Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 Feb 2023 from Headline. Available now in e-book
My thanks to Louise Swannell and Headline for an advance copy for review
One outback town. Two puzzling murders. Fifty suspects.
In Unamurra, a drought-scarred, one-pub town deep in the outback, two men are savagely murdered a month apart – their bodies elaborately arranged like angels.
With no witnesses, no obvious motives and no apparent connections between the killings, how can lone police officer Detective Dana Russo – flown in from hundreds of kilometres away – possibly solve such a baffling, brutal case?
Met with silence and suspicion from locals who live by their own set of rules, Dana must take over a stalled investigation with only a week to make progress.
But with a murderer hiding in plain sight, and the parched days rapidly passing, Dana is determined to uncover the shocking secrets of this forgotten town – a place where anyone could be a killer.
I really did enjoy this book. It’s a crime investigation with a difference. There are two savage murders in a small town and it takes an outsider to come in and through observation and asking questions from left-field, to try and establish what has occurred. Because this small town, with just 50 inhabitants, does not seem to want to know who committed these crimes.
There is not much love lost between Detective Dana Russo and her boss, Anton McCullough. She knows he’s just waiting for the right excuse to get rid of her, so when he assigns her to the Unamurra case, she knows he thinks she’s on a hiding to nothing.
She’s given just 48 hours to travel to the far distant town of Unamurra. It’s not much more than a small village with one shop, a pub and 50 inhabitants. It’s a place where the penniless go to live cheaply, because property is cheap and run down and there’s nothing to spend your money on.
Two men are dead. Larry Muir, a farmer, was first, then Tim Maguire, husband of Annie Maguire, the pub owner was next. This case has already been investigated by local detectives and they found nothing.
Suspicion falls on the one outsider, an artist named Axel Du Bois, whose angel art installations are what laughably passes for government assistance with economic development – in the hope that these moveable installations will attract tourists to the area. But this is an area where no-one passes through, it is drought ridden; a town of ramshackle buildings, poverty and nothing to see here.
These life-size angels are mounted on large frames which move around the town – only this last time it was a real body on the frame.
Russo has to set off straight away and as she visits the local Police Commander before heading out to Unamurra, she finds he is not confident in her ability to succeed where his officers have previously failed.
With little to go on, she heads for Unamurra in the company of the area’s one policeman, Able Burillo. Russo has noted that Able did not seem to be included in the previous investigation and she muses on why that is and how much he is to be trusted.
Unamurra, when she finally gets there, is as closed a community as she has found. No-one wants to chat, far less help. The angel artist, Axel DuBois has gone to ground, though an honour guard of angels is at the entrance to the town to welcome Dana as she arrives. With a complete lack of co-operation and a previous ineffective investigation, Dana has to deploy alternative methods to catch her killer/s.
Red Dirt Road is a psychological novel. Dana’s process of deduction is more akin to that utilised by Conan Doyle than Agatha Christie. Though she’s not sizing up cigar ash, she does spend her time thinking more about motivation and less about means. Spurred on by the help she gets from her dear friend Lucy back at base, Dana focuses on the challenge she has been set, which has been described to her as akin to the Star Trek Kobayashi Maru test.
As the clock ticks, Dana’s psychological profiling comes to the fore but she keeps her cards close to her chest and it is not until she’s ready to act that she brings Able into her thinking.
S.R. White is excellent at conveying the dry, dusty territory and the run down community that is Unamurra. The thankless task of being a farmer in the middle of a red dust desert during a period of drought is shown in all its heart-breaking misery.
Dana herself is strong thinker and an intuitive and empathetic listener. Her unorthodox approach to solving this case is novel but amounts to profiling the killer. The conclusion builds on Dana’s thinking and both satisfies and shows us that when the chips are down, her instincts are sound.
Verdict: This is a slow burn of a book with lots of tension and an edginess that sits on our detective’s shoulders keeping the unpredictability high. You really feel you are immersed in the dry, dusty outback. I loved Detective Dana Russo and her unorthodox methods. I certainly want to go back and read SR White’s previous books in this series. Highly recommended by me.
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S. R. White’s debut novel, HERMIT, was a top ten bestseller in Australia and nominated for the Crime Writers’ Association award for the best crime novel by a first-time author. He now lives in Queensland, having worked for a UK police force for twelve years before taking an MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University.
One thought on “Red Dirt Road by S.R. White @headlinepg @Louiseswannell”
This sounds a bit like the Mystery Road TV series or films. A 50-people village – can you imagine?