Australian actor Matt Nable takes readers to a steamy Darwin in the early 1960s for his debut crime thriller Still. In doing so, he follows a recent trend of Australian crime not only going regional but of interrogating this particular time period (such as Greg Woodland’s The Night Whistler). Setting crime stories in the 1960s allows authors to not only get away from the dilemma of mobile phones in crime fiction but to shine a light on Australia’s more racist and unreconstructed past.
Ned Potter is an inspector with the Darwin police force. His antenna twitch when a man found dead in the marshes shot twice is declared a suicide by his boss. But it is not until he accidentally stumbles over two more bodies and there is more interference from above that he finds himself itching to investigate on the side. Unable to deal with the pressure, Ned retreats into the bottle, his alcoholism making him easy prey for those trying to manipulate the case. At the same time, housewife Charlotte Clark, dreaming of a better life rescues an injured Aboriginal man and hides him away on her father’s old property to recover.
Nable is less interested in creating a mystery in Still than in exploring small town corruption. The outlines of the conspiracy are revealed early and includes the Mayor, the police chief and one of the local priests among others. And while the “why” of this cabal is kept vague early on, anyone with a passing knowledge of this period of history will probably guess the types of crimes that the powerful are trying to cover up. This leads to a softer, surreptitious investigative response rather than the more common explosive third act. Which makes Still an interesting mix of down the line crime tropes and some more original approaches to the standard procedural.
Still gives a real sense of Darwin of the time – the crocodile infested marshes, the beaches, the pubs – and of the incessant heat, broken by the occasional storm. Although after a while some of the adjectives and descriptors of the atmosphere and the environment become a little repetitive. And while alcohol has always been a problem and a crutch it would be nice once in a while to find an investigator who did not have to deal with a substance abuse problem.
Overall, though, Still is another great Australian crime fiction debut which does its best to break out of the procedural mould and deliver an atmospheric sense of place and time.