Emily Tempest is back in Gunshot Road, the follow up to Adrian Hyland’s award-winning debut novel Diamond Dove. Described in the book’s blurb as ‘small, black, snaky as a taipan’s tooth’, Emily has reluctantly joined the Northern Territory Police as an ACPO, an Aboriginal Community Police Officer, though it is telling that she never seems to find a uniform that fits.
Emily is a lousy cop but a wonderful detective. When eccentric geologist Doc Ozolins is found at the Green Swamp Well Roadhouse with a hammer embedded in his throat, the police assume he’s been killed in a drunken brawl and arrest his philosophical sparring partner, an Aboriginal man known as Wireless. But Emily is not convinced.
I’d been away, sure, but I knew this country: I knew it’s people, crazy and sane, I knew its cracked landscape. I understood the way the two intertwined.
Something was amiss. Out of place. I could feel it in my bones. I’d first suspected it that morning on the road to Green Swamp: I remembered that strange, stomach-churning sense I’d had of something moving beyond the horizon. And it was still there, buzzing away in some dim-lit corner of my brain, driving me out onto the edge.
Her subsequent investigation, most of it unsanctioned by her superiors, finds Emily fighting for her life in country both brutal and beautiful.
Adrian spent many years living and working among Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, and although the people, language, dreamings and places in Gunshot Road are inventions, his interest in and affection for Aboriginal people and their culture(s) is evident throughout his writing. While he does not gloss over the harsher realities of life in Aboriginal communities — the poverty and violence — he also highlights the generosity, resilience and humour.
Take for example the following exchange at Doc’s funeral, when Tiger Lyons starts waving around a shotgun.
‘Christ!’ came a cry. Tiger’s going on a rampage!’
‘Everybody hit the turf, a row of bony arses sticking up form behind the pathetic rose bushes and broken headstones. Only Father Dal Santo — steely of hair and character, said to be a feisty bugger at the best of times — stood his ground; maybe such things were part of the ritual at Filipino funerals.
Jack vanished then reappeared, Jeeves-like, beside Tiger.
‘Mate, mate…’ He gently relieved him of the weapon. ‘What are you doing?’
The old bloke looked bewildered.
‘This is a funeral Tiger, not a wedding. No need for the shottie.’
The pace, characterisations and humour of Gunshot Road make it a great read. Text Publishing is giving readers a money back guarantee that they’ll love it, and I reckon their money is safe.
If I have one quibble with the book it is that Emily Tempest seems to have almost superhuman powers of recovery from the physical and emotional traumas inflicted upon her in Gunshot Road. Then again, as one exasperated baddie says of her, ‘It’s this one. She’s not…normal.’
There is also a sting in the tale in the final author’s note that sees life imitating art in the worst possible way. Here’s hoping it acts as a clarion call to all of us who believe in the right of Australia’s Traditional Owners to protect their country and heritage.
I am curious to know what Aboriginal readers think of Adrian’s books. This will be one of the questions I put to him when we meet in Melbourne at the Crime and Justice Festival next weekend. Together with Sulari Gentill and Felicity Young, Adrian will be part of a panel I’m chairing called The New (Crime) Wave at 12 noon in The Refectory, Abbotsford Convent, 1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford (map here). Book tickets on-line here.
Next stop, Take Out by Felicity Young…