David Burton has written an outstanding story about a tenacious young man determined to solve a mystery. In a tightly woven and highly readable plot he keeps the pressure up, and keeps it real. Shaun sees a man’s body floating in the local lake and when he returns with Constable Charlie Thompson the body has gone. The story kicks off from there and Shaun begins to investigate the mysterious death. He uncovers far more than he ever imagined. And he has a good imagination!
Set in a gritty, rundown Queensland coal mining town, the atmosphere is hot, dry and pulsating with undercurrents from personal relationships through to shonky mining regulations. My assumptions were overturned, clues were flipped and hopes were dashed. From angry picket lines headed by volatile Peter Grant, head of the mine workers union, to various forms of small town mindset, Shaun’s investigations pull him deeper and deeper into a world of unanswered questions.
The subtext throughout the story is “Who believes Shaun actually saw the man in the water?”. Not many people, it seems. Even his mother Linda struggles to accept the situation, although a family death may be clouding her reasoning. Shaun does appear to have a kind of obsessional limerence.
Fortunately Shaun has a keen ally in his long-time friend Will, a larrikin with a charming manner. They both believe the drowned man was murdered and someone has masterminded a cover-up. They negotiate their way through a minefield of possibilities, taking risks, and discovering the mental and physical challenges faced by coal workers and their families. Only once did I suspend disbelief when Shaun infiltrates a building. I imagine the place would have been riddled with CCTV cameras but it’s a pivotal moment.
In between covert operations, annoying teachers and school classes, Shaun and Will are on the school debating team with Megan Grant. Shaun adores Megan from afar and he imagines a future of “happy ever afters” together. Investigations continue in Brisbane with their debating team when a challenge is held in a Harry Potteresque private school perched on a hillside (I recognised it) and they stay overnight in enemy territory. A gripping spy-like chapter for you to discover.
I loved the personalities David Burton has created, the characters often did the opposite to what I expected, making them fallible yet understandable. In certain cases, there’s a fine line between liking and loathing. There is power in subtlety, and from the frustration of workers about to lose their jobs, to the death of a loved one, nothing is overstated.
David Burton has given Shaun a proactive role with plenty of intrigue. I have no hesitation in saying “The Man in the Water” is an excellent mystery for young adults and older readers. I became fully absorbed in the story and was right beside young Shaun trying to unravel the riddle. The end result is definitely worth it!
Quote from Chapter 32 “From the sky, Shaun’s home town looked like it was surrounded by yawning black holes. It was epic. The mines were colossal dark wounds in the earth, the town a sort of defiance among the rubble. It was a god’s sandpit. He pressed his face against the window and watched as the earth turned with the plane. They were coming in to land.”
David Burton is an award-winning director, playwright and author. By the age of 30, he’d written over two dozen professionally produced plays, published a book, and been a core part of some of the most innovative theatrical projects in Australia.
He’s now 32, a Dad, and has written a new YA fiction book “The Man in the Water” which I reviewed.
My recent reading had been on the gloomy side so I was looking forward to a rollicking read—the first thing I noticed in ‘Dead Man Switch’ was the initial lack of thrills and spills although they do make an appearance in the final chapters.
Tara Moss hints that protagonist Billie Walker, private inquiry agent, has a wild past but she seems a bit too reined-in for someone with such a pedigree, her father was a former policeman turned PI and she inherited his business. Even the business relationship between Billie and her ex-soldier assistant Samuel Baker seems flat, more diligence than derring-do, and similarly from starchy DI Hank Cooper from Central Police.
Regardless, I launched into ‘Dead Man Switch’ with high hopes and discovered Tara Moss has written a great book for the novice crime reader. Loaded with adjectives and story recapping, this mystery novel is a nice entry point for those graduating from cosy crime into something slightly more improper.
There are a lot of people draping themselves around the 1940s Sydney scene. There’s a knack to letting characters unfold, and piling them all in the front of the book slowed the action for me. First up we meet stoic lift operator John Wilson and then Mrs Lettie Brown of Brown & Co Fine Furs visiting Billie’s agency asking for help to find her missing son Adin. Business is slow, money is tight, Billie takes the case.
Somebody is spying on Billie from afar, while chunks of author research are on show; the stolen generations via quiet Shyla; WWII atrocities; the fur trade; Sydney nightclubs; Billie’s mother Baroness Ella von Hooft and her lady’s maid Alma representing a dying aristocracy—all jostling in a narrative where deployment of the five senses wouldn’t go amiss, and neither would more showing less telling.
Is Billie glamorous? I did not conjure her, as did a Greek café owner, looking like US film star Ava Gardner (above).
Billie is indirectly responsible for four deaths, although she herself does hang by a thread in one dire situation. She breaks the law, a rather humorous chapter involving her zany mother, and she bribes men with an Australian shilling. It’s hard to believe that when they were phased out in 1966 a shilling was worth 10 cents. But in 1940s, one shilling could buy a loaf of bread and a pint of milk so that’s breakfast sorted.
The Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains makes an appearance (below) with a corny filmscript car chase. Was this due to the writing, editing or my longing for a more unpredictable encounter? Billie is allowed to make mistakes to further the plot but one of them was transparent and I was disappointed in her naivety. Oh well, it is crime fiction after all.
With a view to a series, this first book is a light read with tasty clothes and much eyebrow-raising and head tilting. I sincerely hope Book 2 ups-the-ante. In the meantime, you will learn what to do with Fighting Red, the meaning of ‘dead man switch’ and discover what happens to young Adin Brown.
