Following on from the excellent THE DIGGER'S REST HOTEL, BLACKWATTLE CREEK sees Charlie Berlin and now wife Rebecca, 10 years on. Married with two kids, they are struggling to make ends meet on a policeman's wage, living in the glaringly new suburbs of Melbourne. With a solid but unremarkable career in the police behind him, Berlin's refuge from the demons that continue to haunt him after WWII, is his happy little family unit, despite his sometimes fractious relationship with his son Peter, despite their difficult financial circumstances, despite the sideline that Rebecca asks him to get involved in when on leave.
When a recently widowed friend tells Berlin a very odd tale of her husband's body being tampered with in a Melbourne funeral parlour, Berlin accidentally sets off down a path which proves dangerous to him, and to his family. It's the threat to his family, and his home and their pet dog that most riles Berlin, and a riled Charlie Berlin might still be a taciturn, quiet man, but he also becomes a very determined, taciturn, quiet man.
Coming straight to BLACKWATTLE CREEK without having read the first book, I think, is likely to be a big problem for some readers. Berlin is a very haunted, troubled, damaged man, and the difficulties he has with coping with the memories of what happened in WWII are particularly dwelt upon in this book. Without an understanding of how he came to have Rebecca and his family, how he struggled to get his life onto some sort of even keel in the opening to the series, possibly makes the level of angst appear all-consuming in the second book. Personally, I find Berlin a profoundly likeable man (and not just because the family own an Aussie Terrier!). He's flawed, but not unaware; questioning but not mired in self-pity; realistic and often startling honest.
He also doesn't play a solo-lone-wolf role. Wife Rebecca is refreshingly realistic - a mean hand in the kitchen, an enthusiastic lover and supporter of her husband, she's also an ex-journalist with a growing career as a photographer. She's combined with amongst others, Lazlo Horvay, an erratic and somewhat elusive Hungarian immigrant hearse driver, fleshing out a supporting cast of characters, including a colleague that pays a dreadful price for helping Berlin.
Underneath the characters and in particular, Berlin's struggle with life in general, there's an interesting Cold War style plot going on, with a disconcerting line in nasty characters doing unmentionable horrors all in the name of "research", all seemingly condoned by politics of the very worst kind.
Whilst the plot is strong, and Berlin and his family fascinating characters, one of the supplementary attractions of this series has to be the sense of place and time that they invoke. Even for a country kid, the milk bars, the bags of lollies, and fish and chips wrapped up in newspaper bought back memories, to say nothing of jumping jacks, tombola marbles, and great big lumbering Studebaker cars. Heaven help me if McGeachin leaves another 10 year gap in Berlin's life before the next book - then we're dangerously close to complete recall. Perhaps that's one of the great strengths of this series - as we're working through the book, feeling a decided sense of nostalgia for a society that's not that far away in terms of time and experience, you suddenly realise that the nostalgia is being chipped away by a realisation that there could have been some very nasty things going on, right under our rose-coloured glass view.