Our resident crime guru Simon McDonald reviews the 2016 Winner of the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger, Wimmera by Mark Brandi.
Wimmera tracks the friendship of two boys from a defining moment in their childhood, when a mysterious newcomer arrives in the small Australian country town of Wimmera, through to the discovery of a body in the river twenty years later. Mark Brandi’s debut is a simply extraordinary literary crime novel, delivered with intelligence, power and heart.
Wimmera opens in the midst of the 1989 summer holidays, where we’re introduced to best friends Ben and Fab. These almost-teenagers spend their days yabbying, playing backyard cricket, hypothesising revenge against school bullies, and leaving unsaid their shared discomfort over the way Fab’s father hits him, and the suicide of Ben’s next-door neighbour. When a man moves into the now-vacant neighbour’s house, Fab and Ben contemplate his presence in their hometown now; what brought him here, and where was he before? He’s a big man, obviously strong, built like a linebacker. There’s something not right about him; a meanness in his smile, a dubious glint in his eye. Unbeknownst to Ben and Fab, his arrival in Wimmera will have a major impact on their young lives — the ripples of which are still felt twenty years later, when their friendship has long since eroded, Ben now living the big city life in Melbourne, while Fab remains, stuck in a dead-end job, burdened by the weight of a decision made in his youth, soon to be crippled by it when the police discover a body in the river.
Wimmera is rural Australian noir perfected. The tone of the novel is bleak, its characters steeped in defeatism. You know from the start: nobody is going to get what they want, and everyone is going to get what’s coming to them. In his foreword of The Best American Noir of the Century, Otto Penzler described noir works as “existential pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral and their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.” That’s Wimmera in a nutshell. It is unsettling and bittersweet bearing witness to two young men orbiting a black hole, but more importantly, it’s unputdownable.
Comparisons to Jane Harper’s critically acclaimed The Dry are inevitable — both Australian debuts, both set in rural Australian towns — but besides their sheer readability, these are two very different novels deserving of equal merit. Harper’s was a relentless page-turner; a race to determine the perpetrator of the crime. Brandi’s is more of a slow-burn; a character-driven, emotionally-wrenching tour-de-force. It's not just my favourite crime novel of the year so far, it's one of my favourite novels this year, full-stop.