NOTE This debut Billie Walker Mystery may also be titled ‘The War Widow’ due to Billie’s photojournalist husband missing, presumed dead.
How is this for the personal touch!Sisters-in-Crime mailed a white 9×4 envelope with my address neatly printed on it and a postage stamp stuck in the corner. The stamp, if you are interested, commemorates 50 years since the moon landing. Australia had a hand in the Apollo 11 lunar module ‘Eagle’ landing on the moon.
Back to the goodies in the envelope:
A welcome letter from Carmel, Secretary & National Co-convenor.
Diary Dates and information on 26th Scarlet Stiletto Awards.
Leaflet for ‘Murder She Wrote’ Readers and Writers Festival to be held in Tasmania under the title ‘Terror Australis’ .
Bookmark stating all the wonderful things Sisters-in-Crime can offer me.
Info on bookshop discounts, panels, discussions, debates, tours, launches, festivals.
And, of course, my Membership Card!
Every department store in the world wants to give you a plastic card but this is a Crime Card. Not plastic; written on by hand; the nostalgic beauty of it.
Who or what are the Sisters-in-Crime? Let me fill you in—
Sisters-in-Crimeis a world-wide organisation but the Australian chapter was launched at the Feminist Book Festival in Melbourne in September 1991, inspired by the American organisation of the same name, which was founded in 1986 by Sara Paretsky (creator of Chicago PI VI Warshawski) and other women crime writers at the Bouchercon crime convention. Members are authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by their affection for the mystery genre and their support of women who write mysteries. Chapters currently meet in Melbourne, Perth, and Brisbane. The Melbourne chapter holds very regular events and partners with festivals, libraries and other organisations.
There are annual crime-writing competitions, the Scarlet Stiletto Awards (big prize money) and the Davitt Awards for the best crime books by Australian women published in the previous year.
I missed ‘Murder She Wrote’, the readers and writers Terror Australis Festival in Huon Valley, Tasmania, from 31 October to 5 November 2019. It was jam-packed with amazing stuff; panel sessions, masterclasses, Hall of Writers, book launches, Murder Mystery Dinner, etc. Hear my teeth gnashing…
I am currently reading‘Dead Man Switch’ by Tara Moss and she attended the Festival. Quote ‘I would kill to be at the Terror Australis Festival, but thankfully I was invited so I won’t need to.’ – Tara Moss, author.
This slow burning story crept up on me. I guess you know by now that I don’t write conventional book reviews. For starters I’m not going to give you a synopsis. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
Jenolan Caves are caves in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia; 175 kilometers west of Sydney. They are the most celebrated of several similar groups in the limestone of the country being the oldest discovered open caves in the world. They include numerous Silurian marine fossils of great interest and the calcite formations, sometimes pure white, are of extraordinary beauty.
The sadness and bewilderment Jessica suffers when her partner Matthew goes missing in the wilds of Tasmania gradually expands until she snaps. The atmosphere changes into an eerie, gothic-like tale of deception and fear. There are disturbing bits, there are gruesome bits and there are strong sex scenes, Krissy Kneen’s trademark.
Jessica lives in a flimsy wooden cottage at the edge of a seawall not far from the township of Southport. As I read on, I was unsure of William, the man who offers to help her, and doubly unsure of the coven of local women who offer strange advice and an even stranger solution. In the end I wanted Jessica to fight back and she did, the result is worth more than the price of admission to the spooky glow-worm caves.
At the time Matthew goes missing, Jessica, a scientist, is just finishing her PhD on glow-worms and works as a tour guide at the local cave complex, helping the tiny creatures to prosper. Winter Cave is her favourite and Winter Cave coldness, the surrounding dense forest, and feral smells pervade this book. Disturbingly, she is a good shot and needs to carry a gun to feel safe.
The character portrayals are well suited to their remote Tasmanian coastal surroundings, in particular old Marijam of Cockle Creek and her outlook on what appears to be a strange isolated life. She goes fishing for her seafood and compares commercial fishermen to the demise of small traders “Pick on a little bookstore, put a big mega-store across the road. Discounts on all the prices till the little fella dies, then corner the market” which she read about on the internet.
I queried some of the ‘things’ in the story and I was dissatisfied, or perhaps had my credulity stretched, with what transpires at the end. Like most animal-lovers, I sincerely hope the thylacine Tasmanian Tiger still exists. I also wondered if Jessica knew those caves as well as she thought.
My pet peeves are:
(1) More showing, less telling.
(2) Proof-reading misses, e.g. license interchanged with licence, rear-view mirror becomes rear-vision mirror. I’d go for Aussie spelling every time.
(3) Parts of the story felt like a filmscript not a literary description. There is a difference.
Krissy Kneen’s story reflects the time and effort she put into it, the sense of place is strong and at times overpowering. As a child, my parents and I visited the Jenolan Caves in New South Wales, Australia, and I have been claustrophobic ever since.
Here are my notes from the book review I presented at my local Crime And Mystery Book Club which meets once a month in our local library. Most of the participants had similar reviews. ♥Gretchen Bernet-Ward.
The plot twists and turns over many months as I follow the lives of three families jolted sideways after two untimely deaths.
Michael’s friend Janey has lost her dad to cancer and Michael understands this, but the other person who died? Nextdoor neighbour and dear friend Irma. Was it a heart condition, an accident or murder?
The safe, cosy world of young Michael and his Nan changes dramatically. Michael also has to cope with George, a bully, who moves into Irma’s house with his father Shawn prior to her death.
