Any new entrants into the realm of Australian thriller writing need to jostle their way into an already crowded field. The days when Peter Corris, then Peter Temple, held undisputed sway are long gone. In fiction at least, we live in a country chock-a-block full of serial killers, dysfunctional families, unexplained disappearances, esoteric murder techniques and menacing outback landscapes.
The company of thriller writers should now welcome the debut by Sally Bothroyd, a writer and film maker who lives in Darwin. Brunswick Street Blues is deeply embedded in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, in scruffy, grungy urban terrain familiar from the Temple's Jack Irish novels. Bothroyd rarely ventures far afield from a decrepit Brunswick Street pub; excursions as distant as Flemington racecourse and North Melbourne seem distinctly exotic. Claiming that Melbourne is "unwieldy", Bothroyd has narrowed her version of the city down to a few seedy blocks.
She takes the reader back to 2007, but peoples her story with characters and settings which are instantly recognisable. The pub features sticky carpet, peeling paint and (a Fitzroy fashion accessory) bars on the windows. Its atmosphere comprises "second hand smoke, stale sweat and yesterday's beer", quite unlike the modern, "gentrified" Fitzroy pubs now boasting vegan options, craft beers and roof terraces.
Our heroine, Brick, starts life as a foundling in a sports bag outside a betting shop. Her friends include a sage homeless man who reckons "it's been a bugger of a decade". Her adversaries range from an ex-footballer Premier to a rapacious property developer and a venal local councillor.
Before Bothroyd's heroine is rescued by a can of hairspray and a poorly-driven Kombi van, Brick's body predictably takes a battering - from her enemies and from life itself. Unlike Cliff Hardy, who too often suffered blows to the skull, Brick is "stabbed several times by wayward fascinators" at the Melbourne Cup.
This is a first novel. Sometimes the reader is coached a bit too much by the narrator. A few of the secondary characters, notably a hard-bitten journalist previously kidnapped in Iraq, might seem too stereotyped to hold our attention. The balance between drama (pursuit of the property developer) and farce (the indignities of office life) wobbles now and again. A fair reader should, however, enjoy Bothroyd's mockery of "an actioning update" or her suggestion that traffic inspectors maintain a file of "spitters and shitters".
By the end, the mysteries of concealed parentage, a missing mate and a rotting corpse are all tidily wrapped up. Brunswick Street awaits an encore.
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