Barry Maitland’s Crucifixion Creek was short listed for the 2015 Ned Kelly Awards. That book, which introduced detective Harry Belltree, signalled a change in direction for Maitland. He left his more cerebral London-based Brock and Kolla procedurals for a more muscular, action oriented, morally ambiguous crime series set in Sydney. Crucifixion Creek dealt with bikie gangs, drugs and development in Sydney’s Western suburbs. Underlying this plot was a deeper conspiracy involving the death of Belltree’s parents in a car crash.
When Ash Island opens, Belltree is working homicide in Newcastle, exiled from Sydney following the events at Crucifixion Creek which almost killed him. This suits Belltree, who is still investigating the car crash which occurred just north of Newcastle. When a body is found in a nature reserve on Newcastle’s Ash Island, Harry is pulled back in to the world of drugs and violence that he thought he had left behind in Sydney, but now there are other elements in the mix including coal mining, ex-politicians and Aboriginal land rights.
At the same time, Kelly Pool, the journalist who helped Belltree in Crucifixion Creek is also still on the scene. Kelly is still trying to come to terms with the violence that she suffered and looking for the people involved. They too, as it turns out, have connections in Newcastle and beyond, and it is not long before she is back in Belltree’s orbit.
The connections running through this book, not only with the previous case but with the murder of Belltree’s parents quickly start to stack up. And, once again, Belltree operates very much on the edges of the law, and often beyond it, as he continues to seek the truth.
Ash Island is the second of a projected Belltree trilogy and has all the feel of a middle novel. While Maitland covers some old ground in detail, there is a lot of reference back to the events of Crucifixion Creek and, as a result, it would be a difficult really enjoy Ash Island as a stand-alone.
Overall, Maitland delivers for fans of this series – although maintaining the pace and drive of the first book requires him to cut some narrative corners as the finale approaches. Ash Island ends with a bang but with plenty of narrative balls still in the air. More is revealed in this volume of the underlying conspiracy but new players enter the frame and the plot appears to broaden. While readers will be partially satisfied they will hanging on for a conclusion to all of those ongoing mysteries, making Ash Island not quite as satisfying an experience as its predecessor.