review: garry disher, bitter wash road

I’m always a little hesitant to read rural Australian crime. Many good authors work within that specific genre, and I’ve mostly enjoyed those other books, but I won’t snap up a title on the subject like I would one set in a city. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a country person—mostly because I am a bug magnet who prefers the bustle of a city, the calming feel of the ocean or even, sadly for me, the cafe comfort of the suburbs, leaving the poor country to last. But I’d be remiss to not point out that rural fiction tends towards a small town full of suspicious folk who don’t like that there newcomer in their town, and also everyone has a gun, and it just tends to be a whole lot more downbeat than most crime, and that’s even with the awareness that crime is generally a downbeat type of topic. So with all that cynicism rattling in my brain, I picked up Bitter Wash Road anyway, because I hadn’t read anything else by Garry Disher and decided it was about time. And, well, good work past self, because it’s a great book.

Constable Paul Hirschhausen has been booted to the wheatbelt South Australian town of Tiverton after aiding in a corruption inquiry back in Adelaide. He works in a one-officer station that he lives unenthusiastically behind, and his work colleagues in the nearby town of Redruth, led by Sergeant Kropp, have given him the welcome he expected: a bad attitude, a barrage of insults, and some sneaky tricks of their own. Hirsch, a character as put-upon as they come but not one to let his instinct for justice or general good humour be quashed, takes it all in his stride and gives as good as he gets. He is the character that elevates this book: someone who sees the dust and misery a country in drought can bring, but who sees the sun and hope as well without being anywhere near as twee as that sentence was.

He is first called to the unpaved Bitter Wash Road when he gets a report of shots fired; this initial visit brings him into the sphere of a group of people who will affect his life and career, and who reveal much more to Tiverton than he expected. This is a landscape as untrustworthy as the people within it, but Disher has made this not the heavy and grim read I was dreading, but something that entertained and gripped me in turn. I still probably won’t be doing any drives out to the country in person any time soon, because did I mention about the bugs, but after this, I’ll be much more likely to pick up a book about it.