Two new crime novels set in Melbourne make for great lockdown reading

Portsea, scene of the crime in The Long Game. Picture: Shutterstock
Portsea, scene of the crime in The Long Game. Picture: Shutterstock

Crime fiction, in the western reading world, is the most popular of all the genres.

Thriller writer David Baldacci believes this is because "when times are stressful and it looks like the bad are winning out over the good, along comes the crime novel to put the balance back in life".

In crime novels "evil is punished, and the good guys mostly win after solving the puzzle. And all is right with the world. At least fictionally."

At this stressful time, a good crime novel may be an antidote to COVID anxiety, and Australian crime writers are amongst the best in the world.

Jane Harper and Garry Disher lead the field in rural noir while the iconic, sorely missed Peter Temple is the only crime writer to have won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, in 2010 for Truth.

Two new crime novels from Simon Rowell and Sarah Bailey are both set in Melbourne and both feature female detectives, one in the police, the other an investigative journalist.

Simon Rowell's Sergeant Zoe Mayer, in The Long Game (Text, $32.99), has just returned to duty in the Victoria Police's Homicide Unit after extended leave.

Clues through the novel refer to a trauma in her professional past. As a result, she now has a service dog, a golden retriever called Harry, who accompanies her everywhere.

Harry is the reason she can return to work. She tells her colleague, "Harry's a big part of the reason I'm okay. You saw me. I was a wreck. I'm better now because he's there with me every day."

It's high summer in Victoria and the heat is relentless. Ray Carlson, a 39-year-old surfer is found murdered in Portsea, the crime scene and the victim wiped clean with bleach.

Carlson is separated from his wife and works in a winery, and yet he is never short of money to sustain his own and his wife's lavish lifestyle.

As there's no evidence of a break-in, Zoe assumes he knew his killer. An obvious suspect emerges and an anonymous tip-off leads to incriminating evidence

Zoe, however is not convinced, her instincts telling her "something's not right". Her partner, Charlie, disagrees, telling her, " Five days from crime to charge. That's a pretty good result for your first case back". But Zoe is adamant, telling him, "We don't just need to prove a case, we need to prove it entirely without doubt. I test my cases from every angle to make sure they can't be pulled apart".

The Long Game is compulsive reading. Zoe is a woman of principle who faces her demons as well as her detractors. Rowell drives his clever plot mainly through dialogue, as Zoe's determination to discover the truth eventually puts her life in danger.

The Long Game is a relatively easy to read police procedural. Sarah Bailey's The Housemate (Allen & Unwin $32.99), however, is in a different league.

Bailey's Olive (Oli) Groves is an investigative journalist working for Melbourne Today. Ten years ago, as a junior reporter, she covered a murder dubbed the Housemate Homicide. For both professional and personal reasons she has been obsessed by the case ever since.

At a house on Paradise Street, after a drug and alcohol-fuelled dinner party, three female students, Alex, Evelyn and Nicole argue. As a result Evelyn is dead, Alex has been arrested for murder and Nicole has disappeared.

The housemates, over time, enter the same category as "Azaria Chamberlain and the Beaumont children; their case is an unsolved mystery firmly fixed in Australia's collective psyche, journalistic gum on the nations shoe".

Now, 10 years later, Nicole has been found dead by suicide in remote bushland near the rural suburb of Crystalbrook.

Oli's editor tells her, "I want you on this Oli, one hundred percent...I want you to cover the crime, the conviction and Alex's appeal. I want you to dig the whole mess back up."

However, she has to co-operate with Cooper Ng, part of the digital team, because the newspaper is "diversifying our revenue streams".

Cooper, young and geeky, is creating a true crime podcast on the housemates and Alex is ready to give her fist interview since she left prison.

Despite her misgivings, and his irritating enthusiasm for the partnership, Oli realises that Cooper is both astute and talented.

Their investigation reveals a web of secrets and lies that have concealed the truth of what happened on that night in Paradise street.

At the same time Oli's personal life is complicated. She is engaged to be married to Dean, who had been married to DS Isabelle Yardley, one of the detectives involved with the Housemates Homicide, until she was killed in a hit and run accident.

The Housemate is intriguing, complex and full of suspense. Oli is intelligent and intrepid, working against the odds to write the story of her life.

This story Rural noir sustains in lockdown first appeared on The Canberra Times.