnapping of our central hero – Detective Darren Glass.
The story is told mostly from the point of view of Glass, though his voice is interspersed with snippets from a well-known political blogger, commentator and acerbic personality, Simon Rolfe, and a live feed from high-profile local reporter, Jean Acheson – she of the inevitable romantic interest. It’s a successful structure, as it doesn’t just mitigate Glass’s low-key, serviceable attitude, it also provides commentary and clarification of the ramifications of some of the political machinations going on around the investigation.
Glass is, however, the main focus of attention and while he’s a perfectly workable police officer, as a narrator he’s a bit on the overly stoic, even humourless side. As is often the way in police procedurals, Glass is in conflict with his superiors, likes to play the lone wolf and operates to some extent outside the norm. He seems to accept living down to this reputation, though:
This was a step too far – an interrogator’s question aimed straight at his throat, and I knew I was in shit the moment the words had left my mouth. Excuses immediately cascaded through my brain. I could say that the prime minister’s call had been unexpected and that I’d been full of adrenalin after an intense and exhausting moment. It was an acceptable excuse, if a bit predictable.
Even for a police procedural, Dead Cat Bounce does stress the procedural aspects. There is a lot of interrogation and staking out, and a lot of lone-hand playing that sometimes works, and sometimes seems to be toiling very hard to make a point about an unhappy policeman’s lot. Not quite so heavily laboured is the dead cat connection – as one of Glass’s informants explains, it’s a metaphor for situations going from bad to worse. Things do appear to be heading downhill at a rapid rate as it is revealed that a missing ‘dirt file’ is at the centre of all the intrigue, and kidnapping Glass is not the brightest move the crooks ever made.
Because this is a police investigation at the heart of a political intrigue, the question of who knows what about whom, and what power that information confers, makes for multiple threads heading, not unexpectedly, towards allegations of corruption and a rapidly approaching election date.
If there’s one thing this author seems to know about it’s Canberra and the inner minds of political animals and the infrastructure that supports them. There’s a strong sense of place and politics driving everybody in Dead Cat Bounce, much of which was not served as well as it could be by the detail of the procedural elements. And while Glass might not be the most engaging protagonist, he’s not completely without hope.
Angela Savage The Dying Beach: Jayne Keeney PI in Krabi Text Publishing 2013 PB 336pp $29.99
Peter Cotton Dead Cat Bounce Scribe Publications 2013 PB 320pp $29.95
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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