Dead Letters by Michael Brissenden

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Michael Brissenden: Output: two novels; Quality: awesome.

Brissenden’s latest novel is a gem – an intellectually stimulating, satisfying, emotionally engaging crime and politics novel that attaches to the brain and, like some rabid dog, never lets go, until its provocative ending.

The novel opens with a dramatic scene involving a hunted man with a gun, a scenario that reveals its significance later. The scene changes with the introduction of the main character Sid, who seems to be modelled on the life situation of the author. Just as Brissenden reveals a detailed knowledge of Sydney and Canberra and the people who live there, so does Sid reveal through his actions a familiarity with the smell of Crown Street early in the morning and the sight of a young girl at Rachel’s Pantry preparing her place of work for opening. Just as Brissenden knows the populace of the two cities, Sydney’s fine citizens and not so admirable gangsters and Canberra’s politicians, grubby and otherwise, so does Sid know crime fighters and journalists with agendas of their own. The point is that in Michael Brissenden we have an author writing about what he knows, and that magical word authentic becomes attached.

We meet another major character through Sid’s response to a call on his mobile. This is Detective Senior Sergeant Kelvin Rice, ‘former South Sydney front rower, Labor Party royalty and, as it happened, Sid’s new partner’ (3). We do not have to be told directly that Rice is a rough, big man, or that his views are likely to be immoveable and his attitudes intransigent. That he was a ‘front rower’ and ‘Labor Party royalty’ fixes a stereotype in our minds. Brissenden uses this reference technique when introducing the reporter Zephyr Wilde and the Assistant Commissioner, Wilde open and honest and hardworking, the senior policeman in pursuit of self-glory.

Short sentences and phrases are employed to develop a bullet-like efficiency in driving the narrative. It is common to see a plot driven forward in such a way but developing a feeling for characters or making known one’s feelings is not seen so often. Consider the sparse effectiveness of this passage:

He liked her a lot. She’d earned his respect, and that was more than he could say for most journos. It was a tough round for a woman. Full of bullshitters, big drinkers, and big noters. And that was just the journalists. The cops were even worse. Cops and journos – it was a strange dance…But there were a few good ones. Zephyr was one of the good ones (13),

or the specific bringing-to-life of Sid’s police supervisor AJ:

He’d never seen AJ back down or fail to give frank and fearless advice.  Never seen her afraid to push against special interests. Never seen her capitulate to the protocols that ruled this fucked-up world they inhabited. She was a woman who always looked for the unexpected – who was always happy to work out of her comfort zone. That was what made her so good at her job. That was what had made her such a legend. That was what had earned her so much respect (206).

The constant repetition binds this description to AJ so that we remember her as a particular type of person whenever her name appears.

Handling the slowly growing love match between Zephyr and Sid requires sensitivity and this Brissenden can supply:

Sid said, ‘Bringa and Bullalal. Of course they’re both – ‘.

’Dead. Yeah, it’s a lifetime calling but Jihad will do that to you.’ She smiled as she looked up from the phone. Their eyes held for a beat longer than normal. He was enjoying this too.

Zephyr turned away first (67).

She has never been able to trust, to put her life into another’s keeping. If she is to take a chance with Sid, it must happen slowly. Just the situation Brissenden unfolds.

Readers can see not only types that they have run across in real life but can also witness a fiendish glee in Brissenden’s descriptions of what might well have been former colleagues or acquaintances. This indicative technique is useful, and frustrating, in the ending (or perhaps a continuation) of the sexual relationship that possibly develops between Sid and Zephyr. Zephyr appeared to be putting her life into boxes again and he was not sure if there was a box big enough for him. She explains in a note that her dead mother is really gone from her head now and has ‘finally set me free’ (371). To let Sid into her life? To live unencumbered by anyone else? ‘I feel I can now finally move on’ (371). Brissenden indicates but does not tell. It is a technique he uses to good effect.

Central to the story was always the cold case murder of Shirley Wilde, Zephyr’s mother, a case Zephyr has been attempting to solve for a long time. It is linked to one or more present day murders. The killer on every occasion is a mysterious, amoral and vicious individual, apparently known by the moniker Long Grey. His real name is revealed in a clumsy way that does Brissenden no favours. His creativity appears to have been ‘out of the office’ at this point to be exchanged for a pun that left me writhing.

This one episode apart, I found the book representative of some of the best fiction of today.

Dead Letters

(2021)

By Michael Brissenden

Hachette

ISBN: 978-1-7336-3744-5

$32.99; 384 pp

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