The sudden loss of Irma is deeply felt by Michael. As the saying goes he has “an old head on young shoulders” but is confused over what actually happened and gets no help from the adults. Strong opinions and conflicting advice are tossed his way.
Deep down Michael believes Irma was murdered and is determined to convince Nan and the gatekeepers. There are complexities to face and he over-reaches in the hope of finding justice. Anxiety joins his grief, he challenges his homelife and raises old questions. Why does he live with his grandmother? Where are his parents?
During a bad night, Michael’s old teddy bear comes down off the shelf for support as he works on his theory of Irma’s demise. He thinks she may have been poisoned. The chicken soup in question was homemade by Irma and well loved by Michael, his favourite panacea for cold symptoms. In fact, he is sniffling when she goes off to make him chicken soup and disaster strikes.
At one stage, Michael suspects his Nan – she’s my favourite character! – and while out walking he dashes away and hides. Quote “Michael?” calls Nan. I don’t move. “Michael”. “He’s fallen in the bloody moat,” says the man who isn’t Grandad. “Good job there’s no water in it.” “Feeder canal,” says Nan. “This is no time to be right about everything,” he growls. I’ve never heard anyone tell Nan off like that before. Unquote.
Author Maria Donovan portrays well-rounded, believable characters and each brings small yet highly significant details to the story. Bully and his father are thorns in Michael’s side but nothing distracts him from the hunt for clues. Janey has her own family problems. To relieve her frustration she gets a box of golf balls and stands in The Middle, a green opposite the houses, and slogs each white ball as hard as she can…
Being of a nosey disposition myself, I empathise with Michael’s underlying emotions and the need for resolution. Unfortunately this drive consumes him to the point of performing an ill-advised concert song. Tension escalates and stoic Nan marches towards a showdown. Maria Donovan’s tightly written finale comes at a penultimate time of year for everyone.
Skillfully woven through the story are school holidays, the seaside, and events on telly like Wimbledon, Test Cricket and 2012 Paralympics. Halloween high jinks are followed by a traditional Guy Fawkes bonfire night. Occasionally the zeitgeist side-tracks Michael’s quest yet adds a kaleidoscope of nostalgia for me.
Michael’s journey isn’t for children although young adult readers would identify with the youthful side. Part mystery, part coming-of-age, I think adults will enjoy the unique elements of the plot, and appreciate less gore than currently found in mystery novels.
Maria Donovan’s book walks a fine line between innocence and adult behaviour and succeeds in capturing the mood beautifully. It demands to be read again. Seek out those clever clues!
My star rating
‘The Chicken Soup Murder’ is Maria Donovan’s debut novel and was a finalist for the Dundee International Book Prize. Apart from this book, Maria has many literary credits to her name including her flash fiction story ‘Chess’ which won the Dorset Award in the Bridport Prize 2015.
Maria is a native of Dorset UK and has strong connections with Wales (also in the book) and Holland. Her past careers include training as a nurse in the Netherlands, busking with music and fire around Europe and nine years lecturing in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan, South Wales.
I was waiting for the delivery of a book written by UK author Maria Donovan. The title and synopsis of ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’ hint at a delicious yet deadly coming-of-age mystery.
There was scratching at the front door and our well-trained pet dragon stood there with a grin on his face. He had collected the parcel from the letterbox in anticipation of a treat. I patted him on the head and said ‘Good boy’ then picked up the parcel. He whined. I laughed. ‘Okay, I’ll get a couple of nuts’.
Inside the door, I placed the parcel on the sideboard. Underneath was an old rusty toolkit containing old rusty bits and pieces. I selected a couple of flange nuts and one bolt, gave them a squirt with WD40, and went back outside.
Part of the game was a quick toss-and-gulp and if you weren’t ready you’d miss it. I closed the front door on the slobbering noises and went to find a pair of scissors. The Booktopia cardboard was tough but I wrested it open.
And there was the pristine book I had so eagerly awaited! At the moment, I’ve only read up to Page 20 so I am sorry to disappoint you but my book review will be in another blog post further down the track. As my auntie used to say ‘Keep you in suspenders.’
“Stella Montgomery is in disgrace. The awful aunts, Aunt Condolence, Aunt Temperance and Aunt Deliverance,have sent her to Wakestone Hall, a grim boarding school where the disobedient are tamed and the wilful are made meek. But when a friend disappears, Stella is determined to find her – no matter what danger she encounters. Soon Stella is thrown headlong into the mysteries surrounding Wakestone Hall. Will Stella save her friend in time? And will she discover – at long last – where she truly belongs?”
Stella Montgomery and Wakestone Hall – the intrigue draws to an exciting close!
Wakestone Hall is Book 3 in the Stella Montgomery Intrigues and this series has captured my imagination. My inner child responded to the mysterious and creepy goings-on in the first two books, beautifully complemented by author Judith Rossell’s own illustrations of the Victorian era. The third book is out now with a book launch due in a couple of days. I can’t wait to read it! GBW.
Information: HarperCollins Publisher Published: 22 October 2018 ISBN: 9780733338205 Imprint: ABC Books – AU Number Of Pages: 280 For Ages: 8+ years old
Children’s, Teenage & educational / Fantasy & magical realism (Children’s – Teenage)
Just received a brand new copy of ‘Lethal White’ the fourth volume in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike detective series. We all know that J K Rowling actually writes it but what I didn’t know was that this hardback edition is large and heavy!
