KINGDOM OF THE STRONG is the fourth Darian Richards novel from screenwriter, producer and novelist Tony Cavanaugh. Readers of the past novels will be aware of the background of Richards. A high ranking cop in Victoria for many years, he has a darker side, with a history of ensuring justice for victims even if it means he steps into the role of avenging angel. Readers of the earlier books will also be aware of a tendency towards the barking mad, evil, utterly over the top, random serial killer. Which, frankly, made this reader struggle with them, no matter how compelling a character Richards is.
KINGDOM OF THE STRONG, however, doesn't require that you've read the earlier books as there's sufficient back-story for new readers to get the complex relationships between Richards; his Queensland based cop sidekick Maria Chastain; her live-in lover and his best mate - ex-bikie Casey Lack; and his Melbourne based IT specialist Isosceles. They are an odd bunch no doubt about it, but the best part of all these novels is this complicated working relationship, teetering on the edge of actual friendship. Luckily, if you're a return reader, then the back-story isn't going to bog you down either, the whole thing is elegantly done.
Having always been predisposed to like Darian Richards very much it's hard to overstate what a joy reading KINGDOM OF THE STRONG was. The sense of humour is dry as chips and so seemingly apt for a been there / seen it cop. As the waiter fawns over Chastain:
'Oui,' he said and then: 'Voila!', which I've come to understand means about a thousand things in French, from 'There you are!' to "Oh, fuck, the cat's dead.'
... He almost swooned with delight at her wonderful use of the local language.
'Voila' he said.
The cat's dead, I thought.
It's also the style of directions / sense of place that Richards is working through with Chastain. Newcomers to my old home town will undoubtedly have noted a propensity for my family to navigate Ballarat by the pubs. Nothing compared to Richards who navigates locations by murders:
We crossed Orrong Road, where, in my thirties, I'd attended a murder-suicide in which a husband, fed up with life, had shot his two sons and wife then turned the gun to his temple. We crossed Kooyong Road, where, eight years ago, I'd found the body of a Vietnamese girl who'd been raped, tortured and then had her throat cut by an angry lover. We crossed Mercer Road, where, in 2004, a teenage girl by the name of Janelle had been abducted, her dismembered body later found in the bushlands of Eltham....
And on it goes. On one level a rather bizarre way of remembering locations, and one that Chastain is quickly begging to stop, and on the other, a poignant reminder that here is a cop that doesn't forget the victims. That has looked into the eyes of too many victims and promised, always, to find those responsible.
All through KINGDOM OF THE STRONG there's a sense of place that absolutely resonates:
I found a parking spot on St Kilda Road, which has to be one of the widest streets in the country, with two outside lanes covered in a green canopy of elms and squat, old date palms that must have been imported from Egypt or somewhere nearby in the early 1900s then, across grass-covered, tree-lined medians, in the centre, the boulevard itself, four wide lanes with two in the middle for trams to roll up and back. If the traffic's heavy and you're not relying on the lights, you might need to take a packed lunch in order to cross the street.
Instantly evocative of St Kilda Road, instantly reminiscent of those long fraught hikes across the damn thing in the middle of a rainy, cold winter's evening peak hour...
At the heart of this book is a fascinating concept. Bought back to Victoria by the Police Commissioner to investigate an old case, Richards has great loyalty and respect for Copeland Walsh. He's an old-school cop, retired and bought back to the top job after a bit of a wrong-step with a career manager in the middle. Who will follow him in the top job would be a lay down misere if it wasn't for the slight question mark over a long thought suicide cold case when a young woman was found dead apparently as a result of auto-erotic asphyxiation. There's always been a possible whiff about the presence of four young cops on the night the girl died, and one of those cops is now the main contender for Commissioner. Not trusting the insider circle rife in Victorian Policing, the Commissioner brings in the ultimate outsider. An outsider when he was in the force, a man who walked away from the force seems like the most likely to clear the air, and therefore the pathway to a second, permanent retirement.
The case presents Richards with a heap of problems - not least that it's 20 years since it all went down and that gives a lot of people a lot of time to sweep clean, or simply forget. None of which is helped by the fact that this is early days for mobile phones, early days for computers and Isosceles is hampered by the lack of digital footprints, whilst Chastain is hampered by being in a different state, and with a bikie boyfriend who is more than a tad unpredictable. Mind you, bikie involvement does also provide for some of the lovely little touches of humour and humanity littered through this book:
Thirteen bad guys with maybe eight square metres of tattoo, led by Casey, walked into the house, each of them with a pistol tucked into their belt and a sawn-off shotgun, or, in the case of a couple of the fellas, an even more highly illegal semi-automatic rifle, holstered over their shoulder, under their jacket. Miraculously they hadn't caught the attention of the cops.
'We rode the laneways,' said Casey by way of explanation. I was in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
'We're here,' Casey added, somewhat unnecessarily.
Needless to say there was so much to like about KINGDOM OF THE STRONG the bookmarks in my copy became more prevalent than pages. Clever, evocative, funny with that wonderful sense of place and character that stays away from feeling like a film script, and sticks firmly within a police procedural framework. This is exactly the sort of novel that Darian Richards deserves. Let's hope there's a lot more to come.