AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK NOIR: NEW BOOKS BY MICHAEL TRANT, DARCY TINDALE AND MARGARET HICKEY
Jane Harper was not the first Australian author to write outback crime novels, but she was certainly instrumental in establishing it as one of the most popular forms of crime writing in the world today. Jane’s The Dry was an outstanding success that fueled overseas interest in outback noir, and the popularity of the genre was further cemented by Chris Hammer’s Scrublands, and retrospective appreciation of Garry Disher’s excellent Bitter Wash Road and Dave Warner’s equally good Broome crime novel, Before It Breaks.
All of these books combined genuine, gritty descriptions of remote parts of Australia, often gripped by drought, with good mystery plots and strong interesting characters. Certainly the uniqueness of the locations helped their appeal, but in the end it was the quality of the writing and the cleverness of the plots that cemented their popularity.
The success of The Dry, and outback noir in general, has also been helped in recent years by the popularity of the subsequent movie starring Eric Bana as detective Aaron Falk. Bana captured the sense of Falk very well, and the movie was also a visual treat. The good news is that second Aaron Falk movie is on the way. Once more starring Eric Bana, Force Of Nature is due out later this year (see more below).
Not surprisingly, the success of The Dry and Scrublands inspired a host of other Australian authors, and some from overseas, to try their hand at the outback thriller, and in recent years we have been swamped by sun drenched Australian crime novels. At times it has seemed that the only Australian crime novels being released are either set in outback Australia or the wilds of Tasmania. The amount of crime being committed in these outback towns is staggering, given the proportionally small numbers of Australians that actually live in rural and outback Australia.
The quality of these bush crime novels has been mixed, although there have been some really good ones by Shelley Burr (Wake), Hayley Scrivenor (Dirt Town), Gabriel Bergmoser (The Hunted) and the ongoing books by Garry Disher and Dave Warner, to name a few.
Michelle Prak’s The Rush from earlier this year was also excellent, and now we have another batch of good additions to the dusty pile of outback crime novels by Michael Trant, Darcy Tindale and Margaret Hickey.
My favourite of the three is Michael Trant’s gritty outback thriller No Trace, (Bantam, 16 May 2023).
The follow-up to Trant’s Wild Dogs, it is a suspenseful read with plenty of action and some great descriptions of the Australian outback. After the events of Wild Dogs, in which Gabe Ahern ended a major criminal operation in a very bloody manner, the wily dog trapper has headed into the vastness of the Western Australian desert.
A skilled hunter, Gabe has one rule: leave no sign, leave no trace. And for the past year he’s been successfully hiding out on a friend’s remote cattle property in the Pilbara. But when Goldmont Station opens its gates to a bunch of city folk eager for an authentic outback experience, Gabe can feel eyes on his back. Are all these visitors really tourists?
In the space of 24 hours, the station’s helicopter falls from the sky, the phones and internet go down, and one of the guests turns up dead. With major flooding suddenly cutting off all exit roads, Gabe fears he is as trapped as the dogs he hunts. And that his bloody past has finally caught up with him.
No Trace is a spectacularly good crime thriller. The story is an enjoyable mixture of thriller action and murder mystery, and it builds to a taut and bloody climax. The characters are well formed and believable, and the ageing and taciturn Gabe Ahern is a marvellous creation. There are some gripping set-pieces, including the desperate attempted rescue of a young child who has fallen down a borehole, and the concluding confrontations are very exciting.
The central murder mystery works well and the final outcome is a bit of a surprise.
In all, a really good book that deserves wide readership.
No Trace was released in Australia on 16 May 2023. It seems to be available in the United Kingdom on Audible and maybe in paperback form.
Thanks to the publisher and the Canberra Weekly for an advanced copy of the book
Darcy Tindale makes a good entry into the expanding field of outback crime featuring tough female detectives with her debut, The Fall Between, (Bantam, 2 May 2023).
Set in Muswellbrook in the Upper Hunter Valley in New South Wales, The Fall Between is probably more regional crime than pure outback noir, although the cover certainly invokes the harshness of the Australian outback.
The story is a good one and has enough twists to keep it interesting. It opens with Detective Rebecca Giles just finishing interviewing aging petty criminal Sticky Pete over a spate of break-and-enters when a disturbing new report comes in. Twelve-year-old Kayleen Ellis has vanished from her home and no one knows where she is. Hours later, Rebecca is a local hero, having apparently solved Kayleen’s case and the spate of recent jewelry thefts.
