Wednesday, January 13, 2010

TasNoir

Review of ‘No Weather For A Burial’
David Owen
Forty Degrees South, 2009
9780980655520


‘No Weather For A Burial’ is the latest in a series of crime novels by David Owen set in Tasmania that feature the same world weary detective – Detective Inspector Franz Heineken – aka Pufferfish. Yes – Pufferfish is back, after a 12 year hiatus.

‘No Weather..’ is Tas Noir, the setting is as important as the tried and tested scaffolding of most crime novels on which it is strung:

An aging, and no doubt ruggedly handsome, detective with a questionable past and a bitter divorce behind him (Pufferfish) faces down, not only a curious cast of criminals, but also sceptical and thwarting senior police officers to overcome obstacles (after being led down various gardens paths) to ultimately solve one – or possibly more crimes. Plus love interest.

Pufferfish fits the bill – he has been forced to leave his homeland, the Nederlands, under a cloud to eventually arrive in Tasmania and forge a new career in the TPF (Tasmanian Police Force – one of myriad acronyms in the book, others, deliciously include FU, TROG and ABCD – Above and Beyond the Call of Duty).

At the beginning of the book, Pufferfish returns from three months of long service leave, a lot of it having been spent at his shack on Bruny where he estimates he has caught and eaten about four grand of cray, to begin a hunt for the disappeared wife of a Ferntree based, wheel chair ridden Professor of Egyptology. Already the sense of place in this book becoming crucially apparent.

The story is transformed with a king tide revealing a recently dug grave on a remote beach on the ‘Peninsula, building as the search for the identity of the game-hunter’s deer bagged corpse begins - bringing in deer hunters from the midlands, waterfront nightclub owners from’ the Bay, fishermen from the West Coast, ex boxers from the’Bunna and bikers from Sydney. Pufferfish and his cop cohorts have to travel to most corners of the state as well as to Sydney – of course taking the reader with them to experience these places.

‘No Weather’ is a solidly structured novel, though the key to transforming it into one that is better than the average is the character of place – in this case, Tasmania. The state, its climate, its peculiar North, South, East, West parochialism are captured with accurate intensity and hang all the more flesh on the crime scaffold.

The parochial subtleties of this island are rolled out by Owen with an eye for detail and in an informed manner. “Out here Franz, we’re masters of improvisation. We supplied most of the islands wealth but you bastards out East, don’t give a toss,” Owens has a Strahan based character say.

Place is a character crucial in a lot of crime writing– the more extreme the better;
Arnaldur Ingridason’s Reykjavik, Steig Larsson’s Sweden or even Peter Temple’s bushfire shadowed Melbourne are vital to the telling of these stories and without the Tasmanian setting of Pufferfish it would not be as interesting to local readers, or as informative and curious to readers abroad.

And Tasmania is, despite what those of us for whom this is home think, an extreme location.

Owen has an outsider’s eye for observation and an insider’s awareness of nuance, having arrived in Tasmania in the early nineties via South Africa, London and Melbourne – and a writer’s scholarly approach to text – his most recent publications are part of a natural history series published by Allen and Unwin.

Pufferfish’s character is written in the first person and present tense. This results in some strange turns of phrase “we stand, self feeling a tug in the lower back” but also adds to the noir-esque-ness and transports the reader with a gum-shoe gritty detective novel tone. The narrator/writer also has a propensity to have Pufferfish refer to himself in the third person occasionally though this is skillfully written and adds to the ‘voice of god’ style narration that pervades the book.

What is missing in this crime novel, though definitely not lacking, is the often superfluous violence described in florid detail – we are a savvy reading audience, one that is often unfortunately inured to graphic depictions of murder, rape and mutilation on the page and screen. This violence becomes more pronounced when read as the reader is left to create those details ourselves. ‘No Weather’ proves that gratuitous violence is not required to further a plot.

Crime novels are crime novels, they offer the reader the vicarious thrill of having a crime solved before your eyes, there is no pressing need for intellectual engagement – the story is spelt out for you in clear language, the crime novel does not aspire to be ‘art’ or transformative literature – and the reader can rest easy, despite gnawed fingernails and edge of the seat reading – there will be a resolution.

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