This debut novel starts very well indeed, with a prologue set in Sunderland (North-east England) in 1973, when that town’s football team won the cup final. Stuart Miller is the police detective who investigates a horrific murder in which a woman and her children’s bodies are found on the sofa having apparently been watching the game on TV. The woman’s husband has vanished. This case haunts Miller, as the husband, the presumed perpetrator, is never found.
Cut to present-day Australia, and the main plot, which is about senior constable “Cato” Kwong, demoted from a higher-profile job to the Western Australia stock squad, which seems to be a kind of inferior police force investigating minor infarctions. After some preamble between Kwong and his less-able sergeant, the two are assigned to investigate the case of a body that has been washed up on the beach at HopeToun, a tiny seaside retirement town that is now inundated with miners who work at a nearby facility as the state’s nickel resources are being exploited. The local police force has the form of one officer, Tess Maguire, who not only is recovering from being attacked in a bar, but who also turns out to have had a romantic relationship with Kwong.
So far, we’ve seen how Kwong is subject to lots of casual racism in the attitudes shown to him by almost everyone he meets (apart from Tess). Even though his first name is Philip, he even refers to himself as “Cato” (a nickname awarded to him because of the sidekick character in the Peter Sellers “Pink Panther” films). It turns out that he’s been a poster boy for anti-racism in the Australian police force, but under pressure from his boss, he cut a lot of corners in an investigation and identified the wrong person in a crime case. When this was uncovered, his boss left him out to dry resulting in his demotion to the boondocks and threatening his marriage. Kwong is therefore determined now to do the right thing in his investigation of the body, whatever the political pressures. Given the mine and its importance for the state’s economy, these turn out to be considerable.
I did enjoy this book, with its multi-angles about apparently different stories which one assumes will turn out to be connected. (As an aside, the Kindle e-book is very poorly formatted as there is no line-break between these sections. Sometimes a new section even runs on directly from the previous sentence, other times one does at least get the warning of a new paragraph.) However, I felt that the author was not entirely successful at keeping all the many (fascinating) balls in the air, for example the back-story of the Sunderland case, which may be relevant to the current one, was for me a bit disappointing, partly because of the Sergeant Miller outcome and partly because of a coincidence that seemed unlikely. Some of the resolutions of the various plots seemed slightly hasty or muddled – but I thought one of them, about Asian contract workers at the mine, was particularly well done. Tess is also a strong and attractive character, who could be developed further in future novels.
Even so, despite a sense that the book did not quite meet its initial potential, I enjoyed it and would be keen to read more about Kwong, who is a very interesting character compared with the usual crime-fiction detective. He’s certainly a real person, with all the associated complexities in his attitudes to his job, his personal life (in particular his ambivalence about his wife and son, and his feelings for Tess), how he feels about all the racism around him, and how he decides to carry out his investigation whatever his boss says. Another aspect of this book I like very much is its depiction of ways of life in this part of Western Australia.
I purchased the Kindle edition of the book as this is the only format available to UK readers.
Prime Cut was shortlisted for the 2010 CWA Debut Dagger award.