Heat, grit and the scent of blood rise from the pages of David Whish-Wilson’s latest novel Zero at the Bone. In this dark, convincing tale of greed and corruption in 1979 Western Australia, Whish-Wilson manages to combine the pace of a hard-boiled thriller with a lyricism that makes you pause and catch your breath, before plunging back in for more.
The story pits flawed but incorruptible ex-copper Frank Swann, the whistleblower in 2010’s Line of Sight, against an unholy alliance of local mafia, drug dealers, race fixers, businessmen and, in Ben Hogan, one of the nastiest corrupt cops seen in crime fiction since Dudley Smith first made his appearance in James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere. Turns out what has brought the alliance members together is a stake called Rosa Gold, situated deep in the desert northeast of Perth, and with it a chance to make ‘the only matter that matters’ in the Western Australian capital: mining money. As an associate of Swann’s explains:
A mine this size — they’ll be the envy of the city. Impossibly rich. All their misdeeds forgiven. Blood washed from their hands. They’ll be courted by politicians, feted like rock stars.
The narrative point of view shifts between Swann and Gary Quinlivan, a judge’s son turned bad who fancies himself as ‘the only one with business smarts’ among the Rosa Gold directors. While there is clearly a good guy and a bad guy, it is a measure of Whish-Wilson’s skill that the bad guy is not entirely unsympathetic and the good guy not without his faults.
The novel opens with the suicide of Max Henderson, a renowned geologist responsible for the promising finds at the Rosa Gold lease. Swann, now a private investigator and desperate for work, agrees to look into Henderson’s death at the request of his widow, Jennifer. In a case of ‘doesn’t rain, it pours’, other jobs quickly follow, one for Percy Dickson, an ex-cop turned private security operator, another for Gus Riley the sergeant-at-arms of the Nongs, a local bikie gang. Jewellery stores are being ripped off, a heritage listed block in Little Italy is burning, and someone is using Riley’s bike in a spate of bank robberies.
Whish-Wilson reveals the connections among these various narrative threads without ever resorting to coincidence, deftly directing his large ensemble cast around the suburbs of Perth, with a brief detour to the Rosa Gold stake, situated in a desert Whish-Wilson describes with respect, even awe.
[T]he first night was always the hardest–the eerie stillness after the rattling day on the road. Voices carried in the stillness and were muffled by the endlessness of the land. The feeling of being watched as you clung to the campfire when the darkness fell… Talking in whispers for no reason but the feeling that there was listening.
Whish-Wilson evokes 1979 Perth with a light but effective touch. Swann scrounges for ten cent pieces to make calls from public phones. Quinlivan is reminded of the TV cop shows, Homicide and Division 4, he grew up with. Prince Charles is in the papers being kissed on the beach by a model during a visit for Perth’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
But for all the historical authenticity, the story feels contemporary, it themes of speculation, exploitation and the power of mining money as relevant to Western Australia now as they were thirty years ago.
Whish-Wilson is a master of the art of ‘show, don’t tell’. Take the following example:
[T]he Swanbourne chapter of the Returned Serviceman’s League looked like a toilet block on a neglected rural oval: heavily painted besser brick and rusting zinc roof leading to a car park laid over the humped roots of Norfolk Island Pine.
Swann parked next to a Kingswood, a Falcon 500, a Chrysler, an identical pair of white Belmonts, one Rover–all in immaculate condition. Not a Mercedes, Datsun or Toyota in sight.
But it is Whish-Wilson’s evocation of violence that really blows me away (no pun intended). The violence in Zero at the Bone is brutal, frightening, but never gratuitous. At one point, Swann is savagely beaten by Hogan and taken to a lock-up in the same police station where he once served. Swann is sweating, concussed, but conscious enough to makes the following, chilling observation:
They hadn’t taken Swann’s belt, or shoelaces, as they were supposed to.
Now he had to wait, for what happened next. For the darkness to fall, for the early hours, when they would come at him, and string him up. Paint it as an act of desparation, and despair.
Your classic ‘Can’t stop reading/don’t want it to end’ kind of novel, Zero at the Bone is simply one of the best books I’ve read this year in any genre. Don’t miss it.
Zero at the Bone by David Whish-Wilson (2013) is published by Penguin/Viking.
You can also check out Andrew Nette’s review at Pulp Curry.