The cover has a nice grungy look and, no, I did not skid it across the tarmac.
It was difficult to photograph because the bronze lettering flared but I wanted to illustrate the interesting trend of books getting bigger again.
I can’t help wondering how it will compare to previous adventures. The book blurb reads “The most epic Robert Galbraith novel yet, ‘Lethal White’ is both a gripping mystery and a page-turning next instalment in the ongoing story of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.”
I will post a review when I’ve ploughed my way through 647 pages.
I love binge-reading! When I discover a good author like Elly Griffiths who has ten books in her crime oeuvre, I am ready, willing and able to read all. The archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway mystery series fits the bill nicely. To quote the Independent ‘The perfect ratio of anticipation, shock and surprise’.
Elly Griffiths is the pen name of Domenica de Rosa; she has written other novels under her real name. I like the historical and archaeological authenticity of this series which could be due to the fact that she’s married to Andrew Maxted, curator of archaeology at Brighton Museum.
I enjoyed the earlier books and then the later ones shown above. I loved ‘The Ghost Fields’ WWII story and found award-winning ‘The Chalk Pit’ quite fascinating. I struggled with ‘The Outcast Dead’ subject matter although it is fitting. I must mention the clever yet sneaky outcome of ‘The Dying Fall’ which has a touch of Hollywood about it.
The stories mainly revolve around Norfolk UK, tidal marshlands, excavations (with an occasional nod to ‘Time Team’) coastal regions and fictional University of North Norfolk where Ruth Galloway works. She is also a police adviser. The relationships of the key players are intriguingly tricky because of love triangles, children, 21st century parenting, murder and mystical goings-on.
Rather than a book review, I thought I’d do a quick character overview:
Dr Ruth Galloway lives on the Saltmarsh, lectures in forensic archeology, makes ground-breaking discoveries, and likes old bones and her cat Flint.
Fast-driving policeman DCI Harry Nelson moved with his family from Blackpool to Norfolk and doesn’t really like the place but he’s a born copper.
Two glamorous women, Michelle Nelson is wife of DCI Nelson, and Shona MacLean is Ruth’s bestie.
Michael Malone (aka Cathbad) brings enjoyable highlights to each plot with his spiritual insights, Druid instincts and flowing cloak.
Part of Nelson’s team are police officers DS David Clough ‘old school’ and DS Judy Johnson ‘graduate’ who don’t always share the same views.
Phil Trent, professor of archaeology at UNN, worries about funding but loves TV cameras, publicity and himself.
As I dug and sifted through the series, I noticed less archeology and gradual changes to the main characters but that’s the grit which makes these books human and relatable. There’s drama in their lives; a rocky layer or two over a conspiracy waiting to be uncovered.
Elly Griffiths has a nice knack of getting you up-to-speed with each book while revealing a ‘fresh’ crime involving the living and the desiccated. At one stage I quibbled over her use of Anglo male names like Max, Dan, Tim, Tom, Ted, Bob, well, you get my drift…but this has improved and the VIP reviews keep on coming:
"I refuse to apologise for being in love with Dr Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson, one of my favourite current crime series . . . a pleasure from start to finish"
"I adore the Elly Griffiths series and have eagerly read each book. I love seeing how the recurring characters are living and working out their relationships"
Joyce of joycesmysteryandfictionbookreviews
I’m waiting for book 11 ‘The Stone Circle’ but don’t you hang around, start reading!
The 25th Scarlet Stiletto Awards have been launched – with a body or two in the library – and I have reblogged the exciting news:
Sisters in Crime Australia’s 25th Scarlet Stiletto Awards were launched by Dr Angela Savage at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Library on 27 April, 2018. Almost $10,000 is on offer in prize money.
The event included dramatic readings of three winning “body in the library” stories – “Jane” by Narrelle M Harris (read by Jane Clifton), “Caught on Camera” by Jenny Spence (read by Susanna Lobez) and “Brought to Book” by Kath Harper (read by Leigh Redhead).
Dr Savage (below), the 2011 shoe winner and now Director of Writers’ Victoria, declared the awards “a milestone for Australian crime – at least of the literary persuasion”.
The awards, she said, had “spring-boarded the careers of many writers, including myself. To date, 3084 stories have been entered with 23 Scarlet Stiletto Award winners –including category winners – going on to have novels published.
“Like many of Sisters in Crime’s best ideas, it sprang from a well-lubricated meeting in St Kilda when the convenors debated how they could unearth the female criminal talent they were convinced was lurking everywhere.
“Once a competition was settled on, it didn’t take long to settle on a name – the scarlet stiletto, a feminist play on the traditions of the genre. The stiletto is both a weapon and a shoe worn by women. And of course, the colour scarlet has a special association for us as women. And they were right – talent is lurking everywhere, sometimes in the most unlikely places!”
The success and longevity of the Awards have been hugely dependent on the generosity of Australian publishers, booksellers, the film and television industry, authors and other parties.
Sisters in Crime had been uncertain that the launch would go ahead because, at the eleventh hour, the First Prize Sponsor, Bonnier/Echo Publishing, was closed down by its overseas arm. Luckily, Swinburne University and the ever-resourceful Dr Carolyn Beasley, Acting Chair of the Department of Media and Communication, stepped into the breach.
Sisters in Crime spokesperson, Carmel Shute, said, “We were also lacking a Young Writer Award sponsor because Allen & Unwin pulled out last year after more than 20 years of sponsorship. We were chuffed to get support at the last minute from Fleurieu Consult run by South Australian member Jessie Byrne, who is researching her creative PhD exegesis on Sisters in Crime Davitt Awards for best books.”
