Review: The Diggers Rest Hotel

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.

Highly recommended.

This review has been submitted as part of the Aussie Author Challenge.
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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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8 Responses to Review: The Diggers Rest Hotel

  1. Rose M says:

    Great review! So much more useful than many, so thank you.

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  2. I thought this a great read too Angela…shame there couldn’t be multiple winners of the Ned Kelly. As for the notion of Berlin being too enlightened I can share that my Grandfather was a country cop in South Australia between the wars and during WWII and he was sanctioned by his bosses for being “too lenient” with the local Aboriginal people. My mum says he would have been fired on one occasion but it was during the war and able-bodied blokes prepared to be cops in out of the way places were not in plentiful supply. Shockingly for his day he used to talk to the Aboriginal people just like everyone else and Mum remembers having Aboriginal guests for dinner when she was quite young…something that was a rarity indeed. So maybe Charlie Berlin is not that unbelievable after all 🙂

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comment Bernadette. And you are right that there were some enlightened country cops working in the 1940s and 50s. My grandfather was another who worked in rural NSW, mostly in the Murray River towns. My mother tells me he felt sympathy for the Aborigines who, like his Irish ancestors, had suffered at the hands of British colonialism – though Mum says his attitude was more sentimental than political.

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  3. Pingback: A fair dinkum month – September 2011 « Fair Dinkum Crime

  4. Pingback: Review: The Good Daughter | Angela Savage

  5. kathy d. says:

    Great blog and comments. I actually found a way to get this book over here and not pay the usual ransom for books from Oz. And, actually, I stayed up for hours last night reading this fantastic website. I’m so glad that I did that. It’s going on my “bookmarked” selections. All of it, including the book reviews are so good and so interesting from someone across the world.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for the lovely feedback Kathy. I’m just reading Geoffrey McGeachin’s follow up to The Diggers Rest Hotel, called Blackwattle Creek. Another excellent read.

      Please come back and comment on the book once you’ve read it.

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  6. Pingback: Review: Blackwattle Creek | Angela Savage

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