MOSQUITO CREEK, the first novel from Robert Engwerda is set in 1855 on the northern Victorian goldfields. It's a particularly pleasing experience to read about this area of the goldfields, deep in flood, when we've spent such a long desperate period in drought.
Engwerda has done a fantastic job at putting the reader into this location and the time period. There is a real sense of place and time, evoking the sheer weirdness of the alliances, tension, desperation and transience of the Goldfields. It's very easy to forget, in this day of easy transportation, just how much these communities moved around - constantly chasing the latest big gold find. There are references dotted throughout the book to people, last seen in Geelong, or Melbourne, or elsewhere on the goldfields, and it's only when you sit down and think it through that you realise what is now a 3 hour drive for us, must have been a many day walk for them. And they carted their home and chattels with them.
But in terms of a crime fiction novel, MOSQUITO CREEK is doing something different. This isn't your standard murder up front, investigation resolves the case type of book. There are crimes past and present, there is a disappearance, there are miners stranded by the flood. There is also a possible Cholera epidemic, the need for a quarantine station, and a budding romance. As well as a circus, a boat building exercise, and a hefty dose of barking mad officials.
A fair amount of this book is spent introducing Sergeant Niall Kennedy, and that, and the ending to this tale, means this reader has to assume that this will be the first book in a series. Because of that backstory concentration, and probably also because this isn't a traditional crime / investigation style book, there are points where the narrative does wander a little, or maybe get a little fuzzy, but that is not so surprising in a first book, and the difference in approach could impose that style. MOSQUITO CREEK relies more on developing a sense of place and a feeling of the time. It's a book for immersion reading - rather than pace, tension or even to some degree puzzle solving.
It's interesting to see something different being tried in local crime fiction, and the period and location definitely appeal. Where MOSQUITO CREEK really excels is in that evocation of the place, the time and the setting. It gives a realistic glimpse into the physicality of the Goldfields, alongside many more human elements. Obsession, Machiavellian revenge plots, politics and tensions within the Goldfields, differing groups of miners (on ethnic lines, but also some form of convenient tribal alliance), and the difficulties in building a Policing Authority from elements of free society and the convict community. Really, there's too little current day fiction being published set within this most influential place and time, and hopefully there will be followups to MOSQUITO CREEK.