There are two brand-new awards on offer this year: Writers Victoria Crime and Punishment Award ($660) for the story with the most satisfying retribution (the winner gets a three-month spell in prison in the guise of a studio residency at Old Melbourne Gaol) and the International Association of Forensic Linguistics (IALF) Award for Best Forensic Linguistics Story ($1000).
IALF President, Dr Georgina Heydon (left) from RMIT, told the crowd that the award was designed to foster understanding of forensic linguistics which uses a scientific approach to language analysis in legal and criminal investigations.
“Typically, a forensic linguist is engaged to analyse the authorship of an anonymous document, to determine what was said and by whom in a covert recording, to identify coercive or oppressive questioning by police, or to determine the need for an interpreter. It’s not to be confused with the analysis of hand-writing styles.”
The full list of awards is:
The Swinburne University Award: 1st Prize: $1500
The Simon & Schuster Award: 2nd prize: $1000
The Sun Bookshop Award: 3rd Prize: $500
The Fleurieu Consult Award for Best Young Writer (18 and under): $500
The Athenaeum Library ‘Body in the Library’ Award: $1000 ($500 runner-up)
International Association of Forensic Linguists Award: $1000 for Best Forensic Linguistics Story
The Every Cloud Award for Best Mystery with History Story: $750
Kerry Greenwood Award for Best Malice Domestic Story: $750
Writers Victoria Crime and Punishment Award: $660 (studio residency, Old Melbourne Gaol) for the Story with the Most Satisfying Retribution
HarperCollins Publishers Award for Best Romantic Suspense Story: $500
Scarlet Stiletto Award for Best Financial Crime Story: $500
Clan Destine Press Award for Best Cross-genre Story: $500
Liz Navratil Award for Best Story with a Disabled Protagonist Award: $400
Closing date for the awards is 31 August 2018. Entry fee is $20 (Sisters in Crime members) or $25 (others). Maximum length is 5000 words. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Melbourne in late November.
To download an entry form, pay the entry fee and read the FAQs, click here.
Media comment: Carmel Shute, Secretary and National Co-convenor, Sisters in Crime Australia:
0412 569 356 or email@example.com
Visit the Sisters in Crime website and sign up for their newsletter.
It would be criminal to miss out on this great opportunity!
Actor Ioan Gruffudd stars as the boat-dwelling Dr Daniel Harrow in the new TV forensic drama series ‘Harrow’ filmed in Brisbane, Australia. The goal for this intellectual forensic drama, featuring an unorthodox and edgy forensic pathologist who lives aboard an untidy boat on the Brisbane River, was achieved by the combined talents of ABC Studios International and Hoodlum Entertainment.
Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, whose recent screen credits include movie ‘Fantastic Four’, TV series ‘Liar’, ‘Forever’ and earlier ‘Hornblower’, is now 44 and says he has more life experience to get under the skin of somebody like the flawed, smart and sarcastic Dr Harrow. Ioan, who also filmed ‘San Andreas’ in Queensland, fell in love with Brisbane, swimming with dolphins, attending theatre productions and an Ashes test cricket match at the Gabba stadium which unfortunately ended with treatment in hospital for heat stroke.
Leigh McGrath, executive producer of the 10-episode season of ‘Harrow’, says “Brisbane has got the tropical heat and humidity which I think adds a different feel to this forensic drama. Normally they are cold, they are Scandi noir, whereas we went the opposite.”
To quote The Australian newspaper journalist Justin Burke “The pilot episode presents an exquisite personal test for Harrow: does he quit his career and sail to Bora Bora as promised with his troubled, thieving, drug-addicted daughter? Or does he heed the professional challenge of grieving father Bruce Reimers (Gary Sweet), who is begging Harrow to reopen the investigation into his daughter Olivia’s death?”
“In addition to the procedural, crime-of-the-week element of the show, there is an overarching mystery that we are presented with in the opening scenes. Someone is seen dusting a body with concrete and throwing it off a small boat into the Brisbane River in the middle of the night. Who and why will be revealed in good time.”
If you click Ioan’s name (further on) you will see video footage of ‘Harrow’ filmed around inner Brisbane. Dr Harrow, a senior medical examiner, is based in the Queensland Institute of Forensic Medicine which in real life is the heritage-listed Brisbane Dental College near City Hall. Postmortems are not as easy on the eye as handsome Ioan Gruffudd.
This series is like reading a crime book with my home town in the background, I love picking out familiar landmarks and wondering how the film crew recreated a gruesome scene. The Brisbane River (Maiwar) stars but there are several familiar supporting actors to spice things up, e.g. Anna Lise Phillips, Remy Hii and Robyn Malcolm.
Keri Lee, boss of Disney’s ABC Studios Intl, is negotiating with global networks so hopefully this major drama series will be made internationally available. Meanwhile Australian viewers can watch ‘Harrow’ on ABC1 on Fridays 8.30pm 2018 or all complete episodes on iView.
Maud Fitch was well-known to the local police. While Maud would say she was recognised for her crime-busting phone calls and neighbourly good deeds, Sergeant Ron Tisdale on the front desk of Kingsgrove police station expressed the opinion that she was a nuisance caller.
“In fact,” he said in his rich baritone voice, “she’s a serial pest.”
Sergeant Tisdale had just hung up from her latest telephone call.
