Reviewed by Patricia Simms Reeve
Reality, lacking glamour, is made stark with fine descriptions of heat, dust and struggling poverty. Wry humour softens the often-brutal honesty. Altogether this makes Bitter Wash Road an excellent example of Garry Disher’s writing.
It was with alacrity that I began to read. Having recently read and enjoyed the ironically titled Peace, it was welcome news to learn this book is a prequel to Peace, which expands its background, and indulges the reader in further action in and around the town of Redruth.
Hirsch, the down-to-earth policeman exiled from the city, Adelaide, to a little country town, suffers this exile with a surprising acceptance, even good grace. Unlike the title, bitterness doesn’t affect his attitude. He emerges as fair-minded, sympathetic and aware of the toughness necessary to live in regional South Australia. Redruth is a small group of ugly buildings strung together, and huddling in harsh countryside hundreds of kilometres north of Adelaide.
It is a typical small country town and is a stark backdrop to a series of tense and confronting events.
There are tragic deaths in questionable circumstances, and Hirsch’s attempts to clarify this is thwarted by the uncooperative racist and sexist attitudes of the local police force. This is further complicated by Hirsch’s own shredded reputation. He is regarded by fellow police with contempt and revulsion. The price any officer pays if he attempts to expose the corruption and wrongdoing of any member of the force. He is frequently called a “dog” and “maggot”.
This, of course, adds to the problem of his gaining any support from the locals as well, whose treatment by their current law enforcers ensures their cooperation is at a low ebb.
Against these odds, Hirsch battles his way to the discovery of the true circumstances surrounding the tragic deaths, one a teenage girl and the other a depressed and abused wife and mother.
In the course of his investigation, he is assaulted, threatened, accused of criminal activity of which he is innocent, and set up by a colleague. However, he is determined to solve the complicated crime, and as Garry Disher invariably does, our unwavering interest is captured in the process.
The names of the characters Kropp, Andrewartha, Spurling are unusual and are easy to track and identify. This is not always the case when a novel feature a large cast of characters. Dickens was gifted in that field – and others, too!
While being an engaging read, the depiction of this section of the South Australian police force, with the exception of the main character Paul Hirsch, is depressing.
Integrity is absent and replaced by deviants and ruthless but inept criminals.
This area of the country is home to people whose lives are chronicles of misery and desperation. Aimless, bored teenagers try to spice up their lives with sex, drugs, alcohol and cars. Some of the adults take advantage of this.
Paul Hirsch and a clutch of others make this glimpse of rural life have a more honest and decent one. The combination of these factors is stirred up to serve a very enjoyable dish – no pun intended!
The police work is detailed and gritty, the plot compulsive. The characters are fully rounded without their being bogged down by tedious description.
In total, this adds up to a very fine thriller.
No wonder Garry Disher is so much admired and enjoyed as a writer, both here and internationally.
Bitter Wash Road
304 pp; $22.99