I have a confession to make: I have discovered http://www.NetGalley.com. Why I would decide to review soon-to-be-released novels, what with all of the editing I’m doing, looking after a one-year-old, and trying to establish two new web-based businesses, is beyond me. But I have, and my first NetGalley offering did not disappoint. Perhaps I need to be committed. If that is the case, please let it be any other asylum than Blackwattle Creek, the chilling setting for the first of my NetGalley reviews, which you can check out below…
“One lie is all you need. One lie that you know is a lie, aye, that’s all you need to start everything on a path to unravelling.” —Charlie Berlin, Blackwattle Creek
When former bomber pilot and POW Charlie Berlin takes a much-needed vacation from his role as a detective sergeant in 1950s Melbourne, just after the ’56 Olympics, the last thing he needs is another case to solve. But when he grants his long-suffering wife and redeemer, Rebecca, a favour and interviews an elderly friend, who alerts him to body parts going missing at a funeral home, that is exactly what he gets—and more! When a colleague who helps him dig out evidence is beaten to a bloody pulp, witnesses are threatened, and a thug attempts to set fire to his house, Berlin’s investigations lead him to Blackwattle Creek, a former insane asylum where it seems the lunatics are now firmly in charge.
I had been wanting to read some of McGeachin’s work since he won the 2011 Ned Kelly Award for Crime Writing for The Diggers Rest Hotel—which also features this charming and distinctly Australian copper—and I was not disappointed. McGeachin has created a credible, likeable character in Charlie Berlin: a family man and all round sentimental bloke who has put the alcoholic, guilt-ridden, angry, self-abusive lifestyle (so stereotypical to crime novels) behind him (well, mostly!). The result is a gripping crime novel that is as much about suburban and family life in Australia in that decade as it is about the sinister politics and policies of the Cold War, which lead to the mystery’s chilling culmination.
McGeachin’s characters are commendably well-drawn, particularly charmingly erratic Hungarian immigrant Lazlo Horvay, and patient, decidedly non-Stepford Rebecca (who has a career as well as a vibrant wit and sex drive, even if she can bake a mean steak and kidney pie). While the mystery is embroiling, McGeachin also effectively conjures up nostalgic scenes of milk bars and jumping jacks, bodgies and widgies, bags of lollies, tombola marbles, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, and sturdy, prized Studebakers—all in a Melbourne that seems more like a sprawling suburb than the modern metropolis it is today. It’s a Melbourne where people say, “You’ll do it because I’m a policeman, sunshine, and because I say so,” or “Thank you, squire.” And it is all the richer for that trip down memory lane. Of course, juxtaposing the cozy, almost parochial setting, is one of the gravest abuses of government and military power ever known. Together these elements combine to make Blackwattle Creek as touching as it is terrifying.
If I have one criticism, it is that sometimes the relationship between Berlin and Rebecca seems a little overwrought. In saying that, who couldn’t fall a little in love with a character who shivers whenever his wife touches him, indulges in the occasional “afternoon delight”, or concedes that his wife looks good in trousers, despite the prohibitive fashion of the age (shock horror)? I now plan to revisit Berlin’s life and find out more about how he and Rebecca met in The Diggers Rest Hotel, and I will keep an eye out for future installments in Charlie Berlin’s very interesting life. Five stars!
In the interests of full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book for Kindle from NetGalley.com