Review Blog

Dec 03 2017

Under the cold bright lights by Garry Disher

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Text Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9781925498882
(Age: 15+) Highly recommended. Themes: Abuse, Domestic violence, Crime, Victoria, Cold case. When a snake disappears under a concrete slab, Nathan rings a snake catcher who decides that the slab must be lifted. This reveals a skeleton, and Alan Auhl and his partner, Claire Pascal are called in from the Cold Case and Missing Persons Squad to deal with it. As their investigations proceed, the plodding routine questioning of neighbours, trawling land titles, investigating all the previous tenants and owners, unfolds while evidence from the body is elicited by forensic analysis, keeping the reader alert to every possibility. In the background, Auhl, recently returned to the police force in his mid fifties, is called Retread by the younger members of his team, a term he bears with equanimity.
Home is a three story terrace house in Carlton, inherited from his parents; his estranged wife lives on one floor, his student daughter on another and many blow ins, friends of his daughter or waifs someone has sent him, occupy various rooms. One taking refuge is Neve and her ten year old daughter, Pia, running from an abusive husband. Their fear is palpable, and the way they are treated in court by the husband's solicitor, their own legal aid lawyer and the judge make horrifying reading, the psycho babble used by the husband's team making the readers' insides turn, and Auhl there for support, more determined to help them.
Alongside the 'slab man' case, Auhl is juggling a case which haunts him each year. On the anniversary of John Elphick's death, his daughters, convinced he was murdered, ring Auhl asking if he has taken the investigation further. Now in a position to act, he rereads the coroner's report and looks more closely at what happened, despite the warning by his boss. But Auhl is a maverick and by now, the reader will love him for it. His taking in the waifs of the world, his ironic look at what goes on around him, his dry wit and banter with his friends and colleagues, embed him in the readers' imaginations.
But a doctor has arrived at the police station, convinced that his wife is trying to murder him. Auhl sits in on the interview remembering his Homicide investigation of the doctor several years ago after the suspicious death of his second wife, and the hatred between them makes for a tense interview.
The investigations into the 'slab man's death takes Auhl to a fundamentalist community where 'slab man's partner, found dead some years earlier, once lived. Here follows a dark entanglement of intrigue, where women are abused in the name of religion and kept in the background, fearful of what may happen to them if they disobey.
Behind many of the crimes investigated in Disher's latest enthralling novel, is the theme of controlling husbands, of men who use power over women, of men who will stop at nothing to retain it.
The book flows by, building the horror of what happens behind closed doors, and people's inability to stop it. From the pastor's son, protecting his now demented father, the doctor, trying to manipulate the police, the house owner not owning up to asbestos before she sells, the range of ideas and themes offered in this latest book will keep readers thinking all the while tracking around the twists and turns of an excellent plot, designed to take the reader down a path not usually explored and leaving them with heady questions about law, justice and morality. This stand alone novel is sure to elicit calls from many readers for a further outing for Alan Auhl, and I am one of them.
Fran Knight

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