Dana Russo is standing at the top of a waterfall, clinically weighing up the best way to commit suicide. Then her phone rings and she must snap back into professional mode. Dana is a detective in a small Australian town, and even though it’s her day off she is urgently needed at the scene of a murder; someone else’s death has just saved her life, it seems.
That near-fatal moment at a remote beauty spot follows Dana like a shadow throughout this haunting book. The murder of shopkeeper Lou Cassavette has occurred on a Day that means everything to Dana. It’s the anniversary of something that changed her life for ever, and each year she makes sure she is on her own, free to ponder whether she should live or die. The Day (always capitalised) has moulded Dana into the strange, enigmatic woman she now is – and that sheer oddness is about to come into play as she interviews the man found, literally red-handed, at the scene of the crime.
Nathan Whittler is odd too. He won’t meet anyone’s gaze, speaks in snatched words, in a quiet voice. He seems cut off from the world and reluctant to engage with anything or anyone. A tough nut to crack, but if anyone can get through to him, it will be Dana.
Thus begins the interview of Whittler, and author SR White pulls out all the stops to create the claustrophobic, intimate atmosphere in which Dana and Nathan are the sole participants. Much of this book takes place in the little interview room, where Dana prods and teases, gently getting her suspect to open up bit by bit. But as Nathan begins to reveal some of his story, Dana is gradually unravelling inside – the Day is taking its toll. Can she get to the truth before she loses it altogether?
So Hermit is a bleak, desperate and disturbing read, but thankfully there are chinks of light in that unremitting darkness. When Dana takes a breather from the interview room we readers go along too and thankfully are entertained by her work colleagues, who are going all out to get the background evidence she needs, but aren’t averse to a bit of light hearted banter along the way. Mikey, Lucy, Bill and Rainer bring the police procedural aspects of Hermit into sharp focus, with a sense of humanity and humour in stark contrast to the interview scenes.
Back inside the interview room, it is almost painful to watch Dana and Nathan interact, each of them painstakingly peeling off layers like the skins of an onion. What we discover about Nathan – and Dana – is both surprising and heartbreaking, because Hermit is a real emotional rollercoaster of a read and can at time leave you feeling as exhausted and washed out as the central character. And, let me warn you, the final sentence is a killer.
SR White is a Brit now living in Queensland so I think it entitles him to be added to that ever-expanding list of Australian crime writers who have been keeping us so enthralled in recent times. Hermit is a most unusual crime novel, which wheedles its way into the consciousness like a fish hook on a line. I’m writing this several days after turning the final page, but Dana and Nathan haunt me still and I find myself pondering the ‘what ifs’… That’s a measure of the skill of this debut author – and mark my words, SR White is a name to watch out for.
For another harrowing psychological crime novel that takes place in the interview room and in the minds of the participants try The Whisperer by Karin Fossum.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars