Reviewed by Rod McLary
Australia seems to have a fine collection of crime writers – Jane Harper, Chris Hammer, Emma Viskic just to name a few – and we can now add S.R. White. One of the common features of these writers, apart from their talent, is that their novels are firmly immersed in the Australian landscape. The landscape is not just background but an important element in their stories. This third book by the author Red Dirt Road is no different: The land and the town fought an uneasy, desperate and silent struggle, each licking wounds periodically but refusing to buckle . The book features Detective Dana Russo the protagonist from both of the author’s previous books Hermit and Prisoner. Readers of S R White would know that Dana has a very troubled family background but she is fiercely intelligent and articulate – qualities which stand her in good stead.
On the orders of her boss and district commander Anton McCullough, Dana Russo is despatched to Unamurra – somewhere in western New South Wales – to solve two murders within forty-eight hours. The narrative takes place within that timeframe so the pace is unrelenting – and the reader feels as much the pressure of time as does Dana.
Two men have been killed a month apart – Larry Muir and Tim Ogden – in the same way and their bodies displayed on metal frames: arms splayed in a curved lunge forward, tipped towards the observer like a giant raptor beginning its descent . There is an echo here of the staging of the murder victim in the author’s previous book Prisoner.
Unamurra has a population of fifty and none of the fifty appears keen to have the murders solved – and for that matter, Dana’s doesn’t expect a result. It seems to Dana that he may be hoping that she will fail so he can restructure the district without her. Determined to succeed and resolutely believing that she will, Dana eschews revisiting the questions asked the first time around. Correctly intuiting that she will gather more information from a more creative approach, Dana skirts around the central issue of the murders and comes from the left field. This approach is successful and gradually Dana accumulates valuable information which leads her towards the resolution. She is ably assisted by Lucy – her admin assistant – who is able to collect enormous amounts of data which go some way to explaining the convoluted reasons behind the murders. In their private lives, Dana and Lucy are in a relationship so the support provided by Lucy extends to emotional support as well.
The constant awareness of the drought and its effect on the country is ever-present – there are numerous references to it through the book which create a general feeling of oppression and hardship.
In a rather old-style conclusion, towards the end of the novel, Dana confronts the likely perpetrator and sets out her findings logically and coherently. There are also unexpected but serious consequences for one or two police officers to reassure the reader that justice is blind.
All the characters in this novel are finely drawn – the author has created a cast which fits impeccably within the Australian vernacular. The one exception is an artist whose refugee background in 1985 East Germany and his knowledge of the Stasi – the secret police who maintained surveillance over the population – contributes significantly to Dana’s investigation and ultimate outcome. Dana is an engaging protagonist and her qualities shine through in this fine and thrilling story.
It is a book well worth the reading.
Red Dirt Road
by S. R. White
ISBN 978 147229 116 5