Written by Chris Womersley — At what point did Australian crime fiction become dissatisfied with the confines of the genre and aspire to be something closer to literature? It probably started with Truth, the 2010 novel by Peter Temple, which won a heap of gongs, including the prestigious Miles Franklin Award. Following closely behind was Chris Womersley’s Bereft. Set in rural Australia just after the Great War it’s about an ex-serviceman who returns to a small NSW town to confront his past, it also won a slew of awards. Both books are carefully crafted pieces of writing which have been successfully marketed as Australian literature with a slight cross over into the crime genre. (Bereft sees its UK release in January.)
As a hard core fan of crime fiction, to be frank, I’ve been a bit put off by the marketing pitch around Bereft and have not got around to reading it. But I have been keen for some time to check out The Low Road, Womersley’s 2007 debut novel. Recently re-released, The Low Road is much more firmly planted in the crime genre than Bereft, albeit heavily signposting the direction the author was to move in.
Fresh out of jail, a young petty criminal called Lee wakes up in a sleazy motel with a bullet wound, a suitcase of stolen money and not much idea of how he got there. Also at the motel is Wild, a former doctor fleeing criminal charges arising from medical malpractice due to his drug habit. Both men forge an unlikely bond as they head into the Australian bush to find some form of sanctuary and, in Lee’s case, to escape a vicious oldschool criminal, Josef, who is hunting him down to recover the money.
There’s a lot about this book that works. The story, a pursuit following a heist gone wrong, may be a well-used concept but as far as I’m concerned, it still delivers.
The Low Road is infused with a sense of loss and alienation. Lee is a born loser who, we suspect, never had a chance. Wild is struggling after being cut adrift from his comfortable middle-class life. Josef is the career criminal gradually losing his edge with age. It’s an effective character study, helped by the air of menace conjured up by the broken down rural landscape of abandoned farms, freight yards and dark roads.
But while the writing is beautiful, there is also something unnecessarily complex, almost self-conscious about it. Don’t get me wrong, just because it is genre doesn’t mean it should be badly written. Far from it. But on several occasions I felt bogged down and stymied by long passages of complex description and exposition that added very little to the plot and hindered the momentum of the story. It’s a major problem in what is otherwise an interesting take on crime fiction.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars