I recently finished reading Never Never by James Patterson and Candice Fox. Never Never is a large, heavy paperback, wrapped in the vibrant hues that signal the Australian desert as well as the thriller genre. The taglines on the book jump out at me: my favourite one promises that ‘the pages turn themselves’.
Patterson, the world’s highest earning author last year, is an entrepreneurial force in the publishing industry and Fox is a multi-award-winning Australian crime author, so Never Never is a fascinating collaboration for people interested in contemporary Australian crime writing. The novel’s protagonist is the spiky, sweary Detective Harriet Blue. Following the arrest of her brother for multiple murders, Harry’s boss bundles her out of Sydney and sends her to investigate the disappearance of several young people at a mine in Western Australia. Harry is picked up at the airport by her friendly new partner, Edward Whittacker. They clash immediately, and the investigation traces a rocky path as the killings continue.
From this set up, Harry and Whitt’s pursuit draws in a host of interesting factors, from the thematic – the ongoing trauma experienced by war veterans, the way people adapt to the distinctive social environment of a Fly In-Fly Out mine – to the plot-complicating, like local drug dealers and a band of ecowarriors bent on sabotage. The book switches between Harry’s first person account of the investigation and vivid, tense sections that depict the sniper’s deadly games: ‘As the two men waited, both panting in the desert sun, the radio in Mick’s hand crackled. “If you reach the camp, I’ll let you live.”’ The novel delivers on the promise of its cover. I found Never Never fast-paced and engaging, with a clear through line, short chapters, and lots of action.
The writing is efficient, but there’s humanity and warmth too; I cared about Harry and Whitt. Each of them recognisably belongs to the crime genre because they are damaged, brave and intelligent, but Patterson and Fox steer away from the most familiar character types – the isolated, macho, world-weary male protagonist, or the young woman described lasciviously and then threatened or killed. The multidimensional characters, and especially the complexity of Never Never’s heroine, Harry, are what reminded me most of Fox’s sole-authored books. Moral ambiguity and psychological pain are part of the frame for Never Never, but the book doesn’t linger on them. There is too much action to get on with. In contrast, the books in Fox’s Archer and Bennett series – I recently read the second one, Eden – split action and character development more evenly.
The heft and colour of Never Never had slightly startled me because I don’t read print books much anymore. I read Eden on my Kindle, which is how I do most of my reading. Every title looks and feels the same. When I snap open the case, there is no settling-in-to-read process. I pick up exactly where I left off and mainline straight into the story. This caused a bit of a jolt with Eden’s opening phrase, which is itself radically decontextualized: ‘The night of the boy’s murder he was working.’ What boy? Is he the victim, or……? The sentences unfold to describe historical Sydney, populated with prostitutes, sailors and gangs, corrupt police and politicians. The book then switches to the present day, where Hades, a former criminal, lives and works at Utulla Tip. Hades’ adopted daughter is police detective Eden Archer, and she and her partner Frank Bennett have a series of murders to investigate. The book weaves together multiple plots: an undercover investigation at a commune in the bush where girls are going missing, a stalker at the tip, and a decades-old mystery with ongoing ramifications.
Eden’s richness comes partly from the unusual level of nuance with which Fox writes about violence. In this book, violence is not simply a shortcut to readerly engagement: a threat to make me anxious, or a grisly horror that I can’t turn away from. Violence is woven into every level of the story, as casual aggression and manipulative menace as well as horror, and it is engaged in by everyone from villains to heroes to minor characters. It’s also intimately connected to the issue of class, which Fox handles sharply. Her awkward, middle-class detective Frank focalises observations of different social groups in the book, from the ‘university types’ who thought ‘violence was the language of the weak and tattoos were soul writing on skin’, to the residents of the outer Sydney suburbs: ‘The urban-sprawl homicide beat was an easy beat. Dave-o stabbed Johnno. Oh no.’ Violence in Eden is plural, gestural and embedded in social life.
The other thing I admire about Eden is that it takes a possibility that has always been present in police procedurals and drives it further than I’ve seen before: the potential distrust between partners. Eden and Frank aren’t straightforwardly buddies. They work together, but the tensions between them increase the suspense by taking away one of the safety nets of the genre. The undercurrent of suspicion also makes everything more ethically complex; the goodies aren’t necessarily always good. Eden’s moral landscape is like the rubbish tip over which Hades presides, where apparently clear-cut lines only emphasise the unnerving atmosphere…’the tip’s orange sodium lamps cut perfect cone shapes into the dark, illuminating what was beneath them and nothing else.’ Illumination and shadows. It feels material to me again; how reading is made up of the book I hold, and what’s around the edges.
Beth Driscoll is a lecturer in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne, and the author of The New Literary Middlebrow. She has written about books for The Australian, the Sydney Review of Books, Meanjin and Reading Australia.