“It’s not as though Maud fits into the lonely old woman category,” he said generously. “She’s got a good family, a part-time job and plenty of hobbies.”
A junior officer asked what the problem was this time. “An escaped nerd alert?”
“Don’t be too cheeky, lad,” said Tisdale, careful not to let his soft spot show. “This time Maud has been observing her retired neighbour across the road and she thinks he’s murdered his sister and disposed of the body.”
The younger officer laughed. “Wasn’t that a storyline on TV last night? She’s a sponge. She absorbs everything she sees on television and translates it to her own life to spice things up.”
“That might be so but I’ll log the details just the same,” said the Sergeant. He rubbed his chin. “I think I’ll drop by Ms Fitch’s place on my way home this afternoon. Just a quick visit to check that everything is fine.”
Being the senior officer, he ignored the knowing wink from his subordinate.
Maud had made a comment about uncharacteristic behaviour which sounded an
alarm bell in his orderly mind. At the very least, he wanted to see that sparkle in her eyes when she had a hunch about something.
* * *
Maud saw Angus McDowell draw the living room curtains again. He seemed to open and close the floral curtains three or four times a day in a vain attempt to make it look like someone was at home. That in itself was unusual in such a safe little town like Kingsgrove but it was always his sister, Felicity, who did the domestic work inside their home. Angus was the outside type. He trimmed the garden, attacked the weeds and planted flowers as orderly as a row of chairs at the movies.
“He’s been doing that curtain thing for several days now,” said Maud. She shaded her eyes from the afternoon sunlight which gleamed down on her pale skin and auburn hair. She turned and caught Sergeant Tisdale with a transfixed look on his face. “And I haven’t seen Felicity for almost a week.”
The Sergeant cleared his throat and reached for his fourth helping of Maud’s homemade biscuits.
“Perhaps she’s gone on a holiday?” he suggested. “Has he told you anything specifically to the contrary to arouse your suspicions?”
Maud poured more hot water into his coffee cup and frowned.
“That’s just it, he’s cut himself off, Sergeant.”
“Please, call me Ron,” he said.
“Angus isn’t answering the phone or the door bell,” she added, “Ron.”
“Maybe Felicity is visiting family and he didn’t want to go with her. Could be he’s home alone having a kind of bachelor break.” Sergeant Tisdale muttered to himself, “Lord knows we all need one of those occasionally.”
Maud understood that his daughter was leaving the grandchildren with him more and more now that his divorce had come through, thinking that it would cheer him up.
“He’s not the type,” she said emphatically. From her position as a twice-divorced woman with grown-up sons, Maud felt she could speak with authority on the slovenly ways of men when left to their own devices. Angus was neither a loner nor a slob.
The Sergeant shrugged his broad shoulders.
To highlight her next words, she tapped her spoon on the side of her cup.
“He’s been doing everything under the cover of darkness.”
After she had outlined the nocturnal behaviour of her neighbour, Sergeant Tisdale said “I don’t want to snuff out your theory with a fire blanket, Maud, but I hardly think getting the groceries delivered or taking out the rubbish and collecting the mail after dark constitutes a criminal case.”
Crumbs were starting to gather on the front of the Sergeant’s shirt and he automatically brushed them off. Maud’s glare made him hang his head like a school boy. He apologised as she hurried out of the room to find her hand-held vacuum cleaner. When she came back she noticed he had taken the opportunity to stuff a savoury cheese sandwich in his mouth.
Over the suction noise of the vacuum, Maud said “I haven’t told you the clincher yet.”
“Clincher?” mumbled Sergeant Tisdale. The look on his face indicate that he thought this was another word for Maud’s guesswork. But she knew he was actually allowing himself enough time to swallow the sandwich. It gave her the chance to air her next piece of evidence.
“Yesterday, when I dropped by, there was no flower bed in the back garden. Now there’s one near their old jacaranda tree.” Her voice rang with triumph.
Sergeant Tisdale smiled politely. “The McDowell’s have a neat garden, they like gardening, I see nothing unusual with that.”
“But, Ron,” gasped Maud, “it was dug in the middle of the night.”
“Well?” said Sergeant Tisdale as he eyed the last biscuit.
Maud shoved the plate towards him. “It’s the same size as a graveyard plot.”
Unimpressed, Sergeant Tisdale sighed. “And?”
“And there’s no flowers planted in it,” said Maud. “The reason I think this is so significant is the fact that Angus has a bad back so all the hard work is carried out by a landscaper who arrives around ten o’clock in the morning.”
She waited for a rebuke, similar to the kind her family dished out, which usually ended with her being told she was a sticky beak. Instead, Sergeant Tisdale asked “When did you last…?” With a dramatic squeal, she cut him off and pointed out the window. “Look! He’s fussing at the curtains again. I can see his gardening overalls.”
Sergeant Tisdale half rose from the armchair which caused a cushion to tumble to the floor and coffee to slop onto his trousers. Maud gave a snort of annoyance but it was directed through the window.
“Too late,” she said. “He’s ducked out of sight.”
“Sorry about that,” said Sergeant Tisdale. He sat back down and carefully reached for a paper serviette.
“Oh, don’t worry…” began Maud.
“No, I don’t mean spilling my coffee,” he said. “I meant twitchy behaviour. It happens a lot around policeman. Police cars also have a way of making citizens nervous.” He dabbed at his knee with the disintegrating paper and changed the course of the conversation. “Maybe he’s worried about you, Maud.” She rejected this idea with a wave of her hand. “No, I think he knows we’re on to him.” For emphasis, she punched a small fist into the palm of her hand.
