Back in 2007, Adrian Hyland won the Ned Kelly Award for best debut crime novel for his Northern Territory set novel Diamond Dove (since renamed Moonlight Downs) followed a couple of years later by its sequel Gunshot Road. Hyland achieved further recognition for his non-fiction account of the 2009 Victorian bushfires with his 2011 book Kinglake-350. Ten years on and Hyland is back with Canticle Creek, set in rural Victoria, but with a very definite Northern Territory connection.
Jesse Redpath is a police officer in Kulara, in the middle of the Northern Territory. She organises for a young Aboriginal man called Adam to be given community service and live with her artist father. But Adam leaves and the next she hears he has been accused of murdering his girlfriend in a small Victorian town and is himself dead in a car accident. Jesse does not believe Adam to be capable of murder and, using an exhibition featuring her father’s art as an excuse, travels to Victoria to investigate. While at first things seems to have been as the local police claim, she soon she finds that the situation is much more complicated and that her hunch may well be right.
Canticle Creek is a classic fish out of water procedural. Jesse uses skills she picked up in the territory and just a general tenacity to investigate. She gets in to fights, is almost killed, is accused of murder herself but no matter what happens just keeps on digging. And she is surrounded by a range of interesting side characters no more so than her cantankerous but talented father Ben and horse-riding teenager and wannabe side-kick Possum (Alice).
Jesse’s narrative is enjoyably dry. For example this observation when she visits the local sawmill:
A bunch of blokes with steel-capped boots and heads were unloading a B-double truck at a ramp near the entrance. They bounded about, chiacking each other, all beefsteak energy and blue jokes. An older fellow with fisherman’s ears and skin like waterlogged cardboard licked his lips and leered as I walked past.
But through Jesse’s descriptions, Hyland also brings the landscape to life. After driving through a “dust tumbled” landscape where the gravel road glows “like a ribbon of magnesium”, Jesse is brought to a small waterhole:
… Above it a creek – the Cordy, tumbled over pitted mudstone, formed little falls and runnels, transparent pools…Tiny fish darted around our toes. A whipbird cracked the silence, its languid call echoing through the valley. Dragon and damsel flies inscribed drifting figures of eight on rainbow wings, skimmed the surface and then made touchdown.
Fire is never far from people’s minds and lingers as a threat throughout the book until Hyland uses his knowledge and experience to bring its dangers vividly and viscerally to life.
All of these elements, together with a few well placed twists, combine to make Canticle Creek another enjoyable Australian rural noir procedural.