Garry Disher, Bitter Wash Road (#BookReview)

Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road has been sitting on my TBR pile for over seven years. It was sent to me on spec but, as crime is not my preferred reading, I didn’t feel obliged to read it – and yet, I hung onto it, just in case… So, when Kim (Reading Matters) decided to run an Aussie-New Zealand crime month, I knew what I was going to read.

Actually, though, this is not the first Disher to appear on my blog. Text had previously sent me an earlier one of his, Wyatt, which I managed to talk Son Gums into guest reviewing for me. You can read his review here. However, Wyatt is a thriller with an anti-hero as its protagonist, so is very different to Bitter Wash Road, a police procedural featuring the more sympathetic constable, Paul Hirschhausen (Hirsch).

More sympathetic he may be, but straightforward he is not, because Hirsch is a recently demoted detective who has been sent three hours north from Adelaide to a “single-officer police station” in Tiverton, a fictional “blink-and-you’d-miss-it-town” in struggling “wheat and wool” country. Having previously worked with a team of corrupt detectives, Hirsch, though not found guilty (which, he realises, is different to being found “not guilty”), has “a stink clinging to him”. For whatever reason, Internal Investigations is not convinced he’s clean. Consequently, Hirsch finds himself investigating crime in a fearful community where the police are hated, while also having to watch his own back. Who can he trust?

“an air of waiting”

To my surprise, I greatly enjoyed this novel. It’s well-plotted, so that while the ending isn’t a complete surprise – surely it’s not a good crime novel if it is? – there are enough possibilities thrown in your path along the way to keep you pondering which way it will go. However, it’s not the plot that grabbed me. It’s the characterisation, the writing, and the subtle way contemporary issues are referenced or implicated in the story.

Hirsch is introduced in the first paragraph as the “new cop in Tiverton” and then we immediately meet him through a phone conversation with his sergeant, Kropp, in nearby Redruth. Some shots have been heard out near Tin Hut and he is to investigate. We are then launched into the action as Hirsch drives off, but we are also introduced to his character. He’s observant and careful, but also, probably sensibly, a bit paranoid. When he comes across a gum tree blocking the road, he sees it as a potential ambush, but on closer inspection it’s simply a fallen branch:

All that sinewy health on the outside and quiet decay within.

A bit like the police, really.

With such language the tone is set. Hirsch is isolated, physically and psychologically, like many in the region, for different reasons. This is a tough place where Sergeant Kropp’s two brutal constables, Nicholson and Andrewartha, terrorise the locals, paying particular attention – if you know what I mean – to young girls and Indigenous youths. Hirsch needs all his resources to navigate this lot and the rest of the community’s officials. Fortunately, he’s a true policeman, sizing up every place and person he sees or comes across, alert to every nuance in behaviour. This is, after all, the key both to survival and getting at the truth.

Now, I’m not an expert on writing about crime, but even I realise that I haven’t actually mentioned the crime. It wasn’t the gunshots out near Tin Hut, in fact, but the body of a dead girl out that way, along Bitter Wash Road. Hit and run? Or something else? A little later, a woman is found dead, this time looking like suicide. What is going on in the area? Were these deaths murders? Are they connected?

Set in a dry, struggling outback community, Bitter Wash Road is an example of a sub-genre that is now loosely known as outback or drought or bush noir. It is typified by remote communities living in harsh, unforgiving landscapes, and, as Disher makes clear, by the sort of sexism and racism that is peculiar to such settings (which is not to say they aren’t found in other settings too.)

In this sub-genre you would, I expect, find descriptions like this:

A five-hour round trip. Lengthening shadows striped the crops, the highways, the hillsides. More birds on more wires. An air of waiting, of things drying, turning to dust.

So, with suggestive writing like this, a compelling and complex character like Hirsch, and a plot with as many dips and turns as its titular road, Bitter Wash Road makes splendid reading. I’m not surprised that Disher decided a few years later to return to Hirsch with Peace (2019) and Consolation (2020).

Read for Reading Matters Southern Cross Crime Month. Kim has also reviewed this novel.

