Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Australia according to Garry Disher

It's obvious from the beginning of Garry Disher's Chain of Evidence, recently released in the U.S., that Disher is in control of his material. There's not a false note in this compelling book that nevertheless remains tied to the day-to-day-ness of crime and criminal investigation. Chain of Evidence is, like Grace Brophy's The Last Enemy (previously reviewed here) published in the excellent SoHo Crime series. And, as in Brophy's novel, the point of view (always in the 3rd person) shifts among a number of characters. But unlike Brophy's narrative, Disher's remains distant from the point of view of the suspects and even potential suspects (apart from the short first chapter, the original crime from the anonymous perpetrator's point of view--something that has become a standard feature of the crime novel). We are privileged to hear what the primary characters of the novel (Inspectors Challis and Destry) are thinking, as well as several other investigators--but the narrative stays with the investigators, which is important in a police procedural. There is a narrative irony, as so often in crime fiction: we see clues that the police are missing; but these are viewed through the anonymous narrator's eye, not other characters. And even this detail of narrative irony is handled in an interesting way by Disher: frequently when the police get around to that already-revealed-to-the-reader clue, it is a case-breaking revelation and a success for the main character of the story. Disher is much less melodramatic: a clue (glimpsed by us in the original crime and on a victim's refrigerator door) is uncovered, but only as one more piece of evidence that, on its own, will not convict the child-predator at the center of this book. The frustration of the police in amassing a case that will, indeed, hold up is a driving force in Disher's book (something missing in Brophy's, which is structured more like a traditional mystery, interested only in revealing the identity of the killer). There's also a passage that highlights the noir credentials (rather than those of a cozy mystery) of Disher's brand of police procedural: in the narrator's voice but from the point of view of detective Ellen Destry, we get a view of modern society: "We admire rapist footballers, own plasma TVs we can't afford, grow obese and vote to keep out strangers. Our fifteen-year-olds get poor educations and move on to senseless crimes, addiction, jail time or deatah behind the wheel of a stolen car, and if they make it past fifteen they can't find work. A great, banal sameness defines us, making us mostly soporific—but nasty if cornered. We're vicious with paedophiles, probably because we produce them." That point of view is sympathetically carried through in Disher's portrait of the underclass in South Australian housing projects and small towns (a big part of Chain of Evidence). The social, even sociological, quality of the narrative reminds me of the novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which I've often held up as a model for effective noir police procedurals. Disher captures the society that produces the criminal classes, the milieu that spawns the individual criminals and causes the depression of the cops that retain a conscience. His novel is an achievement to be appreciated and a valuable and enjoyable addition to the genre. We become personally involved (and implicated) in the several strains of Chain of Evidence: the child molester, Hal Challis's vanished brother-in-law, and surrounding events and characters that reflect and amplify the pain and anguish of everyone involved on both sides of the law. Chain of Evidence makes me want to go back and re-read the Challis-Destry books from the beginning, and also to wish for access to Disher's other crime books.

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