Greg Woodland’s debut novel The Night Whistler was one of the many new voices in the last few years producing Australian rural crime that sets itself a little apart by also having a historical edge (see also: Matt Nable’s Still, Maryrose Cuskelly’s The Cane and Hayley Scrivenor’s Dirt Town). Set in a New South Wales New England town of Moorabool in the late 1960s, the narrative of that original book oscillated between a disgraced policeman with a secret in his past and a twelve year old boy keen to be a detective. Woodland has found a way to follow this debut up without repeating himself, drawing the story forward five years and delivering a very different type of crime story, one that digs deep into the culture of small towns at the time.
The Carnival is Over opens in 1971 with a car crash. Seventeen year old Hal and his best friend (and bad influence) Lloyd have flipped a stolen vehicle which they were hoping to use to escape the town. Instead of going to jail, and thanks to the intercession of local Sergeant Mick Goodenough, they are put on a good behaviour bond which they have to serve out by working in the local abattoir. A few months later Mick finds himself investigating two apparent suicides, both leading back to the abattoir. The second of these, the death of a floor manager Christine, gets his alarm bells ringing. This death also leaves Hal and his old friend Allie exposed to the darker elements of the workplace. Christine’s death pulls Hal and Allie into Mick’s investigation and as the edges of a conspiracy start to emerge, the situation spirals out of control.
Woodland deliberately starts his two protagonists in very different places to where they were at the end of The Night Whistler – Hal is a disillusioned teenager and Mick has been promoted to running the small country police station. Woodland then he produces a work that operates on a number of different registers. It starts with a procedural element and the bullying culture that can emerge in small towns. Once the procedural element has kicked into gear and the main plot starts to unravel, the narrative switches into more of a thriller mode. But alongside that, Woodland does not forget his main characters and their private lives, including the nascent relationship between Hal and Allie. He particularly highlights Allie and her specific struggles as a young Aboriginal woman with ambition in 1970s country Australia.
The Carnival is Over is another atmospheric and engaging work of crime fiction from Woodland, taking elements from his earlier work and building on them successfully. Authors like Garry Disher have shown that there can be mileage from returning to a small rural area for a number of books. So it will be interesting to see if Woodland finds a way to pivot again and continue this series or move on to something else.