Stone Town, Margaret Hickey
STONE TOWN by Margaret Hickey follows the story of the central character introduced in her (very good) debut novel CUTTERS END. Senior Sergeant Mark Ariti's moved from the South Australian outback back to his home town of Booralama. Since the death of his mother, he's living on his own in his childhood home, with all the memories that brings with it, dealing with the people he grew up with, and those that are new to the town. While he's busy with the day to day issues of small town policing, the big story is about a missing cop - Detective Sergeant Natalie Whitsted has vanished - no clues to whether she's dead or alive.
When three teenagers stumble upon the body of local man Aidan Sleeth one rainy night in the dense bush of Stone Town, 25 or so kilometres from Booralama, a couple of "city cops" are sent to take over the investigation of the local murder, but they are totally obsessed with the fate of their missing colleague, and a late night call from his former boss puts Ariti in the middle of a very dangerous game.
Margaret Hickey is an immensely talented writer with a deep understanding of, and interest in, rural and outback communities in particular. She's able to portray the way that landscape and weather patterns influence lifestyle, attitude and behaviour, and the interactions that people have with each other, and the place in which they live, with considerable authority, never stepping over the line between storytelling and deep expertise. Her style doesn't idealise, it doesn't overdo or overstep any marks, and it most definitely doesn't get into put-down territory either.
The two investigations at the heart of STONE TOWN - the shooting death of the local real-estate agent and developer, and the missing DS Whitsted are quickly complicated by the implications of that call from his old colleague, while the local grapevine starts to turn up all sorts of little facts and observations, that slowly but surely, start to build some pictures that Ariti can begin to colour in, ending up working much more closely with the more senior team than any of them had expected.
It's well worth remembering the cover blurb as you're reading through this novel:
"Where land is the new gold and people will die for it."
It's also worth remembering that the story sits in a timeframe when rural communities are seeing increasing numbers of "incomers" dodging COVID lockdowns, and the more rigid (and sometimes expensive) patterns of life in the city, causing all sorts of stresses and strains with the longer-term locals and old farming families.
Non-readers of CUTTERS END will be just fine diving into STONE TOWN if desired - there's a bit of time between the two novels, and stuff has happened to Ariti personally that's not at all hard to work out. The two investigations are very different, as are the locations, although there are echoes between the two - that incredibly strong sense of place, landscape, community and connection. What struck this reader in particular was Ariti's strong personal connection to something or somewhere in the setting. It's the same in both novels and it works an absolute treat.
I've always been a huge admirer of Garry Disher's rural noir novels (in particular) and to my eye, Margaret Hickey's work has so many of the same elements as his. Innate understanding of the place, landscape and people, sympathy, clear-eyed affection and a realistic viewpoint - good and bad. Now I'm going to be eagerly scanning the "upcoming" lists for works by both authors.
With its gold rush history long in the past, Stone Town has definitely seen better days. And it’s now in the headlines for all the wrong reasons . . .
When three teenagers stumble upon a body in dense bushland one rainy Friday night, Senior Sergeant Mark Ariti’s hopes for a quiet posting in his old home town are shattered. The victim is Aidan Sleeth, a local property developer, whose controversial plans to buy up Stone Town land means few are surprised he ended up dead.
However his gruesome murder is overshadowed by the mystery consuming the entire nation: the disappearance of Detective Sergeant Natalie Whitsted.
Natalie had been investigating the celebrity wife of crime boss Tony ‘The Hook’ Scopelliti when she vanished. What did she uncover? Has it cost her her life? And why are the two Homicide detectives, sent from the city to run the Sleeth case, so obsessed with Natalie’s fate?
But following a late-night call from his former boss, Mark is sure of one thing: he’s now in the middle of a deadly game . . .