Australian true crime author Vikki Petraitis won the inaugural Allen and Unwin crime fiction prize for The Unbelieved, her first fictional outing. And while this is fiction, it very much has real world issues on its mind. In particular, as can possibly be intuited from the title, issues surrounding rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, and the way these matters are dealt with by the justice system.
After a brief opening scene involving a ten-year-old crime, Petraitis introduces Antigone Pollard, hoping to have a quiet drink in her town’s local bar only to be hit on by one of the locals and then ‘rescued’ by a handsome stranger who turns out not to be a knight in shining armour. Pollard is a senior detective who has fled Melbourne for the small town of Deception Bay, and has moved into her grandmother’s farm with her faithful ex-police dog Waffles. Before long she is deep into a case involving spiked drinks and sexually abused women, but also connecting with the Country Women’s Association and encouraging the women of the town to stand up for themselves against abusers – a stance that angers the powers-that-be, including her boss. A series of events has her reinvestigating that ten-year-old crime – the apparent murder-suicide of a farming couple on the outskirts of town.
Petraitis is not shy about setting out her concerns as Antigone lays out the facts to one of her junior colleagues:
‘Jane,’ I began, my tone conciliatory, ‘last year, four thousand three hundred victims in Victoria reported being raped. Do you know how many offenders were jailed as a result?’
‘No,’ said Jane grumpily …
I shook my head again to put her out of her misery. ‘Forty-one.’
Janes eyes widened. ‘What? No way! That can’t be true.’
‘Not even one per cent of reported rapes resulted in a jail sentence,’ I said. ‘And the overall rate for rape is under ten per cent.’
I knew the statistics. The best estimate was that only twenty percent of sexual assault victims reported it to the police … So many reasons for not coming forward, but I reckon many of them had no faith in the system.
But despite its occasional didactic nature, this is a rattling good crime story. While there is the occasional moment of telling rather than showing, Petraitis mainly reveals the problems in the system through both Pollard’s current case and the one that went pear-shaped and drove her out of Melbourne. Interestingly, recent changes in the law in Victoria may go towards addressing at least some of these institutional issues.
The cold case aspect of The Unbelieved is probably the most conventional. Anyone who has read The Dry will know that if a there is an apparent murder-suicide on a small farm then there has to be more to it. And the problems with the original investigation become glaringly apparent very quickly. But this subplot is used to further highlight Pollard’s connection to the town, her investigative skills, and to put her even more at odds with her sexist, old-school boss.
Antigone Pollard herself is a great main character. Unlike so many crime fiction protagonists, Pollard may have a little bit of baggage but she takes no crap and has no fear. She is a staunch believer in her abilities, which are impressive, and her cause, which is a just one, and does not back down from a fight. But she also understands her need to plug in and connect with those around her, including her partner Wozza, and to take advice from her mentor when she needs it.
Petraitis has used her knowledge, experience and passion to deliver a page-turning crime novel that also has something to say. This is not the first crime novel, even this year, to raise the subject of sexual assault in Australia – Nina Campbell’s debut Daughters of Eve also worked this ground. But the issue is an important one and reflects a reality that is perhaps more readily absorbed when delivered through engaging fiction.
This review first appeared on Newtown Review of Books.