Black Wattle Creek is the second book by Geoffrey McGeachin to feature Detective Sergeant Charlie Berlin, a cop on the beat in fifties Melbourne. The first, The Diggers Rest Hotel, won the Ned Kelly award for best first crime fiction in 2011,
The second instalment is set in 1957. There’s hardly a mean street to be found. Melbourne slumbers, as does the rest of the country in a period of post-war peace and prosperity (the fifties are referred to by some as Australia’s ‘lost decade’). Or so it appears, as dark shadows are on the horizon, the threat of communism and growing political instability in South East Asia.
Berlin has a week’s leave owed him but any plans he has to take it easy are derailed when his wife asks him to look into the matter of a dead serviceman, the husband of a friend of hers, who turned up to his own funeral missing a leg and no one knows why.
His off the books investigation leads to a dodgy funeral parlour and to Black Wattle Creek, a former asylum for the criminally insane. When his off sider on the force is beaten and left for dead and Berlin is warned off his inquiries by a couple of thuggish Special Branch cops, we assume it is connected to whatever is going on at Black Wattle.
Historical crime fiction is big in Australia at the moment, and this book starts off as a relatively typical example of the sub genre. There’s an engaging larrikin character, who won’t take no for an answer and is determined to find out the truth even if it means jeopardising his police career. There are some shady characters, a bit of biff. Add to that a dollop of period detail, at times layered on a bit too heavily.
But just when I started to lose interest, McGeachin flips the story on its head, creating something genuinely dark and unsettling involving the Cold War and Australia’s shameful subservience in allowing Britain to use us a nuclear testing ground in the fifties. It’s like a red rag to Berlin, still smarting from Britain’s treatment of Australia during World War Two. London more or less cut Australia adrift after Japanese took Singapore in 1941 and our war time Prime Minister john Curtin defying Churchill who tried to stop Australian troops returning from the Middle East to defend Australia.
Another layer to the atmosphere of menace is the lingering trauma of Berlin’s wartime experience. He flew Lancaster bombers over the night skies of Germany and was the only survivor when his plane was shot down. The events leading up to this and his subsequent stint in a German POW camp are told in a series of remarkably effective flashbacks. They further mark Berlin out as not your average plod.
I’ll be interested to know where McGeachin takes Berlin next.
Black Wattle Creek is available through Viking Penguin Books