Although there is plenty of it, there is not yet a separate term for Australian rural noir set on the coast. Like many other Australian authors though, Aoife Clifford has moved from the bushfire ravaged inland of her last novel, Second Sight, to a small town on the Australian coast in When We Fall. In doing so she retains that small town vibe where everyone-knows-everyone-else’s-business, the past is always threatening to bubble up to the surface and relationships-run-deep.
Failing barrister Alex Tillerson returns to her hometown of Merritt to look after her mother Denny who is starting to suffer from dementia. On one of their first outings, a walk on Beacon Beach, the two discover a severed leg which turns out to belong to a woman later found drowned off the coast. When the police take a cavalier attitude to solving the crime, Alex feels obliged to do her own investigating. This obligation becomes more compelling for Alex when she realises that this death might be related to the earlier murder of a teenage environmental campaigner.
Alex is an accidental detective and Clifford does well to manoeuvre her into the places she needs to be to pick up clues. Suspicion is thrown on the local police early, giving Alex more incentive to believe she should be “helping out” as does her discovery of long held town secrets and the possible conflicts of interest that result from them. All the while Alex is trying to deal with a messy personal life, a fast devolving professional life and a rocky relationship with her prickly, deteriorating mother. Clifford plays fair with readers so that the solution to the mystery may become obvious to some earlier than it does to Alex, but it is just as enjoyable watching her put the pieces together and dealing with the consequences of those discoveries.
The narrative to shines a light on some wider issues, including adult children having to manage elderly parents and a little talked about historical injustice – the pre-emptive removal of newborns from single mothers who were seen as “unfit”. Clifford delivers the complete crime fiction package by wrapping these issues up in a well-paced mystery, anchored by a believably fallible main character in a well realised setting.