Those Who Perish, Emma Viskic

Back in the 1950s, which sometimes still feels like yesterday, ‘people’ would complain, about Doris Day movies, that breaking into song at critical moments was ‘unrealistic’. It took me a long time to understand that musical theatre was an art form with particular rules into which the story was made to fit, and longer to realise that all modes of story telling have rules which of course skillful story tellers modify as they go along.

What brought this to mind today was the extraordinary, “unrealistic” – for ‘real’ life, not for thrillers – number of violent deaths which deaf PI Caleb Zelic has to deal with over the course of this novel. I’m sure action thrillers are also an art form, but killing for art’s sake is not a concept that turns me on.

Nevertheless, except for one sequence which seemed to me was going to be all ‘action’, I listened all the way through to the end and in places even experienced mild enjoyment. One of the great improvements in crime fiction over time has been the increased emphasis on character development, and that is the case here.

Caleb Zelic lives in Melbourne but his Indigenous wife comes from a fictional Victorian coastal town, three and a half hours away, population 3,000, with a small, habitable island nearby. Let’s deal with the geography first (non-Victorians can skip the next para.)

The town is probably based on a mix of Port Fairy and Warrnambool: the distance is right; there’s a fishing fleet; Port Fairy is about that size; Warrnambool is bigger but the Framlingham Mission – a ‘miss.’ is mentioned – is nearby; and so on. Neither has an island, though the uninhabited Lady Julia Percy Is. is down the coast from Port Fairy; and the ferry which plays a central part in the story is clearly based on the cable drawn ferries over the Murray River that would sink if ever put to sea.

The next issue to get out of the way is cultural appropriation. WG, I’m sure, would applaud Viskic for using Aboriginal characters – Zelic’s wife, Kat, his mother in law, Mick, his friend and neighbour – in important roles in the story. For once I tend to side with her, though I think Viskic goes a little too far in describing Kat’s eagle totem, the cultural significance of mutton birds, stuff like that.

The other ‘cultural’ idea which slides along is the significant Yugoslav community in Australia. Viskic herself has a ‘Dalmatian’ father (Wiki). Zelic’s father’s ancestry is unstated and his sternness, the failure to acknowledge/express feelings isn’t restricted to (former) Yugoslavs.

Melanie, meanwhile is going “deaf PI, deaf PI, how does that work?” I can only imagine Viskic has a deaf (indeed a Deaf) family member. Caleb had meningitis at 5 years which destroyed his hearing. Despite the opposition of his father, he was taught Auslan and attended Deaf school, and is a member of the Deaf community in Melbourne. He insists on meeting hearing friends and informants in a Deaf community cafe, convincingly described.

His brother and his wife are both fluent in Auslan, but he deals with others, and of course his job involves a great deal of listening, by lip-reading with the aid of hearing aids which inflict on him high levels of tinnitus. His deafness is an element in nearly every interaction in the novel, and is very well done.

So, on to Those Who Perish (2022), the fourth in a series – don’t genre novels always hunt in series – featuring Caleb Zelic and his (recovering) drug addict brother Anton.

Kat, an artist, is living with her parents in ____ Bay, which is also the town Caleb and Anton grew up in, surrounded by family, while she sees out the last 8 weeks or so of her pregnancy.

Anton is in a rehabilitation clinic on the island. At the beginning of the novel Caleb has received an anonymous text stating that his brother is in danger and has rushed to the Bay where he discovers his brother pinned down by a sniper on the beach. He rescues him by crashing a tip truck, conveniently parked nearby with the keys in the ignition, into the toilet block in which the sniper is concealed.

A dead man is fished from the sea, shot through the forehead. He turns out to be another patient from the rehab. facility. Caleb spends the next few weeks mostly on the island, thinking up reasons why he shouldn’t tell the police what’s going on, as more people are shot, including the local policeman; surviving (by the skin of his teeth, of course) numerous attempts on his own life; and also thinking up new ways to piss off his wife who clearly loves him, while fighting off the temptations of the island’s token blonde beauty of loose virtue.

There’s also a totally irrelevant subplot about Caleb being asked to solve the mystery of who is publishing incriminating photos of members of the local football team; which leads him to having a long discussion, for no logical reason, with his doctor mother in law about bent dicks. And no, the comic subplot doesn’t merge with the serious murder plot in the last chapter, as you might expect, but is ‘solved’ in an unnecessary epilogue.

I don’t review crime fiction often but I listen to far too many. This one was at least Australian, though the Victorian element was not up there with, say Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh. The characters were interesting; Caleb’s inability to not be jealous of Kat’s handsome, Indigenous, smooooth workmate was totally believable; the crime plot was maybe 6 out of 10 (the comic subplot was 3/10). Add it to your list Melanie, I’d be interested to hear what you say about Viskic’s treatment of deafness.

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Emma Viskic, Those Who Perish, 2022 (Book might not be out yet), read by Lewis Fitz-Gerald

Melanie/Grab the Lapels doesn’t (yet) have a heading for Deaf.Lit but here is her latest review: Deaf & Sober by Betty G Miller

19 thoughts on “Those Who Perish, Emma Viskic

  1. Wonders will never cease! You sort of side with me on an issue re First Nations in non-Indigenous novels! I agree with you that going into “culture” like totems etc starts to get tricky and can make me squirm.

    Anyhow, I am keen to read Viksic because of her deaf/Deaf protagonist, but I want to read the first, Resurrection Bay?

    BTW, re deaf/Deaf, which I saw Melanie highlight, I have vivid memories of early in my career when I was buying films for different communities. It was the International Year of Disabled People and the “deaf” community made it very clear that my list of films was to be titled “for the hearing-impaired” not “the deaf”, “the Deaf” or “deaf people”, etc. I completely understand all this naming, nomenclature issue, but when you’ve lived SEVERAL decades, keeping up gets challenging. I hate feeling bad because my heart’sh the supporting place but I’ve got it wrong!

