It’s been a while since I’ve read a crime novel, let alone reviewed one. But I can’t let Jock Serong’s new book, The Rules of Backyard Cricket, go through to the keeper without singing its praises.
The Rules of Backyard Cricket had me in its grip from the first bounce. No amount of sledging from my opponents (read ‘family members demanding my time and attention’) could distract me from its thrall. Even for someone as disinterested as me in the actual sport of cricket, this novel is an absolute winner.
Okay, enough with the bad cricket puns.
The story is narrated in the first person by Darren Keefe, who along with his older brother Wally, is a star cricketer, until an injury ends his playing career. The novel opens with Darren bound and gagged in the boot of a car, a bullet-hole in one knee, watching the broken white lines of the Geelong Road ‘recede into the blackness’. But it wasn’t this dramatic premise alone that got me hooked. Darren has clearly behaved badly — he considers being abducted and stuffed in a car boot ‘a moral counterweight to the things I’ve done’ — but there is something endearing, almost poetic in his voice. I desperately wanted to know how in the hell he ended up where he did, and what the hell was going to happen to him.
Each subsequent chapter opens with Daz in the car boot, reflecting on his past. He traces his life from childhood, when he and Wally established their rules of backyard cricket, through his stellar though short career as a professional sportsman, his subsequent stint as a television commentator and former-celebrity-for-hire, to his ignominious (apparent) end. What transpires makes for an utterly engrossing read.
Serong won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel for his debut Quota, but as he explained at a recent event, he eschewed the ‘obvious choice’ of writing a sequel. Instead, he took a phrase he described as ‘the stone in my shoe: the rules of backyard cricket’ and turned it into a story about what siblings can do to each other and be forgiven. And not forgiven.
A second source of inspiration was the tedious trips Serong regularly took along the Geelong Road from his home on Victoria’s southwest coast to Melbourne. To liven up the drive, he started imagining what might be involved if someone was travelling the same stretch in the boot of a car. Darren Keefe tells us, ‘To my sad surprise, whether you’re crawling home from Christmas with the aunts, or waiting to be shot dead and incinerated by gangsters, the Geelong Road turns out to be just as boring.’ However, Serong makes the journey anything but.
Serong admitted to being obsessed with cricket and books as a kid. But while cricket is the context, the themes he explores in the novel in terms of corruption, accountability and transparency are universal. The book is underpinned with questions about who can get away with what and why, though these questions are character driven, never didactic. As one character says towards the end of the novel,
‘Do you know I heard the Pope the other day going on about corruption in sport. The fucking Pope. Goes to show, doesn’t it? Sport goes to the heart of everything. If you can reach inside it and fuck with its innards, you’re actually messing with society, Daz. How ’bout that. Bigger than drugs. Bigger than hookers and porn, because people shy away. They can smell the desperation. But the same people will go on consuming sport long after they know it’s rotten to the core…’
I’d go on, but I don’t want to risk putting off potential readers by gushing. Suffice it to say the back cover blurb that draws a parallel between The Rules of Backyard Cricket and Peter Temple’s best work is no exaggeration. Serong pulls off what I consider an Australian crime writer’s most sought-after Quinella (to use a metaphor from another sport): a literary crime novel that qualifies as genuine Australian noir.