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.