by Adrian Hyland
Published by Soho Crime
322 pages, 2008
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
In the international world of crime fiction, it seems that Australia and Norway have been chronically underrepresented. Debut author Adrian Hyland seeks to correct the Australian oversight with his new tale, Moonlight Downs.
Hyland’s heroine is Emily Tempest, a half-Aboriginal roustabout, who has returned home to Moonlight Downs, her tribal homeland in the Outback after years of wandering the globe and racking up what she believes to be adventures. Her father, Jack, a chronic nomad even less inclined to stay in one place that Emily, is nowhere to be found. However, it’s not a reunion with her father that Emily seeks. Instead, she is drawn to the tribal leader Lincoln Flinders, Emily’s surrogate and far more dependable father figure. Lincoln carries with him the image of a wise and valued elder:
But no homecoming worth its salt can be without trouble, and so it goes when Lincoln’s body is found on the edge of the camp, a massive wound on the right side of his body, suggesting an organ harvest. The prime suspect, at least in Emily’s mind, is the local sorcerer Blakie Japanangka. Known as an evil spirit reduced to flesh and bones, he carries the legendary ability to either heal the sick or hasten a patient’s death by merely wiling it to occur. The day before his death, Lincoln had a violent quarrel with Blakie over unknown issues, the elder man eventually driving the mad shaman away. But Blakie disappears into the Outback after Lincoln’s demise, seemingly beyond the reach of local law-enforcement personnel, which suits them just fine.
Emily, though, being more courageous than wise, badgers the local police into tracking Blakie and bringing him to justice, together with a later suspect, the rancher Earl Marsh, a land developer with lots of pull in the local community. Upset over the fact his cattle are attacked by the dogs harbored by the residents of Moonlight Downs, Marsh’s manifest greed and hostility also make him a target of Emily’s investigation.
Throughout his novel, author Hyland applies layers upon layers of local atmospherics so thick that not one but two glossaries are in the front of this book. Even then, the dialects and colloquialisms are often beyond the reach of all but the most attentive reader. With several chapters that seem to add little to the mystery and provide excessive amounts of travelogue, it’s as though Hyland has tried to channel both Tony Hillerman and Bruce Chatwin into the same novel.
But Moonlight Downs (published originally in Australia as Diamond Dove) is not without its high points -- particularly the feisty Emily Tempest. She’s tough as nails and vulnerable to a fault, not a bad combination for an intriguing amateur sleuth. Unfortunately, she’s trapped in a mystery that fails to fill the book’s length and even then is only mildly compelling. Better luck next time.
From the opposite end of the world comes veteran author K.O. Dahl and The Fourth Man, his series debut featuring Oslo Detective Inspector Frank Frolich, a sad sack of a man with little going for him other than work. While participating in a raid on a local store, Frolich literally falls upon an attractive young woman, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elizabeth Faremo becomes the object of his obsession, nearly causing an eclipse in every other aspect of Frolich’s life. To call their eventual association an “affair” is to almost grant it a dignity that it doesn’t quite deserve; it’s more like a series of one-night stands.
But the mysterious Elisabeth tells her lover few details about her life, so one night he follows her home, only to find her name -- and that of a man, Jonny -- on her mailbox. Frolich quickly learns that the Jonny in question is not Elisabeth’s husband; he is her brother. To most men, that would pose an enormous relief. But to Detective Inspector Frank Frolich, this causes additional concerns. Jonny Faremo is a man well known to the Oslo police as the member of a criminal gang, and one who is suspected in the murder of a young security guard working at an abandoned warehouse.
Elisabeth becomes more puzzling, even as Frolich gathers more information about her. She is observed being affectionate with Reidun Vestli, a middle-aged woman and embittered academic who seems to detest men on principle. Elisabeth appears and vanishes seemingly at will. And then one day, she disappears altogether, after first providing her brother with an alibi for the warehouse crime -- an alibi that is more than merely suspect, since Frolich knows she was with him at the time, instead. While the detective is trying to find Elisabeth and rescue her from the danger that surrounds her, brother Jonny’s dead body suddenly turns up, caught in the river filter of a large utility plant. And Vestli is attacked in her home and nearly beaten to death, only to then commit suicide, leaving Frolich a note that says she only wanted to protect Elisabeth from “these terrible people.”
True to its setting, The Fourth Man is a cool tale with a sense of ominous doom that can only come from characters for whom circumspection is part of the near-constant thought process. Hyland’s Moonlight Downs is written in first-person; we know nearly everything Emily Tempest is thinking. By contrast, The Fourth Man is written in third-person and the narrative occasionally shifts away from Frolich. Yet the reader comes away knowing more about Dahl’s introspective protagonist than can be gleaned about Emily Tempest. Like the solos of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, sometimes more is communicated with what is left unsaid.
K.O. Dahl has been the nominee of many awards, including the Martin Beck award, given by the Svenska Deckarakademin, the Swedish Detective Academy. Beck is, of course, the character made famous by the husband-and-wife writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a gloomy Stockholm police detective who investigated crimes in a series of books, most notably The Laughing Policeman. While it’s been many years since I have read any of the books in the Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s series, the comparison between Beck and Frolich seems apt. Cops beaten down by the crimes they investigate are a dime a dozen. It takes a truly talented writer to bring this shopworn device into new and interesting life. Dahl has done that, and fans of international crime fiction have much to celebrate. | March 2008