Drawn from the inside
‘‘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.