Australian rural crime author Adrian Hyland brought character Jesse Redpath from the red outback of Northern Territory to a tinder-dry Victorian country town in Canticle Creek. There was a raging bushfire in the climax to Canticle Creek but when Hyland’s follow-up The Wiregrass opens, the weather could not be more different. Jesse finds herself working with the local rural fire brigade to clear roads of fallen trees and rescue people trapped by rising flood waters as the rain hammers down on her new posting in the Windmark Ranges and the tiny town of Satellite.
Jesse is a bit of a firebrand and it does not take long for her to find herself in the middle of trouble. During the storm it is Jesse who realises that what looked like death by falling tree was actually murder. Not long after Jesse finds herself attracted to a loner called Nash Rankin, an ex-policeman, who is then arrested for the murder. Jesse is not so sure he is responsible and despite being warned off investigating, starts to try and clear Nash’s name, a quest that will reveal long held dark secrets and put her in the crosshairs.
Hyland does a great job of keeping revelations coming and the tension high in The Wiregrass. From the reader’s perspective Jesse is always in the right but she is always pushing against authority and deliberately shaking things up to see what will happen. She is fearless, laconic, compassionate and intuitive. Jesse inspires loyalty from her friends and finds that Nash also has some people in his corner who can help her find her way to the truth.
The other highlight of The Wiregrass is Hyland’s feeling for the landscape. From the opening pages set on the night of the big storm – “trees and poles down everywhere, roads washed away, sinkholes opening up, flashfloods and landslides descending” to expeditions into the remote, former mining country of the Wiregrass Valley:
I made my way down serpentine trails and watercourses, hacked a passage through thick scrub, startled wallabies and lyrebirds, stirred up stroppy pigs and kangaroos… A step in the wrong direction and you could vanish into a tangle of woolly wattle or cat’s claw, never to be seen again. Thick vines twisted and clung to messmates and mountain ash, giving the impression that they’d mummify you if you gave them half a chance.
The Wiregrass is another great piece of evocative Australian rural crime fiction. One that uses as its jumping off point some deep, and in some cases unresolved, issues around the way Australian authorities have dealt with cults. Despite her remote posting, it is likely that Jesse Redpath will be back (it seems hard to stop her), a return which would be welcome.