River of Salt, Dave Warner

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When I left Western Australia in 1983 the big pub bands were The Dugites and Dave Warner’s From the Suburbs. Not that I ever got to see them, three kids under six and all that. But after I returned in 2002 I chanced to see a sign outside the Leopold, in Dave Warner’s old stomping ground of Bicton, working class suburb down Freo way, announcing a gig. An opportunity too good to miss and I didn’t. A couple of singers came on and I idly wondered which one was Warner, but when he did appear his booming voice was unmistakable.

I’ve seen him once or twice since, he is a marvellous singer (here’s Just a Suburban Boy – turn it up!) and I don’t know why he never really made it over East or overseas – though he has been named a WA ‘State Living Treasure’. However, as a writer of detective fiction he is just so-so. I thought this may be the second book of his that I have read, and after diligent searching, I find that I read eXXXpresso (2000), from memory a murder mystery based around WA’s first espresso machine, which ex-Mrs Legend and I both enjoyed.

River of Salt (2019) – yes, I requested a review copy – Warner’s tenth, is not set in WA, Warner lives in Sydney now “with his wife and three children”, but on the NSW north coast in the early 1960s. The setting is fictional, a smallish town about an hour south of the Queensland border. Not an area I know at all well so I can’t say what towns it’s based on. The period is not crucial to the story, except that of course it avoids mobile phones and modern forensics. Warner is only a few years younger than me so he lived through the 60s but still his research shows. In fact his writing in general is a bit clunky, though the story itself is good enough.

The ‘hero’ is Blake, a contract killer for the ‘mob’ in Philadelphia (USA). We see him commit two or three cold blooded murders then his older brother and mentor Jimmy, gets himself into trouble, Blake abandons him, and flees to Australia.

Where he becomes a likeable, laid-back, guitar playing, bar-owning, surfer dude. As you do. The real problem with the book is that though we mostly stick with Blake, parts of the story are also written through the POVs of Doreen, Blake’s attractive twenty-something bar manager; Nalder, the local sergeant of police; and least convincingly, Kitty, a local, cute, fifteen year old schoolgirl who attaches herself to Doreen when Doreen runs a dance competition in the bar. Did they really have bars back then? I’m a Victorian – we had hotels and a few licensed restaurants; and girls, and certainly not unaccompanied schoolgirls, weren’t allowed within a mile of them.

Warner uses his considerable rock n’ roll pedigree to construct a background of great 60s music and has Blake learn the guitar and form a band playing ‘surf’ instrumentals, heading for the big time until the Beatles release Love Me Do, and the world changes. Kate W would by this stage of the review have already put up a play list. I am content to link to an absolutely fabulous live version of Australian surf rock band The Atlantics playing Bombora (and yes, turn that right up too!)

The plot is satisfyingly complex. Blake fears the Mob will track him down from Philly; as it happens, local hoods are first on the scene seeking payments for ‘protection’; he is already paying Nalder, who nevertheless hauls him in to find out what he knows about the brutal rape and murder of an out-of-town woman in a shack in the hills (and I know how you all feel about that scenario); Blake decides to find the murderer before he is implicated any further, though Doreen does much of the work; the first serious suspect is Blake’s beach bum/poet friend, Crane; the hoods bash Andy, Blake’s yardman, causing serious head injuries; Andy probably witnessed the victim’s first contact with her murderer but is unable to remember.

It made sense to Blake that if anybody could figure out the killer, it would be him. After all, the one thing he knew a lot about was killing people. He wasn’t proud of this but it was a fact that very few killers had his degree of professionalism: they got sloppy, they made mistakes.

The homicide guys from Sydney arrest Crane; Blake proves it’s someone else; that guy is arrested and Crane released; then Blake comes up with a yet more likely suspect; and then another. Meanwhile his girlfriend/sex buddy goes missing. Is she the next victim?

Kitty wins the dance contest, wins the guy she’s been chasing, they go to the drives and he goes from kissing to heavy petting, to … , she escapes, that guy becomes one of the chain of suspects. Kitty turns to Edith Wharton, learns body language, discovers that her mother knows that her father is having an affair. With someone she knows, as it happens.

