Hermit by S.R. White

 

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Another crime story, a handsome hero (beautiful heroine, if you prefer), regulation plot, and a vicious killer that must be put away – we all know the drill. But not this time. S.R. White has broken the mould. Hermit is a very different crime story – in fact, it has a very different crime, a heroine who has her own emotional demons as well as a physical handicap, a plot that holds the reader fascinated, and disturbed at the end, and a face of evil that keeps us guessing.

It’s instructive to try to ascertain how S.R. White has changed crime writing. We can go wider than crime stories, as thrillers, police procedurals and ghost stories can all benefit from White’s approach. One way is to cultivate the art of creating images to achieve a purpose, to assist in telling a story. White’s book opens with the following passages, from which few lines we can determine an atmosphere, learn the name of a significant character, know her state of mind, and recognise from the brooding mood of the clouds that a tragedy is at least being contemplate. Importantly, the narrative is poetic in its absence of discordant sounds.

In the purple pre-dawn: the ink-black pools and white spray of Pulpit Falls. Dana Russo was here on this morning each year, and it always seemed the same. Never rained, never snowed. Bruised and sullen, every time.

She could easily climb over this flimsy fence. Two strands of wire threaded between rudimentary wooden posts. It was nothing, would only take a second. She wouldn’t have to jump, really. She could just fall (1).

The book develops around Dana Russo, who is a detective based at Carlton police headquarters. Her task is to ascertain the living place of Nathan Whittler, a man now held in custody. Whittler had not been heard of or seen for the past fifteen years. That morning he had been found with bloodied hands next to a body in a store where an alarm had signalled that a crime was in progress. A battle of wills ensues between Dana and her helpful police colleagues and Nathan Whittler. This simple battle is the focus of the book.

What White is interested in is not ‘whodunnit’ but why there is no sign that Whittler ever existed. Nathan Whittler is the only one who knows. Dana’s task is to win his confidence while using logical inference, intelligently applied, to locate his living quarters. The dialogue develops as a psychological exercise in winning an opponent’s confidence, and in turning him into a cooperative subject, while following the guidelines for police interviewing. Strictly speaking, this is not a crime novel even though a crime has been committed. This is an exercise rather in how best to read the signs and draw successful conclusions while building and retaining rapport with an uncooperative person. Plaguing Dana throughout the investigation is a personal matter that tempts her with suicide at this same time each year. The cross she bears is heavy and may well be what finishes her.

Dana is a member of a very supportive team. They play various roles related to police work. One member close to Dana is Lucy, a young woman whose “view of lawyers was a conversation piece: she basically saw them as vermin. Her ‘tolerance’ was narrower than a human hair, but more fragile” (140). Such a description lets me enter immediately into Lucy’s psyche. Attuned language, intelligent dialogue and roundly developed situations and characters comprise the more significant elements of White’s writing style.

When reflecting on a completed reading of White’s novel, I’m reminded of a particular television series where contestants are tasked with turning a derelict house into an attractive modern residence. Initial viewing reflects the contestants’ shock at the appalling size of the task. They see only the big picture. They rally and begin to note where they can make a difference. Staggering in its complexity, S.R. White’s Hermit meets the reader head-on as a tour de force. Then the reader’s attention diverts to the author’s handling of the story’s compositional elements.

I enjoyed this book and hope to read other S.R. White productions. No Hermit should live alone on my shelves.

Hermit

(2020)

By S.R. White

Hachette (Headline)

ISBN: 978-1-4722-6844-0

$32.99; 384 pp

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