Bitter Wash Road by Garry Disher – review

Published by Viper Books

Publication date – 9 April 2020

Source – review copy


Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen is a whistle-blower. Formerly a promising metropolitan detective, now hated and despised, he’s been exiled to a one-cop station in South Australia’s wheatbelt. So when he heads up Bitter Wash Road to investigate gunfire and finds himself cut off without backup, there are two possibilities. Either he’s found the fugitive killers thought to be in the area. Or his ‘backup’ is about to put a bullet in him.

He’s wrong on both counts. But Tiverton – with its stagnant economy, entrenched racism and rural isolation – has more crime than one constable can handle. And when the next call-out takes him to the body of a sixteen-year-old girl, it’s clear that whether or not Hirsch finds her killer, his past may well catch up with him.

Paul Hirschhausen, known has Hirsch, has been sent to a small one man police station the South Australia. Banished because he is tainted by police corruption, he still receives threats and derision with his new colleagues in the larger town of Redruth. Sent out to investigate shots on Bitter Wash Road he wonders if his past is finally catching up with him. But then the body of a young girl is found and Hirsch’s investigations lead him down a path that may be his last one on which he travels.

Constable Paul Hirschhausen is a complex character. The reader learns about the past issues that have lead him to being virtually ostracized from the police force, seemingly hated by both those who are corrupt and those who investigate the corrupted. He is new to town, the locals are wary of him, unsure if he is close to his new boss Krupp, whose tactics don’t make him popular. Hirsch has to tread the middle ground, careful not to express a preference for or against Krupp as he encounters friends of his sergeant and those who most definitely are not.

The reader catches glimpses of Hirsch’s character, slowly developing as the story progresses. He is acerbic, cautious, and burned by his past. He hides behind a cocky, devil may care attitude at work, to counteract the abuse and suspicion from his colleagues. He is finding his feet in a new town. Whilst he comes across walls of silence and people misleading his investigation, he also sets down roots, becoming more attached to Tiverton as his investigation progresses.

There is much of the story that dwells on Hirsch’s past and the corruption that was uncovered before his move to Tiverton. It was occasionally a little laboured, boarding on me questioning whether corruption was that rife and why, if Hirsch was the whistle-blower people were led to believe, was he so hated. The police are there to uphold the law, irrespective of who the criminal is. The “them and us” mentality did seem a little over the top.

There is much to discover in such a small town. Corruption, inherent racism, family secrets and a small town will to survive against the odds are all bubbling under the surface.

That said, the pace of the story is good. There are distractions and red herrings, mis-directions and clues to lead the reader, and Hirsch, on a precarious journey to the truth. The reader grows attached to Hirsch, wanting him to succeed, and not just in the murder inquiry. There is a short extract from the next Hirsch novel, Peace, at the end of Bitter Wash Road and I found myself scanning it to make sure Hirsch has made some friends and settled into life at Tiverton.

The reader, much like Hirsch, doesn’t know who to trust and so questions everything. This adds to the mystery, the story revealed in stages, allowing the reader to detect at the same time as Hirsch, coming to the same conclusions at the same time. The story ties up nicely, though not that neatly and I was left wanting to read more and quite disappointed that Peace, the next book in the series, wasn’t available immediately.

An intriguing start to a series. I’ll be on the look out for more by Garry Disher in the future.

About the author

Garry Disher has published fifty titles across multiple genres, and is best known as Australia’s King of Crime. He has won the Deutsche Krimi Preis three times, the Ned Kelly Award twice, and his novel The Sunken Road was nominated for the Booker Prize. In 2018 he received the Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award.

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