Well, 2018 is clearly “the year of the Mallee” here at Whispering Gums, with Sue Williams’ Rusty Bore Mystery, Live and let fry, being my third Mallee-set book so far this year. The others are Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (my review) and Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys (my review). By the time I visit the Mallee – next year I hope – I should know it well, though I might stay away from Rusty Bore. Fortunately, that won’t be hard as Rusty Bore is fictional. I say fortunately, because who wants to visit a place known for murders? It would be like choosing to visit Midsomer!
Seriously though, on with the book, starting with the fact that it’s the third in the Rusty Bore Mystery series. I haven’t read the first two, but I’d say this one stands alone well. There’s enough recap for the new reader to quickly pick up the main characters and their relationship with the protagonist, Cass Tuplin, who’s an unlicensed private investigator as well as the owner-operator of the Rusty Bore Takeaway. I’m not a big reader of crime fiction, but I do watch a bit on TV, and I can say that Cass fits the mould of many TV detectives – private or not, licensed or not – in that she has a messy personal life. She’s clearly had a fling with Vern, the owner of the town’s only other shop, but is now with Leo, who’s doing good works in Bolivia but is staying away significantly longer than he’d told her he would. Cass also has two sons – Dean, a not-very-successful policeman in Mildura (a real place), and the-not-very-sensible Brad who’s waiting his court case for “disseminating false information to the market.” There’s affection between mother and sons, but it’s not without tensions – either because Dean is fussing over his mother’s safety, not to mention her unlicensed detecting, or because Cass is too focused on this detecting to listen to Brad well enough to hear what’s happening in his life.
None of this need be taken too seriously, though. As the back cover blurb says, Williams is “Australia’s answer to New Jersey’s Janet Evanovich.” I haven’t, I admit, read Evanovich – shock! horror! – but Daughter Gums has, so I know enough to realise that her crime novels are bright, breezy affairs. And so, certainly, is Live and let fry.
Now, what to say? This is rural crime, and it starts with the disappearance of the aforesaid Vern’s new lady friend, Joanne, from the neighbouring town of Sheep Dip. (There’s nothing subtle in the town names here – Rusty Bore, Sheep Dip, Muddy Soak, Hustle.) Cass, like any self-respecting unlicensed private detective, is reluctant to become involved but, of course, you know she will – and she does. Pretty soon, a murder occurs – not Joanne’s though – and the plot rapidly thickens as we move into the murky world of developers and environmental protection. This has our intrepid Cass driving backwards and forwards across the Mallee in her “little Corolla”, getting into more and more serious scrapes, worrying her sons, irritating the police, and not always making the right calls – as you’d expect.
All this gives Williams the opportunity to provide us with a picture of the Mallee and its inhabitants, which she does in language somewhat different from that we’ve seen in those other Mallee books I’ve read. Here is the Mallee, for example:
As I got closer to Mildura the eucalypt-and-orange desolation gave way to irrigation green, the dark green of orange groves, the brighter, flamboyant green of grapevines, the camouflage khaki of olive trees. I drink it in – green’s not a colour we get that much of in Rusty Bore.
And here is one of its inhabitants:
Nola’s eighty-two and usually quite mentally robust, with opinions carefully cryo-preserved since 1953.
The writing is peppered with gentle, affectionate mocking like this, along with broad satire of various contemporary issues and preoccupations, such as “coffee condescension” from city-siders, and Cass’s own “artisanal” food. We’re also told that
Leo’s import-export business in Muddy Soak folded after the African knick-knack trade fell victim to the decluttering trend.
And there are digs at politics and politicians, such as:
I stood at the desk and waited. A TV flickering behind Taylah showed a surging crowd of middle-aged people in suits. Mostly men, looked like politicians. Another leadership spill? A new Royal Commission? There’d been a lot of debate lately about whether air exists. “If you can’t see it, can’t smell it, it can’t be there.” The slogan of one of the newer political parties.
It’s not subtle, but then Williams’ goal is less social or political commentary than maintaining a light breezy tone and conveying character.
Now, though, back to Cass. Does she get her man (or, not to be sexist, woman)? Well, this is what I’d call “cheery crime”, so yes, one way or another, she does. In other words, without spoiling anything, it all comes out right(ish) in the end and Cass lives to fight (or not, as she chooses) another day. I’m not sure I’ll read another Rusty Bore mystery as I feel I’ve got its measure now, but for those who love light-hearted crime, particularly with an Australian flavour, then Rusty Bore could be just the ticket.
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)