Book review: Zero At the Bone

ZeroA couple of months ago I wrote an piece for the Guardian Australia’s Oz Culture Blog on why I think the most exciting crime fiction in Australia at the moment is coming out of the West.

It has something to do with the fact that the people are tough, the climate is harsh, and the mining boom has amplified everything and has given local writers a wealth of material and creative inspiration, as well as a real sense of vitality and realism.

If you want proof, look no further than Zero At the Bone, the latest book by Perth based crime writer, David Whish-Wilson.

Zero At the Bone is a sequel to Whish-Wilson’s 2010 book, Line of Sight, which established him firmly in my mind as the president of the, albeit very small, club of Australian writers who do noir fiction and do it well.

Based on real events, Line of Sight opens in 1975, six months after the murder of Perth brothel madam Ruby Devine, shot four times in the back of the head with a .22 the day before she was scheduled to give evidence to the tax office that would have implicated the senior police she bribed to stay open and certain high profile ‘secret investors’ in her operation.

Frank Swann is an old school cop who, convinced the police responsible for the murder are the same ones who are heading up the investigation to it, turns whistle blower for the Royal Commission called to investigate the murder and matters relating to it.

Swann is a great character, an old school cop, who as a youth dabbled in petty crime before being joining the police. The story is given added pathos by the fact that Swann’s teenage daughter is missing. His efforts to gather evidence on who really murdered the brothel madam are interspersed by encounters with prostitutes, street kids and other petty criminals as he attempts to locate his daughter.

Fast forward to 1979.

Perth is getting a make over to celebrate its 150th birthday and the mining boom is poised to take off. “The atmosphere was one of celebration and self-congratulation; the state was forging ahead. The price of silver and gold was rising, diamond production was up; it seemed the entire north-west was made of iron ore.”

Swann is out of the police force and his family is back together, although the rawness that marked his familial situation in Line of Sight lingers.

To make ends meet he works as a private investigator, taking whatever jobs he can find or is given. A bikie wants his stolen Harley found, an old cop buddy wants help to track down some shop lifted jewels, and an attractive widow by the name of Jennifer Henderson wants to know why her geologist husband decided to blow his brains out.

No one else will touch the widow’s case, but Swann needs the money and he likes the woman. Swann knows something isn’t right about the suicide and there’s also a distinct feeling he can’t resist the opportunity to follow instincts in the hope there’ll be some payback on the people who drove him out of the police force.

He’s not half wrong. Henderson was working as a consulting geologist on a new gold mine, rumoured to be the largest Australia has ever seen. The board of directors comprise a who’s who of Western Australia’s criminal milieu, men intent of ensuring they maximise the return on their investment and ward off any unwelcome attention.

Zero At the Bone is a riveting crime story and a vivid examination of the political economy of Western Australia, “the birthing pangs of frontier capitalism”, as Whish-Wilson refers to it.

The period detail is terrific. Like an expert surgeon, the author cuts away to reveal an anatomical dissection of corruption and street level history, Perth’s geography, class relations,  its tribes and sub-cultures, including the most ruthless tribe of all, the cabal of bent cops who act with impunity.

Whish-Wilson’s writing is terrific, both taunt and lyrical.

“Louise, who knew about these things, had told him that the skinheads held the prime real estate of the Mall, the Bogs had lower Wellington Street and the Blacks still had large parts of East Perth. But the skinheads didn’t look like an occupying army to Swann, more like the GIs stationed in Freemantle he remembered from the war: young, crew-cut, listless and bored, too far from home. “This town’s a graveyard with lights”, a US sailor had once said, folding the Mirror Swann sold him outside a brothel on Bannister Street.”

Or this passage:

‘It was cool and quiet inside Company House. The old colonial building with its Donnybrook stone colonnades and ornately carved wooden doors, studded with black iron spikes, had been build like everything else from the period with gold-rush money. Inside the entrance was a bronze statue of a malnourished old miner wielding a pick over a lump of rock. The miner’s eyes were sightless and his mouth grim. His ribs showed through his tattered shirt, his hobnail boots cracked and split near the soles. Swann thought about the quote on Henderson’s desk. ‘I and my men suffer from a disease of the heart that can only be cured by gold.'”

Zero At the Bone has a feel of urgency and authenticity to it. It may be set 1979, but it could just as well be about contemporary events in Western Australia or anywhere where large amounts of money can be made from digging in the ground.

Zero At the Bone is out through Penguin Viking.

A two part interview I did with Whish-Wilson on Pulp Curry about the events behind Line of Sight can be found here.


4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the in-depth review, Andrew, and of course I’m very relieved that you liked it. Relieved and bloody pleased!

  2. Pingback: Perth and crime fiction: an imaginary garden with real toads | Pulp Curry

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