Drawn from the in­side

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Delia Fal­coner

‘‘WHEN a crime can no longer con­tain or con­tent it­self with the past and in­sists on vis­it­ing the fu­ture, it’s no longer a crime — it be­comes a sin, and very dif­fi­cult to pun­ish,” said scriptwriter Robert Towne of Chi­na­town, his noir clas­sic of cor­rupt Los Angeles. The best crime sto­ries pace this un­easy turf be­tween a de­fin­able crime and the toxic build-up be­hind it, the ac­creted sins of time and place.

PM New­ton only ap­peared on the Aus­tralian crime fic­tion scene in 2011, with The Old School. Though her de­but re­ceived few main­stream re­views it quickly earned her re­spect as a player in the genre, by strik­ing such deep roots into Syd­ney’s murky and un­set­tled past.

Nhu (known as “Ned”) Kelly was a child in the back seat when an un­known killer shot her Viet­namese mother and Ir­ish fa­ther in the fam­ily car.

The Old School was set two decades later, in the 1990s, with Ned now a de­tec­tive in the same tough part of Syd­ney’s sprawl­ing western sub­urbs.

Two long-dead bod­ies on a Bankstown build­ing site lead her on a trail back to the 70s, to Abo­rig­i­nal land rights ac­tivism, the great wave of Viet­namese im­mi­gra­tion af­ter the Viet­nam War and the pos­si­bil­ity that her fa­ther’s mil­i­tary ser­vice was con­nected to both these and her par­ents’ deaths.

At the same time, Ned falls for enig­matic un­der­cover agent Sean Mur­phy, who might be a good cop or one of the bent “old school” be­ing flushed out by the In­de­pen­dent Com­mis­sion against Cor­rup­tion in its in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the state’s no­to­ri­ous po­lice cor­rup­tion.

As New­ton’s sec­ond novel, Beams Fall­ing, opens, Ned is strug­gling af­ter be­ing shot by an­other cop. Hurt­ing and iso­lated, on en­forced rest, she’s play­ing a dan­ger­ous game by pri­vately tail­ing Old Man Liu, a restau­ra­teur/ busi­ness­man with links to the tri­ads, who she’s con­vinced had a hand in her par­ents’ deaths.

Then — al­though she speaks no Viet­namese — the new Task­force Acorn into Asian crime re­cruits her for light du­ties at Cabra­matta, where the heroin trade is ex­plod­ing.

At “Cabra”, Ned finds her­self in a com­mu­nity that is also trau­ma­tised and held as much hostage to the past as it is to a gen­er­a­tion of kids gone ra choi (out to play).

When a lit­tle boy is shot in front of her, Ned is forced into ther­apy with her fel­low “head cases” at the Po­lice Med­i­cal Of­fi­cer Unit.

She has to keep this a se­cret; not only from pal “Murph”, who in­evitably turns up with un­der­cover, but new col­leagues who think she’s a “shit mag­net”.

New­ton was a de­tec­tive her­self in the 90s, and the great strength of Beams Fall­ing is that Beams Fall­ing By PM New­ton Vik­ing, 320p, $29.99 she is just as sharp on the cul­ture of the job as she is about the junkies, pol­lies and Bud­dhist nuns of Cabra­matta. Her force is a dys­func­tional fam­ily, split be­tween two gen­er­a­tions’ loy­al­ties, false in­ti­ma­cies and se­crets — and she shows just how hard it can be in such a shift­ing, com­plex en­vi­ron­ment to see the thin blue line. News from an­other area can be “like learn­ing about a dis­tant war, a short re­port from the Balkans … Ned wasn’t sure if they’d been left be­hind in an ad­vance or a re­treat”.

New­ton’s also ter­rific on the phys­i­cal side of polic­ing; users’ chemical sweat, sta­tion walls that look like tatty com­mu­nity no­tice boards, and es­pe­cially post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Ned’s para­noia threat­ens to undo her.

All bile, adrenalin and para­noia body jammed be­tween flight and fight, she not only has to work out which col­leagues she can trust, but also to ask her­self the hard ques­tions about why she wants to be a cop.

In a land­scape full of com­edy crime thrillers such as those by Shane Maloney and Carl Hi­aasen, and with lush tele­vi­sion se­ries such as True De­tec­tive push­ing the genre’s man­ner­isms to­ward par­ody or the baroque, New­ton plays it by the book.

At first I wor­ried that I would find Ned a cold fish and the prose short on bling. But it’s pre­cisely the un­showy taut­ness of these books and char­ac­ter-rich, lay­ered plot­ting that be­comes their strength.

As Beams Fall­ing starts to re­ally grip, about half­way through, it feels as if it has more sub­stance than many of its showier com­peti­tors. New­ton also nails the genre’s eco­nom­i­cal sum­ma­tions like a pro. Ned and enig­matic Hong Kong de­tec­tive Ng ar­rive at a noisy sweat­shop, where the women labour over their whin­ing ma­chines, to in­ter­view a griev­ing mother: “One ci­cada fell silent, the rest of the tree went on.”

Beams Fall­ing, which also takes in the CBD and north shore, con­firms my sense that crime’s still where it’s at when it comes to map­ping a com­pli­cated mod­ern world. Its orig­i­nal­ity lies in be­ing so re­fresh­ingly free of the nos­tal­gia for the seedy haunts and habits of a lost male land­scape so cen­tral so many Syd­ney crime sto­ries, from Peter Cor­ris’s Cliff Hardy nov­els to ABC TV’s Rake.

In­stead, New­ton gives us a more au­then­tic 90s city. A big, tough, dis­persed town, where the most dan­ger­ous sub­urb can some­times also “feel like a coun­try town”, and the echoes of our in­volve­ment in an­other coun­try’s war can feel closer than any bo­hemian fan­tasy of Tin­sel­town. Delia Fal­coner’s most re­cent book is the non­fic­tion work Syd­ney.

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