Red Dirt Country by Fleur McDonald

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

When Fleur McDonald publishes a book, readers can be confident that it will be worth reading. With her third rural crime story on the shelves now, I have no doubt that she has become established as the standard in this form of fiction against which other writers are measured.

Red Dirt Country continues with Detective Senior Constable Dave Burrows back in his old job with the Stock squad. He teams with a veteran cop, Bob Holden, to investigate a suspected cattle duffing operation. Cattle are being stolen from an aboriginal-run station, the elders won’t contribute, and Kevin, a young educated aboriginal man, is the only one to appeal to, and cooperate with, the police. Contemporaneous with the investigation is a court case that Dave must attend back in Queensland, unfinished business described in McDonald’s second book. Finally, there is marital disharmony that has its origins in the unrealistic expectations of Dave’s wife and the conflicting demands of his career.

McDonald’s style is relaxed. This is probably the key to her successful writing career. Her goal seems to be to write a book that country people in particular can identify with. She wants readers of all backgrounds to enjoy a simple story, but places a requirement on her readers that they weigh up what it is she is narrating. Emphasis on simplicity does not mean that the books are some sort of bovine collation that requires minimal competence to read and understand. To write simply is every bit as difficult as writing in periodic sentences about abstract topics. To be able to write simply but also in a relaxed manner, or to project a view that the writing is effortless prose, is a very handy attribute of an author. This author has it in spades.

To enjoy a book the reader needs to be convinced that the author knows the book’s setting well. McDonald is equally at home in the red soil and harsh terrain of the north, the softer landscapes of Queensland and the streets, malls and suburbia of the major cities. While she cannot be faulted in evoking the multivariate settings of her stories, McDonald is less successful with her characters. One can picture Mel with baby Bec, a mother who is caught by the unexpectedness of marriage to a husband who does not have a 9 – 5 job but rather one whose work regularly takes him away from home. We understand that she is very young, as a woman and a mother.

Mel has the additional handicap of a father who fails to handle life’s challenges and takes his spite out on his son-in-law, and a mother too accepting of her husband’s faults. There is fertile ground for character development in the case of Mel’s family and also among Dave’s work mates and the people he meets during the course of his investigations. The author’s treatment of character is pallid and lifeless. One character could easily be replaced by another. For example, there was a situation at the trial of the renegade policeman in Queensland where conflict between prosecutor and defence, defence and witness, could have been explosive, but events passed as dynamically as drying mud. The chase through the bush at the climax of the story was another opportunity missed. Character depth and reader identification with the characters were just not there.

Despite my misgivings, the book was a pleasant, relaxing read.

Red Dirt Country

(2020)

By Fleur McDonald

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76052-929-1

$29.99; 392pp

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