“Let’s nail him,” she said.
“I’m shocked,” said the Sergeant and smiled. “You have a wonderful imagination.”
His comment was ignored because Maud remembered something else she’d forgotten to tell him. “You know, I rang all the hospitals in Kingsgrove and none of them had a Felicity McDowell on their patient admissions list.”
By tilting his head to the side, Maud thought his interest was piqued but he dashed her hopes.
“What’s the motive, Maud? From all reports, Angus and Felicity McDowell have got on very well over the years, considering they are brother and sister. No sibling rivalry there. They’ve settled into retirement together after the death of their mother and have never put a foot wrong, so to speak. Now, answer me this,” he said and leaned forward slightly. “Why do you think Angus has murdered his sister Felicity?”
His voice sent a shiver up Maud’s spine. She sucked in a lungful of air and expelled it slowly. “Well, dear Ron, I was saving the most incriminating evidence until last.”
Sergeant Tisdale put his cup aside, drew himself up in the armchair and displayed credible anticipation.
“The McDowells were arguing just before Felicity disappeared.” Maud moistened her lips. She believed this was the good part. “Felicity was leaving the house and she shouted at him saying he was a boring old man and it showed. She didn’t want to end up a wrinkled prune like him. She said he was stuck in a rut and should live a little, move with the times.”
“How did you hear all that?” asked Sergeant Tisdale.
Maud felt guilty and knew it showed. “I was watering the garden.”
With reluctance, Sergeant Tisdale rose from the comfort of the chair and said “Hurt feelings yes, murder no. An argument like that doesn’t indicate Angus would have been angry enough to commit murder.”
Maud was crestfallen. She had hoped Sergeant Tisdale would look into it for her. However, his next words brightened her outlook.
“I’ll call on Angus tomorrow, just for a little man-to-man talk. But I’m not promising anything. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for Felicity’s absence.”
As he walked towards the door, Maud followed him and voiced her main worry. “I certainly hope Angus is not a serial killer or I may be next on his list.”
Sergeant Tisdale assured her that normal people don’t turn into serial killers overnight. He thanked her for the afternoon tea and was just about to cross the threshold when he paused. He asked Maud if she had seen or spoken to either of the McDowells in the past week.
“No, except for partially seeing Angus at the window,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“We don’t know if that person in the house across the road is actually a McDowell. It could be anyone.”
As far as Maud was concerned, their conversation had taken a turn for the worst. She was horrified to think that perhaps both McDowells were murder victims.
“Oh,” said Maud. “Both murdered.”
She opened and shut her mouth then managed to utter “Oh, Ron.”
Sergeant Tisdale told her how this particular thought had been niggling at the back of his mind. Maud couldn’t tell if he was serious. “Don’t worry,” he said and gave her elbow a squeeze. “Just speculating out loud. Not a very plausible scenario. Also, if someone was in there house-sitting, I’m sure you would have witnessed other comings and goings.”
“And surely they would have told me if they were going away?” said Maud. She felt indignant at the very idea of being excluded from this information.
“Not necessarily,” said the Sergeant. “For example, they might have been too embarrassed to say they were going to a nudist camp.”
Despite herself, Maud laughed. It was an unlikely event as far as she was concerned. She said if that was the case, she would never be tempted to join them.
“Shame,” said Sergeant Tisdale.
As she closed the front door, she was aware that the Sergeant’s look was one of interrupted longing. She assumed he was disappointed he had not been invited to dinner. With a final vacuum of the armchair, she dismissed the flaws of men because a plan of action had already germinated in her fertile mind.
Dusk had melted into darkness and the clock numerals glowed towards midnight as Maud changed her clothes. She put on her black slacks and a dark blue shirt which she buttoned to the top. In the wardrobe she found a black cap her nephew had left behind. Once it was firmly clamped on her head, she surveyed the effect and was satisfied she looked slinky enough to blend into the night.
“Now for a bit of sneak and peek,” she whispered to the mirror.
At first, Maud thought it would be a good idea to dig up the grave-like mound beside the McDowell’s jacaranda tree but visions of a gruesome discovery quickly ended that notion. Now she wanted to see who was in the McDowell house.
She crossed the dimly lit road, opened the wooden gate and tiptoed across the springy lawn. The act of trespass did not enter her mind. She headed for the side of the house because, she reasoned, it was less visible from the road and more likely to have an open window. Startled by a creature rustling in the shrubbery, she paused and held her breath. It was then she heard another sound. The sound of digging. Maud was sure her heart skipped a beat.
“Caught in the act,” she thought. Surprised at her bravery, she moved forward. She wanted to see who was doing the dirty work.
“Maybe the body is being moved?” This thought made her shudder.
Maud crept along paving stones as she followed the noise around the corner of the old house. Dull light from an open doorway partially lit the back garden. There, hunched over the newly-dug garden bed, was a shadowy figure wearing heavy grey overalls and thick gloves. Although she only had a back view, Maud guessed it was Angus. She could distinguish his movements and watched him dig at the soil with a small trowel.
Suddenly her bravado faded and Maud lost her nerve. She couldn’t tackle him and she certainly couldn’t accuse him of anything. It was too tricky, too dangerous even. Inwardly she chastised herself for doing such a foolhardy thing.
As she cursed her impulsive behaviour, her innermost thoughts screamed in a high pitched voice “Run, run now,” but she willed herself to stay calm.
