THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL - Geoffrey McGeachin
It's always interesting to see a favoured author head off in another direction, and THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL is a big directional switch for Geoffrey McGeachin. Moving away from the madcap all-Australian James Bond of the Alby Murdoch books, we are introduced to a new character, a new timeframe and a very different approach.
Set in post World War II Victoria THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL introduces Charlie Berlin. A pilot during the war, back to the police on his return, Charlie is deeply traumatised. Sent to Albury-Wodonga to investigate a series of robberies that have suddenly become violent, this is also a story of the after-affects of war. Alongside the robbery, a subsequent murder and Charlie's own story, there are glimpses of the damage done on the home-front as well. The man whose son was a victim of a brutal death, and the brother who survived. The young Australian photographer and would-be newspaper reporter, who has her own family tales of difficulty for her German-born parents.
The information that came with this book highlights how the author has used the stories of his own father's wartime experiences as both an airman and a POW in Europe, as well as his childhood recollections of growing up in country-town Australia. It's a very realistic portrayal of country Australia - be it in the late 1940's or even more recently (well in this reader's memory anyway). Balance that small-town, closed environment, and the changes that are coming over a society traumatised and profoundly changed by the war and those who did and didn't return, against the individual story of one man who was so profoundly affected by events in Europe, and well, you end up with something that's entertaining, moving and affecting.
THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL isn't a straight up police procedural, this book is about a man who, as damaged and fragile as he is, is an observationist. Along with the personal perspective that this book is built upon, there is also an investigation - finding the motorbike riding gang who have terrorised and robbed multiple Railway locations, and then the horrific murder of a young Chinese girl in the town. There is also a fragile and tentative love story. There is also some stark examples of the differences between acceptable social conventions then, and now. Domestic violence, racism, thuggery, sexism, double standards - they are all touched upon, displayed but not dwelled upon.
Undoubtedly the great strength of THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL is the character study of Charlie Berlin, followed very closely by the affects of war on everyone, even in a small country-town deep within Australia - on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Charlie Berlin is a wonderfully flawed human policeman, doing his duty, falling apart and picking himself back up again. THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL really does remind you that in the days post World War II there wasn't counselling, there wasn't retraining, there wasn't support. There was just the demons, and the jobs that had to be done, and alcohol and there were those that found a way to fit back in, and those that never did.
In 1947, two years after witnessing the death of a young Jewish woman in Poland, Charlie Berlin has rejoined the police force a different man. Sent to investigate a spate of robberies in rural Victoria, he soon discovers that World War II has changed even the most ordinary of places and people.
An ex-bomber pilot and former POW, Berlin is struggling to fit back in: grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, the ghosts of his dead crew and his futile attempts to numb the pain.
When Berlin travels to Albury–Wodonga to track down the gang behind the robberies, he suspects he's a problem cop being set up to fail. Taking a room at the Diggers Rest Hotel in Wodonga, he sets about solving a case that no one else can – with the help of feisty, ambitious journalist Rebecca Green and rookie constable Rob Roberts, the only cop in town he can trust.
Then the decapitated body of a young girl turns up in a back alley, and Berlin's investigations lead him ever further through layers of small-town fears, secrets and despair.