Geoffrey McGeachin’s hilarious acceptance speech endeared him to the crowd who watched him take out this year’s Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction. Even I felt happy for him, despite his The Diggers Rest Hotel beating my The Half-Child to the honours. His self-deprecating humour, his obvious affection for his wife — whom he thanked for teaching him that ‘violence can sometimes be the answer’ — the fact that his first novel was called Fat, Fifty and F***ed! all led me to conclude that Geoffrey is probably a top bloke. And he can write: Justice Betty King had nothing but praise for The Diggers Rest Hotel, and I idolise Justice Betty like others idolise rock stars. So The Diggers Rest Hotel went to the top of my reading pile with a bullet.
The hero of The Diggers Rest Hotel, Charlie Berlin, is also a top bloke, albeit a flawed one, grappling with post-traumatic stress as a result of his years as a bomber pilot then POW during World War II. Berlin works out of Russell Street police station; out of hours, he lives the life of an alcoholic recluse in a bedsit in Carlton. This changes when he is abruptly sent to rural Victoria to investigate a spate of robberies.
To quote the back cover blurb: ‘When Berlin travels to Albury-Wodonga to track down the gang behind the robberies, he suspects he’s a problem copy being set up to fail. Taking a room in the Diggers Rest Hotel, he sets about solving a case that no one else can — with the help of feisty, ambitious journalist Rebecca Green and rookie constable Rob Roberts, the only cop in town he can trust.
‘Then the decapitated body of a young girl turns up in a back alley, and Berlin’s investigations lead him further through layers of small-town fears, secrets and despair.’
The Diggers Rest Hotel was a pleasure to read, the plot intriguing and the era convincingly evoked. McGeachin does a great job of the ‘show, don’t tell’, especially when it comes to depicting men’s emotions and interactions. Take for example:
In a pub like this, non-beer drinkers were regarded with suspicion. Whisky was for toffs or for toasting the memory of a loved one who had passed away, or a mate crushed on the docks when a sling slipped and a couple of hundredweight of crates fell from a crane. The barman had poured the drink and taken Berlin’s five-pound note without comment, but he’d slapped the change down squarely in a puddle of stale beer.
The characters are brilliantly drawn, not only Berlin and Green, but a large ensemble cast, which includes the hotelier’s family at the Diggers Rest, soldiers in the Bandiana barracks, a dodgy tent boxing troupe, Wodonga’s alcoholic doctor, a resident Chinese family, the local constabulary, and others like Berlin, permanently damaged by a war whether they fought in it or not.
‘Changes a fella, doesn’t it? You come back and you don’t fit in somehow.’
I liked the way Berlin and Green’s relationship evolved in the novel, too, from a first meeting in which Berlin privately disapproves of Rebecca wearing trousers and is baffled by her bluntness, to a time when he wonders ‘if he could bear to love her and just how much he would hurt her before it was over.’
If I have any criticism of the book it’s that Berlin is too much of a good bloke — his exchange with Neville Morgan, the Aboriginal war veteran, seemed a bit too enlightened for the era. Then again, it’s Berlin’s depth and decency that enables McGeachin to deliver such a heartbreaking finale to this wonderful book.