Riddles collide in scenic rural town
On the first day of summer in 1993, a man in his 50s sat down in front of a curio shop on the main road of a little country town in NSW and sighed his last breath. Dressed as he was in oddly formal attire, inappropriate for the heat, there was a symmetry in the situation: witness this seeming relic from another era expiring next to antique store. There seemed to be no explicable cause behind the death of the impeccably groomed and debonair gentleman.
He was outwardly composed, with no signs of distress, discomfort or bleeding. As well as the lack of alcohol in his system, there was also no ID — and even more curious, every label from every piece of clothing he wore had been scrupulously removed.
That same day, 21-year-old Benita (Benny) Miller also turns up in Cedar Valley, 2½ hours from Sydney. Young and “very green like a new shoot of grass in a big old field”, Benny moves into a charming weatherboard cottage belonging to Odette Fisher, an old friend of her mother’s.
Vivian Alice Moon had only recently died but Benny had very little contact with, or indeed even knowledge of her elusive parent. She is here to learn more about her mum. These two apparent mysteries: the death of the man and the life of the woman, will become plaited in this second novel by Holly Throsby.
This is not a book for those who like galloping narratives that bypass the finer details in the race to the denouement. No, Cedar Valley takes the scenic route option. It’s a leisurely stroll, with stopovers to tarry with the neighbours to exchange daily bothers about the weather. After all, Cedar Valley, though small, is a very busy community, host to not just one but two rival book clubs, as well as monthly gatherings of devotees of ceramics, fishing, sewing, and quilting.
Nonetheless, this strange matter of a stranger perishing so abruptly on their turf acts as a klaxon in this sleepy village. Gossip and speculation are rife while the locals down beers at the pub and munch on the delicious “world’s best pies” on offer.
It’s certainly a head-scratcher for the handful of police officers whose cases in the area hitherto involved theft of farm machinery, spare parts, fuel and sheep.
Soon, the cold case of the Somerton Man is reheated. He died in Adelaide decades earlier, in 1948, but his death shows remarkable similarities to that of the unfortunate Cedar Valley deceased.
The slow and teasing manner in which Throsby twins together these two cases, separated by time and place, is ingenious. There were intriguing flavours in the original death: a pocket note linked with a poetry book written by a 12th-century Persian astronomer ( The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) and some baffling code that may or may not be espionage-related.
But fancy aside, the basic questions are yet to be resolved in the new investigation. Was it suicide or homicide? Were similarities between the two men coincidental or circumstantial? As Detective Sergeant Simmons mutters with unmitigated exasperation, “It’s hard to know how far to chase the goose.”
Readers expecting everything to be tidied up by the last page will be frustrated by the spaces deliberately left unfilled. This is not in itself a problem; Cedar Valley is canny enough to trust you to come up with likely backstories about the affairs of the doomed protagonists in this beautifully intertwined fact and fiction.
Throsby has a fine way with all characters, whether primary or secondary, and is able to pin down in just a few choice words their innate driving force. There’s Cora Franks, for instance, the pushy and overweening owner of the curio shop. How terribly apposite that she happens to be “festooned with cameo brooches”; and of course the shy and earnest Benny is the type of person who finds “solace in responsibility”. Despite the kind welcome of strangers, her youth and vulnerability are underlined as she goes about trying not to create discord in the gentle rhythms of this country town. She may look startlingly like her mother but in personality she is wan by comparison. The shine and vitality of Vivian Alice Moon are remembered by a fair few of the valley’s older inhabitants — but, alas, not b by her own grieving child. Benny saw her mother in her childhood only fleetingly, and after Vivian left, it was as though she had “drained all the light from the world.”
There are echoes of Throsby’s debut novel, Goodwood — also set in a small rural town, in the same early 1990s period and also involving several mysteries — to the extent that this book can be seen as a companion volume. The author’s singer-songwriter background is evident in the easy banter, unfussy speech and the control and pacing of the narrative. The playful nature of the detective work notwithstanding, Cedar Valley is a sweet and sad ode to loss in all it guises — not least for Benny, who, faced with growing up on the dark side of the moon, is unable to bask in the cool lustre of her mother. is books editor of The Big Issue.