Anyone overseas reading Australian crime at the moment will probably get the impression that the outback is a particularly dangerous place to be. Small outback towns seem to be a hotbed of current and historical crimes just waiting to be solved. Just in the last year we have had a host of debut crime novels set across country Australia including Maryrose Cuskelly’s The Cane (Queensland), Michael Trant’s Wild Dogs (Western Australia), Margaret Hickey’s Cutters’ End (South Australia) and Matt Nable’s Still (Northern Territory), and plenty of rural crime from established voices. So Shelley Burr’s debut novel Wake (which was awarded the British Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger in 2019), set in a small NSW country town called Nannine, is competing in a fairly saturated market. But despite this, Burr still manages to bring something new and exciting to the table.
Around twenty years ago Mina McCreery’s twin sister Evie disappeared during the night and despite a million dollar reward has never been found. Mina still lives on the property where she grew up, hoping as her mother did that her sister’s body would one day be found. Enter Lane Holland, a wash out from the police who has become a private investigator who specialises in solving cold cases with large rewards. But Lane has more on his mind than just the McCreery case, his younger sister is starting university and their abusing father’s parole hearing is coming up and Lane will do anything he can to keep his father in prison. Lane takes some time to gain access to Mina who is protected by the townspeople (even though the novel’s title is a reference to theories of her possible involvement in her sister’s disappearance) but once he forms a tentative connection and starts to investigate, the case starts to slowly unlock, creating unexpected consequences for both of them.
In some ways Wake is based on a contrivance but it is so well integrated into the story that it works. What also makes this work is Burr pitching the narrative around two extremely damaged but likeable characters with some conflicting motivations. Much of the tension in the plot comes from what the two are not telling each other (or themselves) and what happens when that truth comes to light. That together with an exploration of the role of the media and social media in high profile criminal cases and a great feel for the landscape create an engaging package.
Wake, together with some of the other titles already listed proves (if it needed proving), that Australia is a big place and there is still plenty scope for originality in Australian rural crime. In a year full of great Australian debuts this is another standout.