Sometimes the world is very kind to a dedicated fan of Australian Crime fiction, particularly when two new books from authors that we've not heard from for a very long time arrive. Peter Doyle and Dave Warner each played their part, many years ago, in engaging an interest in our own stories and voices.
The release of BEFORE IT BREAKS caused excitement and slight trepidation. Slight trepidation because Warner's earlier Andrew "Lizard" Zirk series (Murder in the Groove, Murder in the Frame and Murder Off-Season) has always been a nostalgic favourite, as are Exxxpresso and City of Light. Now having read it, this new book, the first since the early 2000's, has to be the start of a new series, featuring Detective Daniel Clement, set in Broome, because it's ... well bloody near pitch perfect.
The increasing use of remote settings for crime fiction coming out of Western Australia is proving to be a field well worth mining (pun intended). The starkness of the landscape, and the way that the heat and massive climate variations affect daily life provide a real tension that's not so apparent where the worst that's going to happen elsewhere is it's cold in winter and hot in summer. The title also has a nice multi-meaning going on - it can refer to the breaking of a case, marriages and relationships splintering and lives going pear-shaped, just as much as it does refer to the impending cyclone, at the same time as a killer breaks cover.
There is much that's standard fare in BEFORE IT BREAKS. A cop dealing with the fallout from a broken marriage, feeling out of sorts and lost after returning to the town of his childhood, to stay close to his young daughter. Reconnecting with old friends and places it's obvious that Clement feels his return is acknowledging some failure on his part. Finding that his childhood friends that stayed might not be high-flyers but seem content is disconcerting, making Clement feel more and more like a fish out of water, not sure what it is that he wants out of life any more.
Going from shop lifting, fielding drunks and the odd brawl to a major murder investigation creates more tension, as things quickly escalate. Starting out with the murder of a local, low-level drug dealer - a retired German cop - in really weird circumstances, then the death of a bikie figure, through to a disappearance right on the verge of the cyclone hitting town, really puts the local powers that be on edge. Which means that they've got in the ear of the higher-ups and Perth starts huffing and puffing about extra resources, and taking over the cases. Unsurprisingly there's quite a bit of sensitivity about a serial killer and a cyclone in a tourist town like Broome. But the biggest problem in solving this case is motive - who on earth would want to kill a seemingly harmless old German man whose biggest sin appears to be a bit of low-level, cost-effective dope dealing about town.
How BEFORE IT BREAKS deals with the standard elements, intermixed with a seriously bizarre series of deaths is what makes this story work. The interweaving of the standard bits of life - good and bad - makes everything absolutely believable. Whilst there are all these mad, weird things going on in what's basically a small town, life around it goes on. Parents age, relationships with ex-wives can be part longing / part loathing, and mothers-in-laws are often a mind field. The contrast between the day to day bit of being human, and the seriously screwed up things those self-same humans can do to each other, shows life can be a tricky undertaking.
That's not to say that character utterly dominates in BEFORE IT BREAKS. There's action aplenty, and the scenes, in the teeth of a cyclone, chasing a killer down flooded roads and through wet bush are part of a climax that will keep you on the edge of your seat. There's plenty of moments where you wonder who is going to survive, and there's lots of reminders that no matter how far away it might seem, the past can come back to bite lots of people in the most unexpected ways.