Blake runs into an old flame from the US. He’ll have to kill her before she has a chance to let anyone back home know where he is …

It all comes together at the end of course. Blake wins the a girl, a bright future beckons. The murderer is satisfyingly surprising. A fun holiday read, if you overlook that it’s premised on yet another bloody, sexually active, female victim, and at least half a dozen other gratuitous killings.

 

Dave Warner, River of Salt, Fremantle Press, Fremantle WA, 2019

 

I have a 24 hour break coming up, which will give me time to put up a list of contributions to Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019 which means you still have 2 or 3 days to be on it.

 

 

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Journal: 002, A New Start

BillH Volvo (2)

Today I am back to my number one love, being an owner driver. I have bought the truck above from a couple of guys I worked for years ago, father and son, Sam and Dragan, and will tow their general freight trailers throughout Australia. For the technically minded the truck is a Volvo FH16-600 bogie drive prime mover, with a 12 speed automatic gearbox, rated at 130 tonnes gross – more than enough for three trailers.

Cowboy that I am, I looked at quite a few flash American-Australian bonnetted trucks with big motors, 18 speed gearboxes and walk-through sleepers, but I couldn’t pin down regular work for them, whereas Dragan, as soon as I spoke to him (about something else) said, ” You looking for a truck? I’ll sell you a truck. With work. Which one do you want?” Just for a couple of years Volvo made this model just for Australia and Norway with a wider sleeper than is acceptable in the European market, the engine is comparable with the biggest American engines, and driver comfort… for someone who has spent a lifetime in sturdy but rough Australian and American trucks driving a Volvo will be a dream. All I need now is a brown hat.

I thought about giving Sam and Dragan false names before I wrote about them, but the truck is recognisable and the trailers more so, so I guess I’ll just have to be careful about what I say. Sam came out from Yugoslavia as a boy, leaving his parents behind. There is a large newspaper page on the wall in the foyer showing him being met at Fremantle by his grandfather. When I first worked for them, Dragan then in his twenties, was very keen on all things Serbian and was an active participant in Serbian dancing. He is a ruggedly handsome man who looks a lot like former Dockers footballer Matthew Pavlich. So while I won’t be able to say too much, if you think some time in the future he is giving me a hard time I want you all to simultaneously imagine him in white tights and a frilly skirt (I’m guessing Serbian dancers look like Greek dancers).

For the time being I’m on two weeks holiday, reminiscing with ex Mrs Legend about being in Europe this time last year (Avignon today after a few days Eurailing into Spain and back out over the Pyrenees), our kids are coming from interstate, last year’s tax is done (as of midnight last night), I have books to read, business stuff to get ready, sleep to catch up on, and I might even resume swimming.

I’ll tell you another time (maybe) about my two previous goes at being an owner driver – neither ended well, but it’s not about the money is it? I first worked for Sam when I moved back to Perth in 2002. I’d been driving road trains Melbourne-Townsville and that exactly suited the work he was doing out of Perth to North Queensland. The best trip he ever gave me involved driving around Australia in ten and a half days: Perth to Cairns northabout via Port Hedland, Katherine and Mt Isa, then part loads out of Townsville and Saraji back to Perth southabout via Broken Hill and Port Augusta (map). I boasted to a mate in the US, but he had already done New Jersey, Florida, Los Angeles, Chicago so I guess he won.

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I enjoy Scandanavian crime fiction, but not this one, “the fourth Inspector Anita Sundström mystery”, which is bogus on two levels – the author is neither a woman nor Scandanavian. He’s a Scot living in northern England. The female protagonist’s boyfriend, in this novel anyway, a northern Englander in a Scottish police force, is a nerd and a bore but of course as in every case where a guy author inserts himself into the text, he is a genius in the sack.

For seven hours the police in Malmö, sans Sundström, attempt to solve the murder of a blonde female jogger, while Sundström uses up her holiday with lover boy looking into the death of her beach house next-door neighbour, a retired Swedish diplomat. This involves much tedious exposition of history involving Lenin, Nazis, and the Stasi.