Garry Disher
Bitter Wash Road
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922079244

Review copy courtesy Text Publishing

34 thoughts on “Garry Disher, Bitter Wash Road (#BookReview)

  1. Thanks for your review, Sue. Reading it reminded me why I so enjoyed this novel when I read it last year. It’s not only the evocative writing and the setting but the social commentary which underpins it that makes it such a great read. I have the other two in the trilogy so might have to read them when I’ve finished my current novel.

    • I will come and post this link on your blog, kimbofo, and also comment on your post which I loved. I was, like you, really impressed with this novel. His style is so good. Not a wasted word, and so many layers.

      And, yes, the social commentary.

  2. Always interesting to learn how people of different lands read and the perspectives on books and writing. This is the first time I come across this genre, “bush noir”. Kind of like Willa Cather and ‘Fargo’ crossed? Such an image just comes in my mind when I hear the term you mention. O, that leads me of two films mentally, actually two must-see Oscar noms for this year (each getting 6 noms): ‘Nomadland’ and ‘Minari’. You’ll enjoy them both. 🙂

    • And Arti, I’ve seen them both! Have you written about then? I’m very behind in reading – books and blogs.

      BTW, I guess sort of Willa Cather and ‘Fargo’ crossed though both their settings are rather cold by comparison!

      • Indeed. Let’s say the cross excepting the cold and the snow. Do u know Fargo the TV series are shot right here in my province of Alberta, and I’ve seen some locations in the early episodes right here in my city! Anyway, I’ve just posted a review of Minari. As for Nomadland I have a book review. I saw it at TIFF online last Sept. and wrote a review on it for an online film magazine and so can’t repost it in Ripples. But I’d love to see it again and write another one for Ripple. I have a feeling it’s going to be this year’s Oscar Best Pic. I hope so at least. 😀

  3. “However, it’s not the plot that grabbed me. It’s the characterisation, the writing, and the subtle way contemporary issues are referenced or implicated in the story.” And this is why I love crime fiction. We’ll make a fan of you yet! 😉

    • Ha ha Glenda! I take your point. Every time I read a crime book like this I think that I could enjoy crime. However, I still can’t see myself reading a lot of it. Too much else to read and too little reading time to do it, I think.

  4. Well ! – MY genre. 😀
    Crime writing can be excellent, as you’ve just discovered, ST.
    I’m going to listen to Garry Dish, no worries.

  5. Si glad you enjoyed this one, Sue. I concur that Garry Disher is one of this country’s finest writers. I often use examples from his work when I teach setting, as he masterfully integrates character, plot and place in his work, as shown in the examples you used in your review.

  6. Si glad you enjoyed this one, Sue. I concur that Garry Disher is one of this country’s finest writers. I often use examples from his work when I teach setting, as he masterfully integrates character, plot and place in his work, as shown in the examples you used in your review.

    • Hmm. I replied to this on my device (as against my laptop), Angela and it seems not to have appeared. I think I said something like I can understand your using him as an example because his writing is so tight and layered with meaning, isn’t it.

  7. Obviously you’ll be reading SF next. I wonder how I can trick you into it. I’m sure Bitter Wash was well done but “3 hours north of Adelaide” reminds me of Jane Harper’s 5 hours from Melbourne in The Dry. Those are both specific places, in Disher’s case Pt Augusta and so well away from farming country. But of course I’m a geography pedant.

    • He does mention Port Augusta … I think. He’s 2.5 hours I think from Broken Hill do maybe northeast of Adelaide. He can drive to Clare too reasonably easily. SF is another whole ballgame Bill but I will do dystopias!

  8. Bitterwash Road was the first Disher I ever read. I enjoyed it so much I eagerly tried a few other Disher novels but didn’t find the others quite so satisfying. However, my police detective husband has just this weekend finished Peace, Disher’s latest, and is raving about how good it is.

    • Thanks Michelle. That’s great to her about Peace. I don’t like series a lot but I would be interested in Peace and Consolation. Bitter Was Road won a German crime prize. I’ve bought the German version for my German reading husband. I hope he enjoys it.

  9. Pingback: The Silence, Susan Allott | The Australian Legend

  10. Pingback: Southern Cross Crime Month wrap-up – Reading Matters

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