Australian journalist Michael Brissenden has followed up his domestic terrorist thriller The List with Dead Letters another Sydney based thriller. Ex Special Forces soldier and Afghanistan veteran and federal policeman Sid Allen is back although handily moved from anti-terrorism to a new taskforce which is tasked with investigating the murder of a prominent federal politician, a murder with ties to Sydney’s crime gangs and international money laundering.
There are a number of parallel threads set up at the beginning of Dead Letters. There is Sid and his team investigating the shooting of a politician, a war veteran who Sid knew in Afghanistan, but may have links to organised crime. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff is himself on shaky ground, trying to keep the situation under control while also trying to help his boss make political capital from the murder. And then there is journalist Zephyr Wilde, who is looking into the long closed investigation into the death of her mother, a prominent brothel owner, and turning up connections to Allen’s investigation.
Much like The List, Brissenden finds it hard to shake his journalistic roots. Much of Dead Letters is telling rather than showing, include lengthy exposition and detailed descriptions of characters, down to their favourite movies. This style tends to take the air out of the narrative. Despite this, Brissenden does manage to ramp up the tension in the last third of the book as Allen finds himself in the classic position of suspended from the force, but continuing investigating on his own with his circle of trust shrinking as he becomes a prime suspect. But in the end the final showdown, for all of its tension, makes little sense.
Getting equal billing in the narrative is the impossibly named journalist Zephyr Wilde. Wilde has flaming red hair, is feisty and determined and, of course, attracted to Allen. Wilde has a quest of her own, finding out not only who killed her mother, or at least covered up the murder, but also who is sending her the regular letters written by her mother before she was killed. Despite her agency, Wilde only just manages to struggle out from under the manic pixie dream girl companion role for Allen.
Brissenden tries hard to make Sydney a character in this book. However, his most consistent mode seems to be a lament for how the city has changed since an apparent heyday of the late 70s. Both the authorial descriptions and the character’s opinions continually stress how Sydney has changed, seemingly for the worse. The list of gripes, though, is fascinating – European backpackers on the beach, people who own expensive cars going to local pubs which serve craft beer and no longer have to “hose out” the drunken regulars, a waning interest in rugby league, parking meters and a particular axe to grind with veganism. Given the main characters are not geriatrics it is hard to believe many of them are old enough to remember, let alone yearn for, the apparent “good old days” of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
But with so much Australian crime these days heading for the bush it is refreshing to come back into the grime of the city every now and then. Brissenden, with a long history in journalism, brings a knowing eye to the intersection between gang-related crime, corruption, police and politicians, and by exaggerating the roles of some of the players, exposes that line between them as incredibly blurry, if it exists at all. But for all of that deep background, Dead Letters does not quite work as a thriller which are only effective if the either the plot is simple and tight or the pages turn fast enough to allow readers to sail over the plot holes.