When Garry Disher received the Australian Crime Writers' Association's Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, the most prestigious literary prize for crime fiction in Australia, he was described as " a giant not only of crime fiction but of Australian letters".
Disher was born in South Australia and has been a full time writer since 1998, beginning with short stories for literary magazines, which resulted in him being awarded a creative writing scholarship to Stanford University in California. Disher has said that it was "the best thing that could have happened to me at that stage in my career . . . I learnt a lot very quickly . . . I learnt how to rewrite, which is a critical thing to learn". But he knew he couldn't make a living writing short stories.
While teaching creative writing, Disher made the transition to writing novels, initially for children and teenagers, including The Bamboo Flute, which won the Children's Book Council Award in 1993 and The Divine Wind, which won the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People's literature, one of the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, in 1999.
However, Disher is now celebrated primarily for his crime fiction, which he turned to because, he says, he's always loved reading it himself, blaming Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Secret Seven stories which he read as a child, which he describes as "simple adventures of kids outwitting bad guys".
"I've always loved reading crime fiction and I was determined to write my own," he says.
Disher's crime fiction is far from simple. He admits he has developed techniques to enrich his fiction, "carefully placed turning points, buried secrets coming to the surface, getting the reader to exercise their mind about the wrong issue, delaying and withholding tactics".
In an interview, he quoted from Dickens, who said, "make them laugh, make them cry but crucially make them wait".
"In other words you string the reader along," says Disher.
"You don't spell it all out. There's a kind of frustration that sets in."
Although he plans his novels in minute detail - "I spend weeks and sometimes months on a plan" - he also trusts his instincts.
"If there's a little voice niggling at the back of my head saying, 'she's not going to do this' or 'he can't do that' or 'what if he did this instead', I always listen to that voice," he says.
He also writes longhand, saying he can't "think through the keyboard", and he uses a blue biro because "if it's a black one, the magic leaks out of the window". Once he's written the first draft, he types it onto the computer, editing as he goes.
Disher has created many memorable characters, including Wyatt, a professional hold-up man, who has featured in 10 novels, and police detectives Challis and Destry, who investigate crime on the Mornington Peninsula, where Disher now lives, in seven novels.
Wyatt, a true anti-hero, is Disher's most controversial character and yet arguably his most popular to date. Disher says the inspiration for Wyatt came from the 1960's Parker novels of Richard Stark (the pen name of the late Donald Westlake) whose novels Disher "devoured . . . and was impressed with the notion of a cool, relentless and painstaking hold-up man". His readers, he says, don't admire Wyatt but they want him to win. Disher admits he can't get close to Wyatt and that sometimes "a chill comes off the page as I try to see the world as he sees it", a man who steals for profit and who will kill if crossed.
However, Disher's favourite character is Paul Hirschhausen, 'Hirsch', who found himself in a corrupt suburban CIB squad, became a whistleblower and was "busted" back down to uniform and sent to a distant, one-officer police station in the South Australian bush. He first appeared in Bitter Wash Road (2013), which won the German Crime Prize in 2016, and now reappears in Disher's latest novel Peace.
The setting in both novels is the mid-north of South Australia where Disher grew up. Even though he left at 17, he says, "it still exerts a pull on my imagination - I still call it home".
He certainly captures the essence of outback Australia in Peace. Christmas is close and "the mid-north sun had some heft to it, house bricks, roofing iron, asphalt and the red-dirt plains giving back all the heat of all the days. And this Thursday morning a grassfire to top it off."
Hirsch is now more settled into the small community of Tiverton. He is in a stable relationship with a local high school teacher, and although he is still treated with suspicion by his colleagues, the new sergeant in nearby Redruth is appreciative of his policeman's intuition. In an effort to continue to build good community relations, Hirsch has agreed to play Tiverton's Santa, distributing present to the local children and judging the town's annual best Christmas lights' competition.
Hirsch is an honest, empathetic man, who visits isolated homesteads each week to check on the lonely, the disabled and the elderly in a landscape of "stone ruins close to the road, distant farmhouse rooftops, a line of wind farm turbines along a nearby ridge - the settler years, the struggling present and the future, all in one".
Crimes in the area reflect local problems. A drunken woman drives her car into the front bar of the pub, someone is stealing copper and a beloved farm dog is reported missing. Hirsch's biggest problem is his interfering, vindictive neighbour, Martin Gwynne, "60 and retired, a neat package, a man of bubbling energy, he was always about the place somewhere. The street, the shop, council meetings, the tennis club, the Saturday football match."
However, two incidents abruptly shatter the peace of the small town. A baby is left locked in a car in the December heat and, when Hirsch rescues the child, her frantic mother somehow manages to grab his gun. A video is posted online with devastating, violent consequences. At the same time, a vicious attack on a local stable brings both the press and detectives from Port Pirie to the town.
Peace is rural noir at its best: a lone detective persisting in protecting his community while under pressure from his past; criminal, evil individuals who prey on the the isolated; corrupt police, all set against the backdrop of the dangers of the Australian bush. Disher's delaying and withholding tactics create suspense and the urge to keep reading.
And at the end, he ties up all the loose ends and peace is restored.
Disher wrote Peace in partial fulfillment of a doctorate at La Trobe University, because he says he realised some years ago that "a lot of my colleagues, my peers who I met at writer's festivals said they are doing the same thing because of the scholarship money".
The reality for Disher is that even though he has published over 50 books, he says his income is "very, very low. And it's declining over the years".
Perhaps the rise in popularity of rural noir and the quality of Disher's writing in Peace will turn his fortunes around. He certainly deserves it.
- Peace, by Garry Disher. Text Publishing. $29.99.