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).
Bitter Wash Road
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
Review copy courtesy Text Publishing