The celebrations are short lived, however, when the body of young jillaroo, Ava Emmerson, is discovered in gruesome circumstances on a nearby farm. Rebecca is the first on the scene, but in a bizarre twist she finds herself suspended and her actions questioned. As the hunt for Ava’s killer unfolds, Rebecca finds links between the killing and the earlier two cases, and her own mother’s death years ago.
There is a lot to like about The Fall Between. The plotting is intricate and interesting, and Darcy skilfully mixes together the current crime with past mysteries. The sub-plot involving Sticky Pete adds some poignancy to the story, and develops in surprising and powerful ways.
The writing is very good and Darcy has a fine descriptive eye. She paints convincing pictures of the rundown, semi-urban parts of the town and contrasts them with evocative descriptions of the countryside and the wildlife:
“Flashes of blue bounced across the ground. Small fairy-wrens with their blue-black plumage were hop-searching in the grass for insects; their reeling, high pitched chittering sounded sickly sweet.”
One pivotal scene did not work for me, but otherwise I found The Fall Between to be a top notch crime novel with an appealing tough and fragile detective in the form of Rebecca.
The Fall Between was released in Australia on 2 May 2023. It seems to be available in the United Kingdom on Audible.
Thanks to the publisher and the Canberra Weekly for an advanced copy of the book
Margaret Hickey is becoming a seasoned veteran of the outback crime scene, with two good books already to her credit. Now joining the earlier entries in her DS Mark Ariti series, Cutters End and Stone Town, is Broken Bay (Bantam,
13 June 2023).
Broken Bay finds Ariti away from his one-man police station in the harsh interior of South Australia, and taking a few days forced break in the decaying coastal town of Broken Bay on the state’s Limestone Coast. The short holiday at the small fishing village goes astray, however, when the town becomes the scene of a terrible tragedy.
An attempt to establish Broken Bay as a tourist site for cave divers goes wrong when renowned diver Mya Rennik drowns while exploring a sinkhole on the land of wealthy farmer Frank Doyle. The police and the press quickly descend on the town, but an initial operation to retrieve Mya’s body encounters more than expected, when they find the remains of a young local woman who went missing twenty years.
Ariti’s boss asks him to stay on in the town and assist with the fall out from the discovery of the body, but when a killing occurs at the home of another prominent family in the region, the Sinclair’s, Ariti finds himself caught in a complex murder investigation.
Broken Bay is a well constructed crime novel with a good depth of plotting and characterisation. The story unfurls at a steady pace, gradually building up the mystery and the suspense. The depiction of Broken Bay and its inhabitants is convincing and the intricacies of the relationships are carefully mapped.
As with the earlier books, Ariti is at the centre of the story and his reflections on his failing romantic entanglements and his relentless ageing are amusing and heart felt:
“Did I bore her to death? Mark wondered for the first time. Were there one too many discussions about mince? Or which bird he’d seen that morning by the river? He had no strong views on pronouns or carbon taxes or Johnny Depp. He liked Port Adelaide (an AFL football team) and watching Westerns. He could contentedly sit through Antique Roadshow. Had he bored her?
I am not sure for how long Margaret can maintain the device of Ariti stumbling across old and new murder cases around the state, but for now it is working very well and Broken Bay is a great addition to the genre.
The bad news is that you have to wait until 13 June for Broken Bay to come out in Australia. However, the wait is worth it, and it also gives you the opportunity to read the very good books by Michael Trant and Darcy Tindale first! Broken Bay seems to be available in the United Kingdom on Audible and Kindle from 13 June 2023 and in paperback from mid August.
Thanks to the publisher and the Canberra Weekly for an advanced copy of the book, and what a stunning cover!!
Here is a link to my review of Margaret’s last novel, Stone Town: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/new-australian-crime-fiction-margaret-hickey-allie-reynolds-and-sue-williams/
As mentioned above, Jane’s second novel, Force Of Nature, is also making its way to the big screen. Due out in Australia in August, Eric Bana reprises his role of Aaron Falk. In some ways, is probably Jane’s most suspenseful story and it will be interesting to see how it goes on the big screen.
The producers have provided a quick summary of the story:
“In ‘Force of Nature: The Dry 2’, when five women take part in a corporate hiking retreat and only four come out on the other side, Federal Agents Aaron Falk and Carmen Cooper head deep into the Victorian mountain ranges to investigate in the hopes of finding their whistle-blowing informant, Alice Russell, alive.”
For those who have not caught up with Jane’s latest novel, Exiles, yet, here is a link to the review I did last year: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/exiles-by-jane-harper-macmillan-20-september-2022/