    PS my next post – today – is also a rare crime-fiction. I just need to tidy it up.

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    • I’ll get to your crime fiction shortly (I’m coming home from Marble Bar with a wide load, which means I can’t travel at night).

      It’s a problem getting names right but I can understand why different people/groups of people might want different words (We don’t seem to be WASPS anymore. Personally I like Anglos, though I’m sorry Skips seems to have gone by the board). And I can understand why those words might change over time, as I know you do too.

      I think Deaf is to differentiate the culture from the condition. And by insisting on it they have seem to have made clear a distinction of which were until recently completely unaware. So it worked!

      Let’s take the Indigenous characters down to Pam’s comment …

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      • Deaf means part of the culture. They use sign language, have their own culture separate from hearing culture, traditions, tendencies, types of greetings and goodbyes, etc. how much they touch, what they comment on, etc.

        deaf means medical, as in you cannot hear

        hearing impaired used to be what people called everyone who is deaf, but the Deaf community rejects that label. They do not feel they are impaired or need fixed and sometimes view those who want to fix deafness as a threat to their culture.

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    • Your comments have far more errors than anyone else’s (sorry! but it’s true) is that because you literally pen them – with a stylus on a pad, I’m guessing.

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      • Oh dear … but yes, I often do because I’m often doing comments on the device when I can squeeze in time rather than on the laptop and I forget to check that it’s actually recorded what I’ve written. (My mother would be mortified.)

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  2. As a speech pathologist (retired) I think I’d be looking too hard as to how the deaf vrs hearing impaired person would be represented. I find a lot of crime books I’ve read in the past I’ve stopped as their always seems to be some gimmick by the author. Why are detectives always disabled or depressed or on it goes. I know the disabled are capable of amazing job and often succeed but more often, from my experiences of 40 years working with people with mild to profound disabilities, they do not. I tend to shy away from these books. Maybe rightly or wrongly but they just don’t appeal. The indigenous writing by a caucasian is yet another matter too.

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    • I’m always wary of truck drivers in my fiction, probably for the same reason. I think commercial fiction needs gimmicks, there’s just so much of it. But, as an outsider to Deafness (though getting all too familiar with deafness) I found Caleb’s interactions with hearing non-signers to be quite reasonable.

      To be quite clear Viskic isn’t telling Indigenous stories, rather she has included Indigenous characters in a quite natural way in a white man’s story. Now, assuming she doesn’t live in a mixed race household herself, this does involve her in some imagination, but in fact most of the interactions are guy-wife, guy-mother-in-law and the Indigenous-non-Indigenous thing doesn’t come into it.

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  3. I read her first, Resurrection Bay, and remember it having a compelling plot but it was very violent and a bit too noirish for me. It certainly didn’t make me want to continue with the series. From your review, it sounds like the characters have been developed / moved on a bit because I think in the first one Kat was the girlfriend Caleb had broken up with and his heart was broken as a result. Nice to hear they got back together. Lol.

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    • The Kat/Caleb relationship has its ups and downs – mostly because Caleb isn’t very good at it, or so it seems to me. If I see more of this series I will listen to them, because I like the characters. Am I getting inured to violence? Maybe, in books anyway. I still refuse to watch movies that involve shooting.

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  4. I don’t really read much crime at all (Maigret or historical fiction mysteries are as close as I get), but we do get asked for our opinion at work _ a LOT – on crime titles. So reading this and Sue’s review today, have helped me with my day job – thank you both 🙂

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    • Maigret is a very high standard for other crime writers to aspire to. Over all those novels you really get a long way into his character (and into his marriage).
      I don’t ever see sales figures but I think Caleb has the makings of a readers’ favourite. We learn a lot about him and Kat and Anton (his brother) are well drawn too. So I think you can safely recommend him to readers who like crime (and don’t mind lots of shooting).

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  5. I thought this sounded a bit violent for me and Kim’s comment bears that out. What a shame, as the Deaf element does sound well done, and the multicultural background interesting.

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    • Violent: lots of people are shot dead – an unrealistic number of people, but that seems to be par for the course with most crime fiction. The descriptions of the deaths are ‘realistic’, without being pornographic (I think some crime fiction writers and readers get off on blood and damaged bodies). I think I’m probably getting too tolerant of unnecessary deaths in fiction, which is a shame as I certainly believe unnecessary deaths in movies contribute to our increasingly violent societies.

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      • Neil, I guess if you’re going to solve a murder then you need a murderee as well as a murderer and of course the only way to get a murderee is their death, so let that be the ‘necessary death’. But writers and consumers get carried away by blood and violence and so we – in books and movies. And life – now have deaths at the drop of a hat described in goriest detail. All unnecessary (but of course, profitable).

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  6. It’s interesting to think about a Deaf PI because D/deaf people are so completely used to navigating the hearing world. They’ve been getting on in various ways whether we are hip to their needs or not. More so, it seems that repression of Deaf culture and language is a bigger hindrance than navigating a hearing world. Though I will say this: a whole lot of D/deaf people are NOT quiet, so if your PI did a lot of sneaking around, he certainly was coached and made aware of how much noise we make and tamed his body. Even if you listen to D/deaf people vs. hearing people laugh, it’s quite different.

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    • It would seem that Viskic has had a lot of exposure to the Deaf community (maybe as a result of commentary like this after the earlier novels in the series). She explains in some (convincing) detail how Caleb navigates his way through hearing society. And her description of the Deaf community cafe is LOL funny with raised voices, raucous laughter, and the clashing of saucepans in the kitchen creating a cacophony which of course only the few hearing guests are bothered by.

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