Frank Swann PI moves through the wild and sometimes dangerous world of 1970s mining-boom-town Perth, and in the law courts of Sydney, Harry Curry rests his case.
In Zero at the Bone, the second book in this series, Frank Swann has moved more sideways than on. Working as a PI, he finds himself dragged into the suicide of geologist Max Henderson, whose wife Jennifer enlists Swann’s services to find out the reasons for his death – there is no doubt about the manner of it.
The first book in the series, Line of Sight, was based on a true case, but Zero at the Bone heads straight into fictional territory, though still with a loud ring of truth about it. Swann is not just a believable character, he’s also somebody it’s possible to identify with. His methods might be a little unorthodox at times, but there’s something about his love for his wife and daughters that helps to make him sympathetic. His wife Marion plays only a small part in the action of this book, but she’s a strong character nonetheless, and you have to like the dry, caustic way she has of dealing with the inevitabilities of Swann’s excesses.
The personal is balanced nicely with the current investigation from the opening sequence, which is both shocking and moving. Why would a seemingly ordinary geologist calmly and methodically kill himself? Why would somebody search his house afterwards? And what is the meaning of his involvement with a company with some very unusual shareholders, a mining lease and the possibility of a rich vein of gold? All of this is as cloudy for the reader as it frequently is for Swann. The combination of bent cops, dodgy bookies, drugs, theft, organised crime and questionable motives gives the reader plenty in the way of plot to be solved and the idea of corruption and money at the core of everything makes the action in this book quite sobering. There’s a fair bit of action, and some hefty biffo that Swann seems to survive reasonably well for a man of his age, but it’s not all thrills and spills. There are also some lovely touches of place, a sense of a world outside the streets and boardrooms of Perth in the scrub of the mining world:
The dawn chorus of zebra finches and budgerigars in the curare chirruped in waves that lofted and fell. The track cut through a low rise and there was Wulga Rock in the distance, a hulking monolith of crimson granite near a well-treed riverbed. The view was clear to the horizon, the land shrouded in blue cold.
Throughout this novel there are echoes back to earlier events, although not enough to make it essential for readers to have read the books in sequence. Zero at the Bone delivers on a whole series of levels. There’s puzzle solving, a bit of good old-fashioned detecting, a great sense of place and time and a solid dose of common sense at the heart of much of the investigation. There’s also a resolution that plays out in a rather surprising but somehow completely apt manner. The central character is an attractive lone wolf, with a strong Australian identity, and the time frame of the late 1970s is perfectly drawn. All in all there’s a great deal to like about Zero at the Bone.
It’s not really surprising that Stuart Littlemore, well-known legal counsel, would attempt Australia’s answer to Rumpole of the Bailey in a series based on cases where the Defence (in the guise of Harry Curry) rides to victory on the back of some cunning goings-on in the trial courts of NSW. However Curry’s partner Arabella Engineer is no ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ and certainly not one to worry about the state of the chops as Harry quietly drinks his Chateau Cardboard in celebration of another stunning victory. Instead, Engineer stands firmly in her own place in court, albeit guided in strategy by Curry as his own legal career veers from minor infraction to bush-based defending from the farm.
This final instalment adds impending parenthood, the complicated partnership-versus-marriage question of the modern couple and the concomitant complications of a very traditional potential mother-in-law. All of which Curry must ‘win’ while simultaneously holding up his end in South Coast courtrooms.
While it’s reasonable that a barrister might regard a barrister as a hero, there are points at which the reader could very well wonder what the real crime is here – the actual offence or the level of puffery that can be applied to the art of defending the lesser criminal classes. But if readers are willing to stick their tongues firmly in their cheeks and go along for the ride, there is some self-deprecation buried in this book – usually in the person of instructing solicitor and long-time friend David Surrey:
‘Listen carefully, girls,’ said Surrey, ‘this may be the only time you ever hear Mr Curry talk about a case he lost.’ (He didn’t …)
In a storyline that’s fleshed out with lots of small victories and cases in which Arabella also triumphs, the central focus of this book is the case of a security guard who shot a ride-along colleague. Obviously the outcome depends on whether or not Curry can prove that the victim, now wheelchair-bound, is lying about the actual events of the night in question. While a lot of evidence-putting and cross-examining goes on, there’s nothing baffling or overly ‘legal’ for the lay reader to deal with and the resolution works out as expected, while cleverly presented.
The point of this series isn’t immediately obvious. It’s not crime fiction in the sense that a crime is committed and an investigation ensues. It’s not even legal crime fiction where the case hinges on the prosecutor or the defence counsel proving/disproving/establishing a case. While there is the personal element, it’s also not necessarily a series about the developing relationship of two people. Rather, this is a series about how the Defence always triumphs because of either the incompetence of the prosecutor or the judge, or through some clever interpretation of whatever law is involved. Perhaps because it’s not necessarily trying to be anything in particular it’s quite good fun, in a self-congratulatory, aren’t-we-clever sort of a way, as long as the tone and the style don’t get up your nose – which readers will be able to gauge from about the second paragraph. But don’t expect to find Rumpole and Hilda lurking under the covers. It might come from a similar vine, but it’s a very different fruit.
David Whish-Wilson Zero at the Bone Penguin 2013 PB 272pp $29.99
Stuart Littlemore Harry Curry, Rats and Mice HarperCollins 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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