Whispering Death

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Six titles into the Challis and Destry series you sense Garry Disher has a few characters and situations at the Waterloo Police Station approaching their use by dates. Hal Challis may have had his share of professional and personal troubles in the past, but he should be reasonably happy as he heads towards a new phase in his developing relationship with Ellen Destry, but she’s off to Europe on a study tour and will be setting up a new Sex Crimes Unit when she gets back. He’s still having issues with her daughter Larayne, and will be sort of house sitting and doing a few odd jobs around the place Ellen bought after the marriage broke up.

Scobie Sutton’s wife seems to be coming out of depression, while his daughter continues to be the apple of his eye and he’s starting to find the grim reality of police work difficult to deal with and Constable Pam Murphy has issues with anti-depressants after events in the previous episode in the series and the physical symptoms that ensue when you stop taking the things. On top of the soap opera side of things Disher serves up an intriguing blend of plot lines that start out separately and end up intertwining neatly. 

The first involves a rapist wearing a police uniform. Rogue cop or impersonator? That seems to be a fairly natural question to ask, and one that, at the same time, an investigating officer would be looking to avoid answering directly. When Challis is confronted by a journo who insists on asking it he responds with spray to about budget cutbacks in an area where the population is expanding rapidly. Predictably, this doesn’t go down well with his superiors. The rape investigation brings a feisty sergeant from the Sex Crimes Unit into the picture. After she returns from Europe this role would be filled by Ellen Destry, but while Jeannie Schiff is on the scene she ruffles a few feathers among the male officers and lays down a possible soap opera development as far as Pam Murphy is concerned. Matters are complicated by the fact that the rapist knows enough about forensics to make it difficult to track him down, and after the first victim is found wandering dazed and naked in a nature reserve, a second is found dead in the boot of a crashed car.

The second involves a female cat burglar who, by rights, shouldn’t enter into things at all. She lives across on the western side of Port Phillip but gets there on her way back from interstate jobs using the ferry that crosses from the Mornington Peninsula after she’s deposited the proceeds of her latest job in a safe deposit box in Challis’ base at Waterloo. While she’s careful to avoid working in her own state, the result of careful grounding in the basics of maintaining a low profile delivered by a crooked former cop who is looking to track her down and even up a few old scores, a series of coincidences brings that policy unstuck.

You know the cat burglar will become involved in the main plot, though it’s not immediately clear how Disher’s going to do it, and he muddies the water a bit further by arranging a home invasion by the the bikies living next door to Destry's new house and having the bloke responsible for a series of bank robberies looking to be heading towards Waterloo as well.

Challis, meanwhile, has a Triumph TR4 sports car he may as well dispose of since it is finally starting to fall apart and a restored 1930s Dragon Rapide that he has worked on for a decade but since it represents a phase of his life that has come to an end it might as well go too. Those matters come on top of the rape investigation in a station that’s stretched as far as they can go. Challis lands himself in hot water for shooting his mouth off to the local media about budget cuts.

Meanwhile a socially conscious graffiti commentator is spray painting announcements like CASHED UP BOGAN LIVES HERE and I’M COMPENSATING FOR A SMALL DICK on driveway entrances that lead to architectural monstrosities erected (and I’m using that verb deliberately) by newly arrived residents with more cash than taste and no sense of humour.

Disher weaves these different lines around each other, keeping the tension between individual characters tightly wound and bringing the lot together at the end, filling in the relevant bits of back story for readers who aren’t up to speed on the earlier episodes,  doing it concisely enough so it doesn’t become an issue for those of us who have and leaving enough space for readers to go back and explore those earlier episodes should they feel so inclined.

That’s a rather tricky juggling act, but Disher, as long term fans have come to expect, carries it off with panache, delivering a complex story that works on just about every front. He’s a class act, who consistently delivers and this is one of his best.

© Ian Hughes 2012