Deaths bring Canberra alive

DEAD CAT BOUNCE. By Peter Cotton. Scribe. 320pp. $29.95.

Timing, in politics as in life, is everything. In the run-up to the federal election, and in the wake of a state scandal involving politicians trading in mining contracts like Monopoly money, Peter Cotton has produced a solid police procedural with its finger on the political pulse of a fictionalised Canberra where the pollies are being eliminated one by one.

It begins with the well-liked minister for the environment, tipped to be next in line for PM. Her elegantly suited body is found on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in the company of a ''recently dead'' tortoiseshell cat. A few days later, it is the turn of a senior government adviser whose corpse is also discovered in the vicinity of a defunct moggie. Could this be, people wonder, some kind of dead cat in-joke?

Capital punishment ... Peter Cotton taps into the dark side of the nation's capital.
Capital punishment ... Peter Cotton taps into the dark side of the nation's capital. 

A ''dead cat bounce'', according to one of Detective Darren Glass's journalist informants, is a metaphor for a situation that goes from bad to worse. And much, much worse it gets before Glass manages to unravel a political intrigue that will threaten the security of the nation and, in a gesture of supreme sacrifice, his own life.

A former journalist and media adviser to three cabinet ministers in Canberra, debut crime writer Cotton knows how it works. Politicians, media pundits and police officers are the key players in this drama, which has at its centre a question of knowledge: who knows what about whom and who that knowledge will hurt most. With the disappearance of a ''dirt file'' containing sensitive information about the key players at the top, Dead Cat Bounce does nothing to unsettle the proposition that power corrupts.

<i>Dead Cat Bounce</i>, by Peter Cotton.
Dead Cat Bounce, by Peter Cotton. 

Detective Darren Glass is a serviceable if uninspiring narrator. He is hot-headed and heroic by turns, but sadly humourless. I kept wondering what Shane Maloney might have made of these shenanigans if Murray Whelan were on the scene (or Clarke and Dawe for that matter), but Cotton plays it straight.

Indeed, there's something of the dogged, hard-boiled hero about Glass as he segues from one interrogation scene to yet another stake-out while managing to put his foot in it wherever he treads. ''I was warned you were tactless,'' the PM tells Glass after the latter asks an ''odd and offensive'' question about the former environment minister's political ambitions. Inspired blunders is what Glass is all about.

Breaking up the detective's first-person narration are brief updates from diverse media sources. One is the feed from the live cam reporter at the scene, Jean Acheson, the other a series of political blog entries by a waspish Simon Rolfe. Both become embroiled in the investigation. Glass has the hots for Acheson, whose ''slightly misaligned green eyes'' give her a ''vulnerable air'', while Rolfe turns out to be an invaluable informant about the political chicanery of the past. There's a lot of process in this procedural, as suspects are interviewed, eliminated or further implicated in the inquiry. There are also highlights, including when Glass himself is abducted. Imprisoned in a locked room with no apparent means of escape, and the knowledge that he is facing death, Glass must use all of his MacGyver resourcefulness to find a way out.

Dead Cat Bounce is, of course, a fiction. People just don't go around murdering and/or abducting political leaders in the run-up to an election here in Australia, even if they'd like to.

Canberra, on the other hand, comes alive. From Capital Hill, ringed by the deceptively calm leafy suburbs, to the shores of the spectacular Lake George, Cotton knows his beat.