Smoke by Michael Brissenden

11/07/2024
Smoke by Michael Brissenden

Former Australian journalist Michael Brissenden’s third novel Smoke (after The List and Dead Letters) was inspired by the devastating bushfires that ravaged the Australian east coast in late 2019 and early 2020. But rather than setting his story in that time and place, Brissenden takes the action to another fire flashpoint – the forests of California.

Detective Alex Markov has returned to her home town of Big Jasper, in the Californian mountains. She tried to get away from the small town by moving to Los Angeles but found herself drawn into a cabal of corrupt policemen and, when she tried to blow the whistle, was targeted and has retreated to her former home. But the fires have come to Jasper and in the aftermath of the blaze, the abusive husband of her best friend Eve is found dead in a burnt out shed that has been locked from the outside. The murder investigation is only the tip of the iceberg as Markov starts to encounter dodgy developers and a link back to the police who drove her out of LA. She continues to dig for the truth but when one of her former colleagues (and lover) turns up in town, Markov finds her life once again starting unravel.

In his Acknowledgements Brissenden claims that he set Smoke in California to bring home that fact that bushfires are a “common global challenge”. However, setting action in the place where the vast majority of English fiction is set feels like it does exactly the opposite. It is hard to see how you convince American readers that something is a global phenomenon by setting it in their backyard. And despite its change of scene the Australian aspects still sneek in, so that for all of its Americanisms, Smoke often feels decidedly transplanted (down to the fact that the setting of Big Jasper is apparently named after the tiny Australian country town of Wee Jasper for reasons that are never explained).

The fires themselves, while clearly providing inspiration as to setting and some purple prose in the Prologue (“that small spark… had now become the roaring angry tempest… like climbing fingers of malfeasance crushing everything in their grasp”), ends up being no more than background. The atmosphere is consistently described as hot and smoky, the fire creates confusion around the cause of the original murder and these is a fair amount of displacement in the town. But the narrative does not really seem interested in the fire itself, the global changes that are causing these fires to accelerate, the impact of more regular fires on fragile rural communities or those called out to respond.

What Brissenden is interested in are the long standing webs of police corruption that reach into the corporate and political spheres and the pressures on local communities to accept dodgy developments in the name of employment even as it drives out locals. And as a crime thriller of this type, Smoke does deliver to an extent. Although it does not bring very much new to the table and is not helped by some predictable twists and some very long-bow plot contrivances.

Smoke by Michael Brissenden

6

6.0/10

Wrap Up

Smoke by Michael Brissenden

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