THE HUNTED by Gabriel Bergmoser (Harper Collins, August 2020)
2020 is proving to be another bumper year for Australian crime fiction. We have already seen several excellent releases, and there is the promise of more good books over the next few months by some of the stars of the genre, including Jane Harper, Chris Hammer and Garry Disher. 2020 has also been marked by some very strong debuts and now adding to their number is Gabriel Bergmoser’s outstanding piece of ‘outback noir’, The Hunted.
Frank runs a truck stop on a lonely highway in outback Australia. It is a solitary existence, which has only recently been broken by the arrival of his granddaughter, Allie, who has been sent to stay with him to fix her attitude. It is a fragile relationship, which is put under considerable pressure when a badly injured young woman arrives at the service station with a fired shotgun under the front seat of her car. Frank and a handful of customers tend to her wounds, but soon several cars turn up demanding that they hand over the woman. Suddenly the small group are thrust into a deadly stand-off, with no hope of rescue.
This is a fast paced and violent novel that grabs you from the opening pages and does not let go until the final gunshot. The story alternates between the bloody confrontation at the truck stop and the equally violent backstory of the wounded girl, the tough and resilient Maggie, and the lead-up to her pursuit by a group of armed men and women. The viewpoint moves frequently between the various characters and Bergmoser skilfully uses it to ramp up the tension and occasionally surprise the reader.
As to be expected, most of the characters have dark shadows in their past and Bergmoser does a very good job of fleshing out his desperate cast and making them credible, especially the young British tourists who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The central characters of Frank, Allie and Maggie are also very well drawn and it is interesting to watch them change and grow as the book progresses. Bergmoser’s portrayal of the armed men in pursuit of Maggie also neatly showcases the toxic side of Australian masculinity.
Some Australian crime fiction creates an idyllic version of outback Australia, this is not the case here. The early chapters quickly establish the vastness and loneliness of the Australian outback, and the human dangers which lurk there, as well as the beauty and harshness of the countryside. Some of the events may seem to stretch credibility, but there is, unfortunately, a terrifying reality to them and Bergmoser does a good job of conveying what can happen when you take a wrong turn. He also vividly captures the sense of driving through the Australian outback:
“rocky formations jutted jagged from the otherwise flat landscape, and small towns of plain brown buildings arranged around war memorials came and went within minutes of each other. Above it all stretched an endless blue sky and the burning sun tracking slow across it.”
This is an outstanding debut and one of the most thrilling and visceral novels I have read this year. There are some minor concerns about the plot, but these are easily overlooked as the story races along to its blood-soaked conclusion.
The Hunted could well be the Australian thriller of the year and Maggie is easily one of the most intriguing characters I have encountered in awhile. This is Jack Reacher for adults.
Four and a half stars out of five!
The Hunted is released in trade paperback in Australia on 31 July 2020 and in the United Kingdom on 6 August. Thanks to the quirks of publishing during COVID-19, it has been available electronically since June 2020.
Thanks to Harper Collins and the Canberra Weekly for an advanced copy of the book.