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One of the many benefits of reading contemporary Australian crime fiction is that it can take you to parts of this vast continent you might not know. In this case, we’re on the Limestone Coast in the far east of South Australia, “all big sea and wetlands and wind” where the land itself can crack like a “giant pav”, one local remarks, given that every sinkhole on the surface can lead to a vast underground aquifer. There’s a geography lesson here.
With Broken Bay, Margaret Hickey has written her most ambitious crime novel yet.Credit:
Detective Constable Mark Ariti has gone to the small town of Broken Bay, where the only buildings of note are the old whaling station and the Catholic Church, for a long weekend. His sister has bought him a fishing trip on a local lobster boat, which is where we first meet him, green and vomitous. Ariti’s more of a river man.
Three books into this series and I’ve become very fond of the middle-aged Ariti, who is currently worried that he might have bored his latest girlfriend to death. Had he talked too much about mince, or the bird he’d seen that morning, should he have stronger views on carbon tax and Johnny Depp, he wonders. He is, however, an excellent cop, as we have observed in the previous cases he has quietly pursued in the award-winning Cutters End and Stone Town, and he’s still running to keep the weight down.
Having survived the fishing trip and avoided the gift of a flathead, Mark’s holiday sojourn is cut short by the discovery of a body in one of those water-filled underground caverns. Hickey manages to convey the magnificence of these vast structures without ever inspiring in this reader the desire to squeeze through a narrow aperture a long way underground to see them for myself. Claustrophobia trumps the dangers of nitrogen narcosis every time, although you do learn a lot about cave-diving.
The body in question turns out to be the daughter of one of the local dynasties who disappeared 20 years earlier, and Ariti is subsequently co-opted to an investigation that will bring to light the intertwined and tragic histories of two Broken Bay families. This is the most ambitious of Hickey’s books given that it returns us to key scenes in the past that will reveal just what went down.
While the story of small-town loves, rivalries and misdemeanours is well done, it is, as always, Hickey’s observations of rural life that are completely engaging. Take the mule-faced owner of the local motel hosing his dying camellia with serious intent. Ariti suspects he might be waterboarding the plant and that he might not be a happy man.
Or the souvlaki takeaway on the main street where the old Greek owner not only supplies the fish-averse Ariti with a life-enhancing souva, but having recognised his Greek heritage, supplies him with the kind of local gossip money can’t buy. While Broken Bay and all that happens there might be a fiction, it certainly has the ring of truth.
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