HERMIT by S. R. White (Headline, September 2020)
2020 has been a stellar year for Australian crime fiction, with a highlight being the number of very good debut novels. Now there is another debut to add to your reading list, Hermit by S. R. White.
The book opens with police detective Dana Russo seemingly contemplating suicide over some past tragedy in her life. She is stopped from shooting herself by a phone call from her boss, which sends her to a local convenience store where the owner has been found stabbed to death. Sitting next to the corpse is an uncommunicative man with blood on his hands. He is quickly identified as Nathan Whittler, who has been missing for fifteen years, possibly living as a hermit in the bush. Whittler declines the services of a lawyer and while her team busily chases down various leads, Dana has twelve hours to get a statement from Nathan before he has to be charged.
Hermit is set in a frustratingly generic rural Australian landscape, although most of the action takes place within a police interrogation room as Dana tries to carefully coax information from a reticent Nathan. These conversations form the bulk of the novel and gradually the detective and the suspect develop a tentative relationship as the events leading up to the killing are revealed.
The police investigations occurring in parallel with the interrogation add new elements, including an unfaithful wife and possible organised crime links, but the main focus remains on the conversations in the interrogation room and what we gradually learn about the detective and her suspect.
Hermit is a clever and original crime story, which steadily draws the reader into its thrall. The character development of Dana and Nathan is strong and White, who apparently used to work for the British police before moving to Australia, is good at describing the mood and relationships at the police station. He also brings a degree of credibility to the investigation. There are some good twists and you are never really sure where the story is going until the end.
It is an enjoyable read, but there are some slow patches and after all the build-up I thought the ending fell a bit flat and did not deliver the stunning conclusion I was expecting. I also found the timings in the book strange. Some elements happened slowly, such as finding the murder weapon, whereas other things seemed to be too quick, for instance locating the hermit’s secret hideaway, which had previously remained hidden for fifteen years. The timings were essential for the book’s flow and suspense, but jarred with me.
Overall, I thought it was an interesting and quite enjoyable psychological suspense novel, which mainly held my attention all the way to the downbeat ending. It is not as strong a debut as the books by Gabriel Bergmoser and Kyle Perry, but it certainly provides an original twist to the traditional Australia crime novel. Three and a half stars out of five!
I also really liked the cover, which was different from the generic silhouetted walking woman or running man we see on so many covers, although it has nothing to do with the story!
Hermit was released in Australia in early September by Hachette. It was also released in the United Kingdom on 1 September 2020 by Headline.