While Barry Maitland is an Australian crime writer he is best known for his Brock and Kolla crime series set in and around London. This series of clever and detailed procedurals has garnered plenty of praise and awards over its long run including winning the inaugural Ned Kelly Award for Crime Fiction in 1998 (The Malcontenta). Recently, Maitland set a standalone crime novel in Australia (Bright Air) and with Crucifixion Creek it seems he has decided to make that move a little more permanent. Set in Sydney and dealing with a number of hot button crime topics (outlaw bikie gangs, corrupt developers and politicians, sex tourism), Crucifixion Creek is the explosive first entry in a new trilogy.
The novel starts with a siege in the SW Sydney suburb of Crucifixion Creek, scene of a massacre of Aboriginal men by British marines early in the colony's history. Harry Belltree and his partner are called out and before long they have both a homicide and the police killing of the perpetrator, an ex-bikie whose gang, The Crows, has set up shop at the end of the street. Not long after this an old couple who owned properties in the street are found dead and Harry's brother-in-law, a builder who had set up in Crucifuxion Creek, is also killed there and his workshop burnt down.
These murders are just the entree to a complex web of bikies, loan sharks, shifty lawyers and corruption. Harry, temporarily suspended for pursuing his brother-in-law's murderers, starts an unofficial investigation using his own extra-legal methods. He is assisted by Kelly Pool, a journalist trying to get her big break, and his wife, a computer expert blinded in the accident that killed Harry's parents. Part of Harry's drive to investigate is not only the involvement of his brother-in-law but a possible connection to his parents' death in a car crash three years before which Harry believes was no accident.
Harry Belltree is a long way from Brock or Kolla. A homicide detective, Harry is also a veteran of special forces in Afghanistan and son of the first Aboriginal Judge in the NSW Supreme Court. While Brock and Kolla are down-the-line police, Harry is more morally ambiguous and willing to step outside the law. He does what it takes to find the answers he needs, whether that requires violence, breaking and entering or tipping off the media. While he is not quite an anti-hero and is often able to justify his actions, Harry Belltree is intriguing but not necessarily likeable.
Crucifixion Creek marks an exciting shift in direction for Maitland into truly Australian crime fiction. The Sydney setting is particularly well used, the characters are identifiably Australian and the issues are straight from the front pages of the Sydney dailies. It also has a very different feel to his former work, less detailed investigation and police legwork and more action and driving results by having Harry poke the wasp's nest. Which all makes Crucifixion Creek an adrenalin filled ride through Sydney's seedy underbelly. Like him or not it will be interesting to see where Harry Belltree goes next.