There’s an embarrassment of riches on my reading pile at the moment, but when Geoffrey McGeachin’s new novel Blackwattle Creek arrived in the mail, it went straight to the top. I had to know what had happened to Charlie Berlin, the damaged hero of McGeachin’s 2011 Ned Kelly Award winner The Diggers Rest Hotel, since I’d last left him on the outskirts of Albury in 1947.
Reading McGeachin’s new novel was like being reunited with an old friend. Within moments I was reminded of what I love about this author’s work: his wit and warmth; his capacity to create complex, often endearing characters; and his talent for a cracking good yarn.
It’s 10 years later and Charlie has married Rebecca, the spunky ex-WRAAF photographer turned journalist he’d clung to like a drowning man when they met in Albury-Wodonga. Charlie has trodden on too many toes to rise above the rank of Detective Sergeant, but he is happy in his weatherboard home in the suburbs with Rebecca, their two children and a small terrier who turns out to have a heroic streak.
Charlie’s plans to spend his week of leave working on the darkroom he’s building in the backyard get sidetracked when Rebecca asks him to investigate the claims of a widowed friend that her husband’s corpse had a leg amputated prior to burial. The funeral director lies but Hungarian hearse driver Lazlo Horvay proves helpful, setting Berlin on the road to Blackwattle Creek, a remote bluestone former asylum for the criminally insane.
I don’t know about you but those words ‘remote’, ‘bluestone’ and ‘asylum’ in close proximity send shivers down my spine. You might as well put a neon sign over the entrance saying ‘Bad Shit Going Down’.
Berlin doggedly continues his inquiries despite being warned off, endangering those around him and bringing him head to head with the Special Branch.
While The Diggers Rest Hotel is about the legacy of the Second World War and its impact on men who saw active service, spent time as POWs, then tried to rebuild their lives, in Blackwattle Creek McGeachin shifts his focus to the Cold War, where the atrocities are no less horrific for being clandestine.
While I was relieved to find Charlie Berlin happily married to the gorgeous Rebecca, he has lost none of his vulnerability, and the ever-present risk of him becoming unhinged by the ghosts of his past adds to the tension of a thrilling plot, creating genuinely frightening moments in the story.
Though a dark tale, Blackwattle Creek is not without humour, such as this moment in an otherwise a tense exchange between Berlin and a couple of menacing Special Branch operatives.
The pressure of his grip on the water pipe had turned Berlin’s knuckles white. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he said, ‘is everyone in Special Branch a prick like you?’
Merv smiled. ‘That’s right, Charlie. That’s what makes us special.’
McGeachin is skilled at delivering enough nuances to immerse the reader in Melbourne in the late-1950s — via references to Bex Powders, Bakelite handsets and Graeme Kennedy, ‘the young host, a little crude at times’ of a popular new variety show — without letting the details distract from the action. His observations about now outmoded beliefs are often wry but never smarmy:
‘And as for putting people at risk, you made it sound like strontium-90 was nothing to fret about, no more harmful than DDT or one of those fuel additives they put in petrol.’
Asked about the themes of Blackwattle Creek, McGeachin says,
I’m totally cynical and a hopeless romantic and these two aspects always seem to collide in my life and my writing. None of my heroes ever change the world but they do attempt to at least improve their own little corner of it.
For me this explains how McGeachin manages to write dark crime fiction that also sparkles with wit and warmth.
It’s not only Charlie Berlin among McGeachin’s characters who attempt to improve their own little corner of the world. The same can be said of Rebecca Berlin née Green, not to mention the eloquent Hungarian refugee Lazlo Horvay, who in addition to driving hearses may or may not be a Soviet spy.
Lazlo smiled. ‘It is an interesting fact that in totalitarian regimes the secret police are very well known to the public, and in open, so-called free societies they are very much in fact secret and often unknown.’
‘Australia doesn’t have a secret police, Lazlo.’
Lazlo drank the last of the wine in his glass. ‘But really, Charlie, if they are truly secret, how would you know?’
The Diggers Rest Hotel was one of my favourite reads of 2011. I expect to say the same of Blackwattle Creek in 2012.
Blackwattle Creek is published by Penguin Australia. Very highly recommended.