APRIL 27, 2018
SOMETIMES, LIKE A LOT of readers, I have two or three books going at once: one by the bed, one by the couch, one in my bag for reading on the Metro. But sometimes a book will command attention across all venues because of the story, the characters, or the writing, and the other simultaneous books simply have to wait. Garry Disher is a quietly compelling writer whose new novel, Signal Loss, caused me to set everything else aside, pulling my attention away from the competition. One of the other books I had going at the same time was the pseudonymous Lars Kepler’s The Sandman, a Swedish thriller featuring a star detective and more than one spectacularly cruel serial killer, set in a middle- and upper-class milieu. The pace was relentless, the threat to victims and the detectives constant, and the action cinematic; not to mention that one of the characters was a somewhat more credible version of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.
The contrast with Signal Loss could not be greater: Disher’s milieu is a hardscrabble assortment of small rural towns in a part of Australia where gentrifying city folks looking for seaside property compete for space with meth labs and poverty-stricken families. The several murder victims are mostly characters who, despite being fully rounded human beings, neither their compatriots nor the reader will much miss. There are multiple assaults on women (revealed only in difficult, halting police interviews with the victims) and a compelling threat to a child who is, first of all, a victim of her own family’s dysfunction. The cops themselves are all ordinary people with common private problems and careful, highly competent work styles rather than colorful, flamboyant, and spectacularly damaged superstars, as is the case with The Sandman and many other crime novels.
Why, then, did Disher’s novel draw attention away from Kepler’s? Part of the reason is the writing: Kepler keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat with a transparent style that shifts the point of view among the characters as the action spirals into a frenzy. Disher’s narrative has frequent asides full of descriptive power and sometimes pungent wit. For me, part of the power of Disher’s novel is the almost casual evocation of the characters as real people who occupy a segment of the social setting that is the breeding ground of noir fiction. Their attention frequently wanders away from the hard-boiled case at hand to worry about something in their personal lives, to be bored with what’s going on, or to engage in comic banter with one another.
Disher’s novel opens with an intro that could stand alone as a perfect noir short story, beginning with just such a distraction, in the mundane and frequently comic interplay between a couple of hit men. The intro ends, though, with a poetic horror, as two people are trapped in a car by a firestorm: “Paint blistering, you never saw anything like it, felt heat like it or heard anything like the snarling fury. It came in hard.” The prologue doesn’t tie into the main narrative until later, in small details that will remind the reader of the fiery opening of the novel. The intro also serves as a bridge between Disher’s two running series, the police procedurals of which Signal Loss is the seventh featuring detectives in Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, and a separate series about a thief named simply Wyatt, of which there are eight, not all of them available in the United States.
The noir series is very much in the style of the late Donald Westlake’s Parker novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Disher paid posthumous tribute to Westlake in a recent novel also simply named Wyatt: a residential building is called Westlake Terrace and a minor character is named Parker. Wyatt has a background in bank and armored-car robberies, but for most of the series he’s moved on to carefully planned thefts from the homes of the wealthy (stealing art, negotiable bonds, collectible currency notes, et cetera), working mostly from tips he gets from fences or other associates. There are also a couple of stand-alone novels in the noir mode, focused on disgraced police, like the excellent Bitter Wash Road, published a couple of years ago in the United States by Soho Crime.
The novels in Disher’s police procedurals feature chief detective Hal Challis and his team, including Sergeant Ellen Destry (in the most recent novel the head of a sex crimes unit) and up-and-coming detective Pam Murphy. Like a lot of procedurals, Disher’s Mornington novels frequently center on difficult families or relationships, among his lead characters as well as the victims and perpetrators of crime. The characters are often described in phrases that echo in the noir tradition: the narrator says that Challis has “a kind of lean, quiet, patient menace,” and his colleagues are frequently described as hunters, rather than investigators.
The central figure running through Signal Loss and tying the tale together is Owen Valentine, a sometime participant in the area’s recent plague of meth crimes. It is Valentine’s disappearance that links several deaths, a missing child, a major theft ring, and a drug ring with a boss who is an upstanding member of the community.
The case that Destry’s sex crimes unit is investigating develops slowly from a series of reported thefts to assaults by a serial rapist preying on women alone in their homes, and she finds herself in a transition in the way sex crimes are investigated: “In the old days, the police had tended to look at the specifics of a sexual assault […] but nowadays it was also important to understand the context, the power dynamics, the relationship between offender and victim.” Her talent is in managing the new process along with her detectives who prefer the old one.