She started to back away. As she moved slowly down the path, she felt for the stability of the wall. Without warning, she stood on a loosely coiled water hose and staggered. It twisted around her ankle. The more she flayed, the more entangled she became until the hose wrapped around her leg. Finally she fell backwards and plonked down in a puddle of water.
The silhouette jumped up and ran over to her. Two sturdy boots halted in front of her downcast eyes. Maud did not want to look up. She did not want a confrontation. She knew she was cured of sleuthing for life. One steel capped boot tapped with intimidation as she forced herself to look upwards.
In the same instant she raised her eyes, the backlit figure spoke.
“Maud Fitch,” said a female voice. “What on earth are you doing spying on me in the middle of the night?”
“Felicity! You’re safe!” cried Maud, flooded with relief.
“Of course,” said Felicity. “Now answer my question.”
Maud gulped. “I thought you were dead.”
“Obviously not,” said Felicity.
“But, but,” stammered Maud, “why are you dressed in Angus’ clothes?”
“To do a spot of gardening,” said Felicity.
Maud felt bold enough to ask for some assistance. Felicity helped her untangle the garden hose and she stood upright. As she brushed at her damp slacks, Maud saw a line of potted plants waiting to be transplanted.
Unable to resist, she said “Why do it at this time of night?”
“Planting by the lunar cycle,” said Felicity.
“Angus does the gardening. Where is he?”
“None of your business,” said Felicity. She appeared about to add something, instead she pulled off the gardening gloves and shoving them into a plastic bucket.
“You didn’t…” Maud’s voice faded.
Felicity shot her a sly grin. “You reckon I’ve bumped him off and buried him in the garden, don’t you?”
Maud nodded and wondered how fast she could run.
“I could easily do that to you,” said Felicity matter-of-factly, “and nobody would ever know.”
“Ron Tisdale would,” said Maud, then covered her mouth.
“Will the good Sergeant be arriving next?”
“Yes,” lied Maud.
Felicity appeared unfazed by this and Maud watched as she swiftly removed the stained overalls. Unfortunately it was too shadowy for Maud to tell if the marks were made by grass or blood. Felicity jammed the overalls into the plastic bucket and stood there wearing a pair of tight jeans and a flattering top. To Maud’s dismay, Felicity then snatched up a pair of pruning shears and shook them menacingly at her. “You’re a nosey old sticky beak,” she said.
Maud was relieved when Felicity dropped the shears into the overcrowded bucket. She retorted “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Felicity chuckled. She sat down on the door step in the pale glow from the kitchen beyond and ran her fingers through her newly-cropped hair. It was almost a challenge.
Her attitude no longer threatened Maud but she was disconcerted when Felicity smiled and crossed her legs in a relaxed fashion. Maud wondered why her image was so cool, so casual. And, she noted with surprise, so young-looking. She thought “If Felicity is older than me then she should look older.” In fact, Felicity looked younger and more unlined than when she and Maud first met ten years ago. It took Maud a few seconds to work it out.
“You’ve had Botox injections,” she accused.
“Yes, I have. Got it done last week when I was in Sydney, only took a few hours. And I’m loving it,” said Felicity with a girlish toss of her head. “When do you think Sergeant Tisdale will get here?”
“I think you should be arrested,” Maud exploded. “Obviously you wanted a new life, a carefree younger life. You didn’t want Angus hanging around, poor old wrinkly Angus, so you killed him. Clearly the treatment has addled your brain.”
“You’re the one who’s addled.” Felicity glared as much as the Botox treatment would allow. “Angus got knifed. It was no accident.” She paused and straightened her sleeve. “I persuaded him to go under the knife. I’ve been covering for him while he recuperates from cosmetic surgery.” Maud was dumbfounded. “Angus, cosmetic surgery? Never!”
“It’s true,” said Felicity. “It’s our little secret. Please don’t give the game away. He should be home tomorrow so you can check out the work for yourself.”
“I won’t be coming back, I couldn’t imagine anything more awful. What a ludicrous thing to do,” shouted Maud. She turned and stormed off before she realised her behaviour was excessive but she had gone too far to make amends. As she rounded the corner, she yelled over her shoulder “You’re a couple of vain peacocks.”
She muttered all the way home about people who couldn’t grow old gracefully, who were image obsessed and wanted immortality through the process of body distortion.
“I love my wrinkles,” she said defiantly. Then wondered if it was true.
* * *
Next day, Maud had driven home from work and cruised down the last familiar stretch of her own road when she saw Sergeant Tisdale’s police vehicle pull away from the kerb outside the McDowell residence. For her own benefit, she needed to know what he had been told about her unseemly actions and started to formulate an excuse.
She flashed the headlights then flagged him down with windmill-like arm gestures. The Sergeant appeared both annoyed and amused but pulled over good-naturedly and lowered his car window.
Maud was ready with her questions but he spoke first.
“I’ve solved the McDowell mystery,” he said.
Maud went to speak but he kept talking. “Old Angus and Felicity are there. He told me that both he and Felicity had each taken a short vacation.”
She gave a wary nod.
Sergeant Tisdale continued “The separation must have done them both the world of good. They look ten years younger.” Maud smiled. At that moment, she experienced a revelation. She decided that saving face was not as important as keeping a friend’s secret. Sergeant Tisdale looked at her expectantly. “Glad to hear it,” was all she said.
Maud accelerated sharply and left the Sergeant behind without a second glance.
She knew he wouldn’t give up on her that easily and she had biscuits to bake.
(With my thanks to Maud Fitch, friend and fellow writer)