In the eighth and final hour all this is forgotten while we head off on a different track altogether leading to a climax in which it looks like everyone will be killed but they’re not. Very definitely 2 out of 5.

 

Recent audiobooks

Barbara Vine (F, Eng), A Dark Adapted Eye (1986)
Peter Temple (M, Aust/Vic), Black Tide (1999)
Torquil Macleod (M, Eng), Midnight in Malmö (2015)
Jack London (M, USA), Children of the Frost (1902) here

Currently reading

Justine Ettler, Bohemia Beach, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2018

Troubled Bones, Jeri Westerson

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Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and in particular, his Canterbury Tales, marks the transition in English Literature from Latin to English. Or so I always thought. But this is what wikipedia has to say:

It has been suggested that the greatest contribution of The Canterbury Tales to English literature was the popularisation of the English vernacular in mainstream literature, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer’s time, and several of Chaucer’s contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, the Pearl Poet, and Julian of Norwich—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was seminal in this evolution of literary preference.

I’ve owned Langland’s Piers Plowman since my student days but I think I’d rate it as even more difficult to take in than Finnegan’s Wake.

Chaucer was a well-off bureaucrat, under the protection of the first Duke of Lancaster, who was third son of Edward III and acted as regent during the minority of his nephew, Richard II (1367-1400), King of England (1377-1399).

I’ve been listening to The Canterbury Tales as I work – one prologue, one tale then listen to something else. A couple of posts ago I was making my way backwards from Jane Austen (here). Well I guess this is as far as I go unless someone records Beowulf. Anyway, one of the something elses I listened to was a work of ‘Medieval Noir’ by American woman, Jeri Westerson, one of a series apparently, featuring fourteenth century private eye and disgraced knight, Crispin Guest and starring, in Troubled Bones at least – Geoffrey Chaucer.

The plot, as a best I can remember a few days later, is that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who makes a great deal of money from pilgrims coming to worship at the tomb of Thomas à Beckett, gives Guest and his offsider/apprentice 13 year old Jake the job of guarding the saint’s bones which he says he thinks will be stolen by Lollards (early Protestants).

On arriving at his hotel in Canterbury Guest finds a group of pilgrims, including Chaucer whom he hasn’t seen for some years when they were both in the service of Lancaster. The pilgrims who are of course the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales, include the Wife of Bath, the Franklin, the Pardoner, the Summoner etc.

On the first night the Prioress is murdered in the Cathedral while Guest sleeps nearby ‘guarding’ à Beckett’s tomb, and then when he goes to investigate the screams of the Prioress’s attendant, the bones go missing. Do we have one crime or two? What is causing unrest amongst the cathedral’s monks? Is the monk-treasurer on the take? Chaucer, who is clearly a Lollard appears to be involved. The Pardoner and the Summoner are up to something, are they involved in the murder, in the theft of the bones? (A Pardoner appears to be an intermediary in the sale of indulgences by the Church, something about which Martin Luther got very agitated a century later.) The Knight and the Prioress had previously been involved in a legal dispute over land, a dispute in which Chaucer had given evidence. The Knight is still angry.

And so we go on with leads and counter-leads. It’s an interesting and well-written work and, except for the idea of a private investigator, probably quite well done in terms of historical fiction. Guest inevitably gets his rocks off with Alison, the Wife of Bath (whom I think is younger in Troubled Bones than she is in the Tales). Jake’s head pops up at all the wrong times and I think the author occasionally forgets he is only 13. But that is just a minor quibble. Give it a try.

The version of The Canterbury Tales I have been listening to, from Brilliance Audio Classic Collection read by David Butler (2002) is straightforward and enjoyable, clearly a modern translation (the table below is extracted from Wikipedia), although it doesn’t say so anywhere on the cover, however not so modernised that you lose all sense of the original, and consists of eight tales and their prologues.

Original Text Modern Translation
This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle, This friar boasts that he knows hell,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder; And God knows that it is little wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder. Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle For, by God, you have ofttimes heard tell
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle How a friar was taken to hell

 

Jeri Westerson, Troubled Bones, 2011. Out of print (self-published?). Audio and ebook versions available here

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1387?. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio The Classic Collection, read by David Butler, 2002