Written by Bill Bateman — Medical crime fiction is not the most mined of the sub-genres we cover, which is strange because doctors hold life and death in their hands every day. And of course things don’t always go the way they planned.
In Hard Labour, Dr Vince Hanrahan is on his last roll of the dice. Once he was a high-rolling obstetrician in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, married with two teenage daughters at the best school. Now, mostly due to the death of one of his patients, his relationship is on the rocks, he’s working as a GP in Warrnambool, a coastal city half way to the South Australian border where he rents a dump of a house and eats takeaway pizza twice a day.
That’s all in the back story that comes later on, though. Hard Labour opens with a second death in the birthing suite. This time it’s a local PhD student, Polly Cotter, dead in the low-risk birth room at Warrnambool base hospital. Vince knows straight away that something isn’t quite right here, and when it’s followed by another suspicious death, this time Polly’s PhD supervisor and Vince’s close friend, and all signs pointing towards Vince as the one to blame, he knows he must find out what really happened.
As the current-day picture is revealed, we’re also shown Vince’s past. His world was turned upside-down when a birth he supervised ended in the deaths of both mother and baby. The medical board are on his back so he takes the only job he can in a drive-through city on the Great Ocean Road. His every move is monitored not only by the board but by the locals, who seem to know all about him. Despite not wanting to take part in local life, Vince joins an abalone farming start-up, hosts a weekly morning show on local radio, and strikes up a relationship with the local female cop. All while he tries to be a good father to his teenage daughters and a good doctor to the locals.
It’s strange to say this about a book with a death in the first pages, but Hard Labour is quite slow to start. It’s clear from the acknowledgements that Bateman intends to write a series, reusing characters and settings, meaning even minor characters and background details are heavily fleshed out. All characters speak like stereotypical Aussies, to the point where Vince’s daughters speak in an off-kilter mixture of text message and teen rebel, and colloquialisms outnumber regular sentences. The phrase ‘sticks out like a dog’s balls’ is used three time, for example. The author goes deep into the process and politics of abalone farming and offshore drilling, and I learnt more about abalone breeding and deep-sea gas pipelines than I’ll ever need to know.
Hard Labour is interesting among crime fiction novels in that the cause of death is perhaps the most difficult to determine. Once the murder weapons are discovered, it becomes inevitable that Vince will find the murderer, with the help of Polly’s drug-dealing partner, as well as Senior Constable Elena Genovesi, who shares enough sexual tension with Vince to set their small-town Chinese restaurant on fire. There’s the sense that this too will be explored in subsequent novels, so Bateman’s clearly got a little bit more up his sleeve. I hope that other works tone down the lazy stereotyping, cut back on the slang that no-one really ever uses, and strips it all back to reveal what Hard Labour is in essence: a slow-burning, complex crime novel and a true original, written by someone who clearly knows their way around a cadaver.
Curiously, we reviewed another book set in Warrnambool just the other day – if the setting interests you try Bay of Martyrs.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars