Four years ago, in the small town of Birravale, Eliza Daley was murdered. Within hours, her killer was caught. Wasn’t he?
So reads the opening titles of Jack Quick’s new true-crime documentary. A skilled producer, Jack knows that the bigger the conspiracy, the higher the ratings - and he claims Curtis Wade was convicted on flimsy evidence and shoddy police work. Millions of viewers agree.
The rise of the popularity of true crime podcasts and tv shows has not gone unnoticed in the fictional world. The fact that journalists or entertainers are reviewing settled court decisions and, through their interpretation of the evidence, putting pressure on lawmakers to reconsider these cases is a situation ripe for drama. This year already we have had Charlie Donlea’s Don’t Believe It and now we have Benjamin Stevenson’s debut Greenlight. In both cases, a documentary maker exploring a cold case becomes a little too close to their subject.
Greenlight opens with an intriguing cold open, cheekily headed “Cold Open” (in fact the chapter structure and names are taken from the fictional series, including a final, twisty “Mid-Credits Sequence”). A woman called Eliza has been held in a cellar of some kind for an indeterminate length of time when something strange starts to happen and walls of her cell appear to start bleeding. Cut to the present where producer Jack Quick is wrapping up the last episode of his TV series which casts doubt on the conviction of Curtis Wade, accused of murdering Eliza whose body was found on his vineyard. When Curtis is released and his defence laywer dies in the same way as Eliza, Jack has a crisis and heads to the little wine town of Birravale to try and set things right.
One of the fascinating aspects of Greenlight is its exploration of the true crime industry. How the popularisation of the criminals and their exploits has potentially turned everyone into a media star – “each hopeful for their own part to play in the national pantomime that true crime podcasts and TV has turned the justice system into”. Because this is fiction, there is a definitely mystery here and nothing is quite as it seems. But Stevenson also makes alot of mileage out of the impact that Jack’s series has had on the town, the police who he smeared in the series, and on his own relationships in his pursuit for ratings and fame.
The other unique aspect of Greenlight is the character of Jack Quick. Quick suffers from bulimia, a rare condition in males and closely associated in Jack’s case with a childhood trauma. This means that Jack is constantly fighting his own personal demons while also desperately trying to do the right thing by other people. Quick’s battle with his mental illness and its physical effects and his relationship with his father and brother add real depth to this thriller.
But in the end, Greenlight is predominantly an Australian rural crime thriller and in this respect it stands up well. Set in the wine district a few hours from Sydney, Stevenson is able to explore the dynamics of these small communities that are so tied to the success of this particular agricultural/tourist industry. The mystery is well handled and while keen crime buffs will probably guess some of the twists this is because Stevenson plays fair with his readers and keeps much of the solution of the various mysteries in plain sight. He skilfully manages the red herrings and action scenes to keep readers off the scent.
Fitting neatly in a growing rural noir subgenre, Greenlight manages to explore issues that go beyond place in ways that are both interesting and which impact organically with the plot. It has already been a bumper year for great Australian crime fiction debuts (including The Rúin and The Nowhere Child being just two examples) and Benjamin Stevenson’s Greenlight is just continuing that trend
Retribution, Richard Anderson
Perhaps if Sweetapple hadn’t stopped to help the idiots who had just near run him off the road in their ute, things may have gone entirely differently.
Another entry in the expanding Rural Noir category, it's sometimes hard not to come to these novels with a slight sense of foreboding. The "new big thing" is all too often a marketing ploy - more experienced in the hype than the actuality. Fear not however, RETRIBUTION is a good one, different, unusual and a refreshing twist on crime fiction as a whole. Up front - there's not a human murder to be seen here, although the fate of one animal in particular will not impress those readers from the "don't care what you do to the people, but touch one hair on that animal's head and..." camp. A category I will admit a leaning towards, particularly if there's the slightest sense that animal deaths are gratuitous, for shock value. In this case there's a sinking inevitability about it, but to be honest, the reaction of central character Graeme Sweetapple made up for that in many many ways.
But the book itself. RETRIBUTION is as laid back, disaffected and disarming as they come. The central character is an interesting choice in that you can almost see him flinching from the limelight. He's one of those blokes, last in a long line of farmers where the trickle down effect of kicking small farmers in the head over many generations has finally achieved something. His family farm shrunk to a small holding, his small place in the world supported by a bit of cattle rustling, a bit of horse handling for wealthier "townie" farmers, and a bit of whatever it takes to get you through the day. He's a resourceful, quiet, purposeful sort of a bloke, imbued with ingrained sadness and regret, possessed of enormous ingenuity when it comes, in particular, to the cattle rustling game. There were tricks of the trade revealed in this book that impressed - bald tyres, night time drives without headlights, and best of all a stunt to get around the DNA police that had never ever occurred. A slightly distant character, Sweetapple is a real and very appealing human being.
You can certainly see why he would appeal to young Carson - another local with little desire to move away, and yet an underlying yearning for something that she can't quite describe, but knows damn well is there. The attraction between these two is beautifully understated, underplayed and realistic. There is much here that is bittersweet - content in a way with their lot, never indulging in wool over eyes pretence, it kind of makes sense that when eventually jolted from a sort of life on auto-pilot scenario, there's something slightly haphazard about their response - as determined and utterly understandable as it is.
Add to this mix an incomer with agenda's in all directions, and you've got a catalyst, a nuisance, an explainer, a potential rival, part of a revenge plot and an instigator of one of his own and you've got a firey mix, destined to go pear-shaped no matter how you look at it.
Elegantly written, beautifully evocative of the sense of place, and people in it, Richard Anderson knows that of which he writes. The subtle interplay between incomer and long-time local, the tension between "amateur" farmer with money versus lifelong farmers with affinity for the land and the livestock is nicely done - never preachy, never overt. There's also heaps of social issues from the bush that are drawn out, from those local problems right through to the coal mine activists and the mixed feelings about their activities.
All in all this is good rural-noir. It comes from the place and the people that it's written about and it's got the authority, and the touch that comes from living in the world that it's describing.