Cutters End, Margaret Hickey
First off, let me break all the "rules" of reviewing and say from the outset that I really enjoyed CUTTERS END.
Set in the South Australian outback town of Cutters End, this is a two timeline mystery, with the story harking back to the death of Michael Denby in the scrub off the Stuart Highway, 300km south of Cutters End on New Years Eve in 1989. Originally flagged as an accident, there's always been something not quite right about the investigation at the time, and the conclusions drawn. Not helped by the victim being a local hero - the man who saved a young girl and her mother from a devastating flood, that young girl going on to become a high profile television identity, and somebody with enough clout to kick off a re-investigation 32 years later.
Set within the vast distances and sparse population of the Australian outback, the idea that DS (Acting DI) Mark Ariti is recalled from long service leave to investigate this death makes a lot of sense. He's a remote town boy himself, but it's his close, personal connections to two of the witnesses that puts him front and centre in the personnel choice. His old school girlfriend, Ingrid Mathers, who is in the area at the time of the murder, and her best friend from school, Joanne, are witnesses. But it's not just them, it might be the middle of nowhere, but there are people around, strangers stand out, people notice things, the victim's character matters in this case, and Ariti's sure that Ingrid saw something - but not sure if she knows she did or not.
Alongside an absolutely spot on sense of place in CUTTERS END, are a cast of characters who are sometimes deeply flawed, dripping with life experience (good and bad) and not all they seem. All of the characters here work really well, the taciturn station head, the barmaids and pub owners, the local eccentric photographer, the determinedly cheerful local cop Jagdeep Kaur whose interactions with her frequently invisible boss are funny, and real. Her determination to chase down the small things, the details is admirable, but at the heart of the novel is Mark Ariti. Almost apathetic to start out he's a man with the obligatory complications at home (wife's affair / his affair with a colleague / tensions over child care in a double working household etc), enough problems to make him seem almost morose. This investigation, so far from home, and with so much time to reflect back to his teenage years is giving him a chance to work through the layers of his life, in the same way that the investigation starts to peel back the layers of small town secrets. It's not surprising that the "good bloke" narrative and who goes along with it and who knows otherwise is at the heart of this case.
Woven into what's ultimately a police procedural novel with a cold case perspective, is that exposure of social failings that this reader is particularly partial to in crime fiction. It comes as no surprise that the investigation into a man's accidental death starts to reveal the mysterious disappearances of a number of young women, in the same sort of area and timeframe. The fact that nobody bothered to get too excited about those sorts of cases has been reflected in a lot of true crime exposes I've been reading lately as well and you do have to wonder about a world in which people just disappear and some are deemed important enough to investigate and some aren't. There's some very telling lines about attitudes to that in this novel that really made me sit up and pay attention.
Ultimately, for this reader, CUTTERS END was a compelling mystery with a fantastic sense of place, and time, populated by some quintessential small outback town characters, with a complex investigator at the centre of it. Refreshingly, it's not trying hard to make you like Ariti, but it definitely expects you to admire his tenacity, and his determination, even when the final result isn't as by the book as some would have, it's definitely all about the administration of justice.
A scintillating crime thriller, set in the South Australian outback town of Cutters End. A mysterious death on New Year’s Eve 1989 leads to a shocking murder investigation 32 years later...
A desert highway. A remote town. A murder that won’t stay hidden.
New Year’s Eve, 1989. Eighteen-year-old Ingrid Mathers is hitchhiking her way to Alice Springs. Bored, hungover and separated from her friend Joanne, she accepts a lift to the remote town of Cutters End.
July 2021. Detective Sergeant Mark Ariti is seconded to a recently reopened case, one in which he has a personal connection. Three decades ago, a burnt and broken body was discovered in scrub off the Stuart Highway, 300km south of Cutters End. Though ultimately ruled an accidental death, many people - including a high-profile celebrity - are convinced it was murder.
When Mark’s interviews with the witnesses in the old case files go nowhere, he has no choice but to make the long journey up the highway to Cutters End.
And with the help of local Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur, he soon learns that this death isn’t the only unsolved case that hangs over the town...