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Bone Lands by Pip Fioretti

Bone Lands by Pip Fioretti

There is a plethora of good Australian rural crime fiction, and plenty of that set in the past. But few recent entries in this sub-genre go quite as far back is Pip Fioretti’s debut Bone Lands. Bone Lands is set in the sheep station area in North Western New South Wales near isolated towns like Cobar and Bourke (once used a byword in Australia for anyplace a long way away). But more critically it is set in 1911, not long after Australia federated and before the outbreak of World War I. There is plenty of crime here to drive the narrative but the most interesting aspect of this novel is Fioretti’s exploration of this time and place and the types of characters who inhabited it.

Augustus Hawkins is a veteran of the Boer War and has both the external scars and PTSD to prove it. He runs a small police station in the tiny town of Calpa and does his share of solving petty crimes. But on the night set aside to celebrate the coronation of King George V, after taking time off his patrol for an assignation with the local school teacher, Hawkins discovers three bodies, the grown children of Robert Kirkbride, one of the district’s wealthiest land owners. Following this discover, Hawkins’ new life starts to disintegrate. The case is high enough profile that two detectives are sent from Sydney and Hawkins is assigned to chaperoning them. But soon Hawkins is on the outer and possibly a suspect amd sees the solving of the case as his way back to respectability.

The premise of Bone Lands, that Hawkins somehow feels responsible, or is even held responsible, for the three deaths because he should have been on patrol and might have stumbled on them before the killings took place is a little flimsy. Particularly as it seems like the killing probably happened well before he would have found them anyway. But it works in the context of the society that Hawkins is in, the need for a scapegoat and in the context of what comes after becomes less and less important.

Hawkins is a damaged, alcoholic but dogged detective in the classic mode but with a backstory that is both fascinating and right for the setting.  It is Hawkins’ guilt, his connections to the victims and his thirst for some kind of justice for them which drives him.

But as already mentioned, what sets this book apart is Fioretti’s rendering of the time and place. The heat and the dust, the land compacted by sheep hooves, the hardscrabble life of the shearers, the entitlement of the wealthy and the very real class divide that it created, even amongst neighbouring landowners, and family feuds that are passed down through generations. There is plenty of violence and hardship but this just feels like par for the course. Add to that the fact that many of the roadblocks that Hawkins faces in solving the crime are societal ones – issues that people have turned away from or don’t want brought to light.

Overall Bone Lands is a visceral, well-constructed debut mystery with some devastating revelations. Through this story, Fioretti shines a light on the myths that underpin modern Australia to get at the bloody, violent and commerce-driven truth that sits underneath them.

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Bone Lands by Pip Fiorelli

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Bone Lands by Pip Fiorelli



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