Destry is also troubled by personal complications, from her evolving relationship with Challis to a sister whose life is deteriorating quickly, while the younger detective, Pam Murphy, is dealing with a dying mother. Challis, like so many detectives in crime fiction, started the series as a tormented figure, but his own turbulent private life has settled down. Disher, unlike some crime writers, lets his characters progress across the life of the series: Challis’s wife, who once tried to kill him, is a dim memory; Destry divorced her husband and, in the immediately previous novel, she and Challis had finally committed to a relationship but were trying to keep it secret. In Signal Loss, they are openly together, though not living in the same house. Another source of tension in the past, Destry’s resentful daughter, is no longer quite such a problem (due to events in the previous novel), and his relationship with Destry is now an important positive theme in the otherwise dark portraits of marriage, family, and sex.
Wyatt, on the other hand, has no personal complications in his life, only professional ones. Disher’s Wyatt novels are terse, straightforward storytelling, mining the noir vein of crime writing in its purest form. The Wyatt novels are driven by the central character’s meticulous attention to detail and his resolute refusal of personal attachments. He can’t tolerate sloppy planning in the teams he works with on the job, and his only relationships are professional (agents who provide tips on ripe prospects for robbery, sources for weapons, reliable fences for stolen merchandise). The stories follow a pattern: at some point, Wyatt is forced by circumstance to accept someone on his team who is less professional than he expects, or he himself becomes part of someone else’s crew with questionable professionalism. A job goes predictably awry, and Wyatt goes on the run. Wyatt the dour hunter of valuable prey becomes Wyatt the hunted, as skilled at evading capture as in robbery. He is not a hired killer, but doesn’t hesitate to use lethal force when necessary. A prominent element in the most recent novel (and in some others as well) is revenge, which he is willing to go to great lengths and travel great distances to accomplish.
The outlaws in Signal Loss are professional killers, rapists, or drug dealers, as well as thieves, and they exhibit some of the same desperate behavior that causes Wyatt’s robbery plans to fall apart with such frequency. In Signal Loss, the two hit men in the prologue, despite their ruthlessness, have the same comic, malevolent, and ultimately incompetent edge of many of the characters in the Wyatt books. In fact, many of the characters in Signal Loss, such as a reluctant drug runner and the loser addict at the center of the story, could have stepped right out of the Wyatt cast of characters. The difference is that in the Wyatt books almost everyone falls into the category: desperate and downcast, but also self-centered and ruthless. A character in Fallout, from the Wyatt series, is described in this way: “She wore the cares of the world in her thin frame, her limp, pale hair, her narrow mouth. But a spark of something animated her sorrowing face.” The spark turns out to be a desire for revenge. In Signal Loss, Janine Quine, a female civilian employee in the police station, is “an angular woman, mid-thirties, strain and privation in her face. Prim and efficient, not given to trading insults or gossip with the police or her colleagues, she was also virtually unknowable. […] The talk was she had a no-hoper husband at home. Alcoholic, gambler; something like that.” There are slick con men in Signal Loss and Fallout who are cut from the same cloth, though their cons are quite different (one specializing in victimizing older, lonely women, the other in fleecing gullible and greedy gamblers).
The male central characters in the two series also bear a resemblance to one another in their tight control of emotions and reluctance to enter into attachments. Both were described in recent novels in terms of their infrequent smiles; “Challis’s smiles were sometimes sharkish, the smiles of a hunter.” As for Wyatt, who is also sometimes described as a hunter, “His features were attractive on the rare occasions he smiled or was lifted by some emotion; otherwise repressive, unimpressed, as if he understood everything.” The difference is in what, at their core, they find important. Challis is willing to risk his detachment for the possibility of love; Wyatt values a lack of attachment to people or things, as his means of eluding capture by the ever-pursuing police, as well as aggrieved former partners and their relatives (like the woman with the sorrowing face in Fallout). In the forthcoming Wyatt novel The Heat, already published in Australia, Disher characterizes Wyatt as a man who is a closed book, perhaps even to himself: “He didn’t chat; he didn’t reveal his needs or even necessarily recognise that he had them.” Professionally, Challis is the opposite: “When it came to relationships, he was a cultivator — otherwise he’d be no good at catching killers and thieves.” Though he has been somewhat less successful in his private life, in Signal Loss he and both of his female colleagues have entered into the fraught emotional territory of committed relationships.
The Mornington books include a broader sweep of human life and criminal or simply self-absorbed behavior, and also present some characters whose wit and concern for each other are reassuring about the possibilities of redemption for all of us (neither humor nor redemption, nor for that matter concern for other people, are much in evidence in the Wyatt stories: they have a narrower focus on the darker and less empathetic realm of noir). The empathy of Signal Loss, as Challis, Destry, and Murphy together and separately seek some balance and solace in a harsh world, and the cynicism of Wyatt, as the lead character navigates his way in a world in which there is no one he can trust, reflect the same social milieu with two very different emotional and stylistic valences. Disher’s strength as a writer is that he can make these contrasting modes of crime fiction not only his own, but also each in its own way convincing and engaging.