They should adapt this book into a movie. It’s a dark, gritty crime noir waiting to be made. What makes it more than your average whodunit murder-mystery genre-novel is the context of its setting. The story plays out in the aftermath of a failed native title claim. The Corrowa, an Indigenous Australian people native to the territory where Brisbane now lies, go to court in order to prevent the development of Meston Park, one of the last open spaces where their community still congregates. A big business conglomerate, called Coconut Holdings, is in cahoots with local government to turn it into a multimillion dollar development of apartments and shops for the rich. The book opens on the Corrowa’s claim being denied by the court. What follows is murder, intrigue, and possibly the return of an ancient assassin.
Nicole Watson’s novel tells the story of a number of characters on the verge. Miranda Eversely, lawyer for the Corrowa, takes the claim’s rejection as a crystallisation of all her personal failures; she teeters on the brink of an alcoholism from which there is no coming back. Ethel Cobb, sweet old lady or plotting mastermind, wobbles on the brink of senility or divine insight. Detective Higgins walks a tightrope of exhaustion, resentment and violent rage. He’s an alcoholic too. Addiction is, in fact, one of the novel’s leitmotifs. Apart from Miranda’s and Higgins’ battles with booze, almost every character seems to struggle with addiction of some kind, be it cocaine, meth, gambling, or sex that insists on debasing someone. The setting of the novel is characterised by so much vice and corruption, it’s hard to find a ray of sunshine. A reader might locate reprieve in the fact that at least some of the most evil perpetrators get what’s coming to them. On the other hand, the cost to those who count amongst the story’s good guys seems so high, it will leave you glum if you were hoping for a happy ending. Arguably, this is all just testament to the unbelievable frustration, indignity and pain Indigenous Australian communities must suffer as they are confronted with structural racism, systemic corruption, and a legal system that is simply inadequate to the task of giving them justice. The reader beware: there is a distressing scene towards the end of the novel, which is maybe even more upsetting in light of so many recent accounts of police brutality (and impunity).
At first, I struggled with the many different narrative strands. There seemed to be too many characters with too many names, who all had complicated relationships with each other – and none of them was really entirely sympathetic. But eventually, the whole came together and I was definitely invested in finding out who had, in fact, dunit. The use of language is quite particular: many simple declarative sentences in the present tense, structured along the lines of a does b, where a makes for an unusual agent. For example: Hair stands on end. While I found it interrupted my reading rhythm at first, by the end I really liked it.
Overall, I couldn’t quite settle on whether the novel was jarringly heavy-handed at moments, or revealed a latent sense of humour. One of the most unpleasant characters, for instance, is called Dick Payne. Finally, either way, the book is important for appropriating the crime novel genre for its own particular decolonial devices. If a reader wants sex, drugs and murder, they’ll get it. They won’t be able to avoid getting, along with that, a side of awareness for the multiple failures of justice Indigenous Australians are forced to suffer.