Written by Iain Ryan — Brisbane, Queensland in the 1980s. If this Australian sunshine state isn’t the most corrupt place in the Southern Hemisphere, then the Pope isn’t a Catholic, and the only thing bears do in the woods is have picnics. That’s how this punchy debut by Iain Ryan depicts the area, anyway.
Jim Harris is a policeman. To be more precise, he is an alcoholic policeman with an appetite for sex and drugs. The sex is mostly with another cop, Sarah Hannon. The fact that she is married to someone else is neither here nor there, and the fact that she’s married isn’t the only reason Harris shouldn’t be in bed with her adds to the dystopian chaos of the book.
Harris has one redeeming feature – his basic honesty. This puts him at a considerable disadvantage among his fellow officers. They are, almost to a man, mired in corruption, lazy, or simply stupid. When he punches an Italian mobster who has paid off most of the cops in Brisbane, Harris is sent to Cairns on the north Queensland coast. Here, he spends his life in a cheap hotel, drinking cheap grog while going through the motions of being a police officer.
Harris returns to Brisbane, and becomes involved in the case of a murdered prostitute – barely in her teens – whose body is found on waste ground. Next you’d expect a phrase such as ‘the hunt for the killer’, but no-one except Harris has the slightest interest in hunting anyone. The case has been trodden on by the Licensing Squad, a police department who are, in theory, responsible for controlling premises that deal in alcohol, gambling and – illicitly – prostitution.
The four days of the title? Well, in 1984 an HIV diagnoses was a death sentence. Harris has loved well, but not wisely, and he has four days before his blood tests will reveal if he has contracted the 20th century version of The Black Death. He gives himself those four days to bring down – by fair means or foul – the people responsible for the young prostitute’s murder. And what happens during those four days will leave you dry-mouthed.
This is a hard novel to love, rather in the way that being bashed over the head with a lump of wood is a difficult thing to become fond of. It’s short – little more than a novella – but by the last page you will feel that you have gone 12 rounds with a particularly sadistic boxer who will not knock you out, but keeps on punching you where it hurts. There were moments in the book which were so visceral that I was reminded of how Derek Raymond took his readers on an all-expenses-paid journey into the hell that human beings are able to create for themselves. Ryan takes us to some equally grim places, both in the landscape of people’s minds, and the physical environment they choose to inhabit.
One day, someone will come up with a word which goes deeper and darker than ‘noir’, and it might fit this debut novel. For now, the French word will have to do. If you are a fan of the genre, read this book. It won’t take you very long, but it will leave its mark.
Broken River Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars