Written by Robert Jeffreys — In recent years, crime fiction set in Australia has been a huge hit with readers worldwide – think The Dry by Jane Harper, Chris Hammer’s Scrublands and Helen FitzGerald’s The Cry, to name but three. All are set in modern-day Oz. Now along comes Man at the Window, chucking a slice of historical crime into the mix.
It’s October 1965, which may not seem that long ago to some of us but feels a world away from the fast-moving crime fiction genre of the digital age. The setting is Perth, and at a prestigious private school a master is preparing for bed. Captain Edmund runs the cadet force at St Nicholas College and he is a man feared by the pupils there. Soon you will find out why…
But first, as Edmund takes a last look out of his window at the quadrangle below, a shot rings out. Pupils and staff don’t think much of it – the farmers across the river are often out at night, shooting kangaroos. The following morning, Edmunds is found dead on the floor, the top of his head blown away by a hollowed-out bullet. Remnants of the ammunition cannot be found.
We know it was taken by a pupil, a nameless young boy who was the latest in a long line of victims, chosen by Edmunds to particulate in his sordid sexual fantasies. The youngster had an ‘appointment’ with the master and stepped on the bullet when he arrived, barefoot, in his pyjamas. He picked up the offending object and ran. Now he can’t hand it back for fear of his shameful acts being discovered.
Which is a bit of a problem for Detective Sergeant Cardilini, called to the school to investigate the shooting. But he has a long list of problems to consider, so what’s one more? Cardilini is a drunk. Once he was a promising police officer, but these days he does the bare minimum, keeping his head down and counting the hours until he can have his next drink. His 18-year-old son despairs of his father. There’s just the two of them since Cardilini’s beloved wife died and they’re not getting along at all. Paul wants to get away, his father wants to drink himself into oblivion.
However, something about the Edmunds case sparks a weeny bit of interest in Cardilini. The school is a posh one, and both the staff and pupils look down on the detective as he tries to put together the details of Edmunds’ demise. He’s hampered by their snobbery, and by the old boys network that wants to keep things quiet – and that includes individuals high up in both the police force and judiciary. So probably best to let this one go, yes?
Errr, no actually. And as the old Cardilini gradually emerges from his alcohol-induced hibernation, it becomes clear he’s not able to let this one be swept under the carpet. Unfortunately, his decision could mean disaster, both for him and for his son. They say you should choose your battles wisely – has Cardilini made a massive misstep?
Man at the Window is a tautly scripted debut novel that captures the imagination and holds on tight. The mid-60s setting makes the narrative all the more complex, as Cardilini and his reluctant sidekick Salt use good old fashioned nous to get to the heart of the investigation. The developing narrative is interspersed with chapters from the viewpoint of the unnamed boy and they’re so poignant that you’ll want to reach into the pages and give him a friendly hug.
Cardilini is a great new character, flawed and failing but with some of the fight left in him. This is the first of a series and I’m looking forward to seeing him develop as we get to know him more. There’s a dazzling sense of time and place here, from the gum trees and incessant smoking to the dialogue, which thankfully steers clear of any modern-day idioms. If there’s any failing to this excellent book, though, it is that aforementioned dialogue. Everyone speaks in short, staccato style and it doesn’t quite ring true.
That aside, Man at the Window will appeal to fans of Aussie crime and police procedurals with a side order of historical novel. Give it a go!
Take a look at our pick of Australian Noir, or why not try some New Zealand crime fiction, as chosen by author Craig Sisterson?
CFL Rating: 4 Stars