DRIVE BY - Michael Duffy
DRIVE BY is fiction although readers may find themselves having to work hard to remember that. From the opening voice of Jabber (John) Habib to the build up of mayhem on the streets of Sydney, obviously comparisons are being drawn between Melbourne's Underbelly Underworld wars and the increasingly violent, and therefore reported on, drug wars in Sydney.
The story of John Habib, his brothers, their involvement in the Sydney drugs trade, and the murder trial of the youngest brother, is interwoven with the story of young cop Bec Ralston. Somewhat inexplicably she's pulled into a very responsible position in Habib's trial as senior cops seem to be dodging and weaving around. What's really going on with both the Habib brothers and within the cops might not that hard to connect up, but how it all plays out is more surprising.
Part of what really works in DRIVE BY is the voice of John. On the one hand he seems to be perfectly aware of the "family trade" and its ramifications. On the other, he's staunchly loyal and there's little, if any, sense of right and wrong. That loyalty to, belief in family above all else is quite disturbing, especially given a distinct feeling of whatever it takes for the family to survive. Which makes the possibility that Rafi could have killed a drug dealer in the middle of the night not just believable, but uncomfortably understandable.
What works less well are the police threads which are complicated but obviously leading in the direction of some form of corruption or power play. Whilst it's not a disappointing storyline in its own right, most of what's felt wrong is the way that it pulls focus from the Habib's story for a considerable period of time. Right at the point where things are getting very awkward in the Habib family. Having said that, other readers will probably appreciate that aspect of the tale more, so we're definitely talking horses for courses.
Whilst not 100% convinced about the comparisons with the writing of Peter Temple, known more for his brevity and pointedness, something that DRIVE BY at 379 pages might struggle to justify, there is real skill in the characterisation of John, in particular, in this book. His voice is unique, and there is a real feel of seeing inside the dynamics of a family ruthless enough to do whatever it takes to survive. It's also a peek inside the world of policing that, on a daily basis, works against the tide of the sobering piles of money that the drug world generates, and the violence required to maintain a position on the top of that pile.
'If The Godfather was set in Sydney today, it would be about the Lebs. But brothers, lots of brothers. Fathers don't matter anymore.' Detective Inspector Brian Harris
John Habib is the mechanic son of a Muslim Lebanese-Australian crime family in Sydney's Western suburbs. His oldest brother is in a maximum security prison, his middle brother is becoming increasingly fundamentalist, and his younger brother Rafi is on trial for a murder he swears he didn't commit. John has no reason to disbelieve Rafi but there are things going on in the family that he just doesn't understand. Why has his brother taken control of the family away from their father? Are the police really trying to set up Rafi? And what is the compelling evidence they say will put him away? John sets out to prove Rafi's innocence in the face of his predatory older brothers and some Lebanese-hating cops.
Bec Ralston is a good detective who doesn't know why she's been ordered to attend Rafi's trial. She was previously thrown off the investigation for voicing the opinion that Rafi might be innocent. As the court case goes badly wrong, she finds herself torn between her loyalty to the senior police she respects and the truth.