Look up “hard-boiled” in the dictionary and you may well see a photo of everyone’s favourite master thief: Wyatt, Garry Disher’s taut, repressed old-style villain. Except, of course, that no clear photo of Wyatt exists. He has no Christian name. He’s a phantom, a loner, a man who should be played by Liam Neeson in a movie because Wyatt also has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. In Kill Shot, our antihero has been transplanted to coastal Sydney and Newcastle from his usual haunts in Victoria, but that’s the only appreciable difference in this, Disher’s ninth Wyatt caper crime thriller. Kill Shot is just as classy and enjoyable as Wyatts one through eight, propelled by Disher’s impeccable plotting and brilliant narrative drive, characterisation and pace.
Wyatt plots have a typical shape and Kill Shot is no exception. Wyatt ally Sam Kramer is away in prison for a long stretch but his connections are still at work, uncovering larcenous opportunities. Kramer passes these tips to honourable thief Wyatt for a healthy commission that Wyatt uses to look after Kramer’s wheelchair-bound wife while he’s inside. Wyatt has some history here, including a past affair with Kramer’s smart and sound daughter, Phoebe, but the weak link is Kramer’s son, Joshua. He’s the family black sheep and loose cannon, and proceeds to tell the wrong people, a dangerous crew of former military snipers, that Wyatt is sitting on a large nest egg belonging to his dad. Then Kramer points Wyatt to Ponzi-scheming scumbag Jack Tremayne as an ideal target begging to be relieved of ill-gotten gains.
Detective Sergeant Greg Muecke is also on Wyatt’s trail for a string of unsolved burglaries, if he can get his bosses to listen. Pressure is mounting on Kramer in prison, and Tremayne is facing fraud charges and is surrounded by possible traitors, all of whom want the money. The Probity Commission is monitoring his accounts, and the ripped-off investors are growing angry. Has all the money gone, as Tremayne claims? The net – made up of the ex-soldiers, the cops and Tremayne himself – tightens around Wyatt. Can he escape with Tremayne’s stash?
Kill Shot is easy to read and to enjoy, but Disher’s skill shouldn’t be underestimated: this kind of writing is more difficult than it looks, and it all starts with the impeccable character of Wyatt, the villain as hero. Wyatt’s a career criminal who breaks into people’s houses, scares them half to death and steals their hard-earned money– yet readers have no problem cheering him on. This is partly because of Disher’s classy plots, where Wyatt is the lesser evil compared with the really bad guys seeking to bring him down.
Most of his rich targets are dickheads, yes, but we’re cheering for Wyatt largely because of Disher’s superior character construction. Wyatt is without the classic traits that bring readers onside: he’s not wise-cracking or weirdly entertaining. He has not taken a young, vulnerable robber under his wing and he does not rescue cats in his spare time. He’s taciturn, and what’s more, he spends large stretches of time by himself, going through the mechanics of crime. Yet we feel we know Wyatt. He’s a long way from perfect, but we understand his boundaries and his ethical core. He’s very good at his job, and it’s entrancing to watch someone with physical and mental dexterity perform difficult work. Disher’s descriptions are so fresh and clean, it’s as if we are seeing Wyatt. And we can sympathise with him. He’s a loner, but he’s still alone, and becoming more aware of what he’s missing. He’s increasingly out of his depth with technology. He’s ageing. He’s the kind of man who, when switching channels to unwind while laying low, finds “… an apparently medieval world in which humans of modern sensibility spoke like seers. Their queen was named Calisi, which Wyatt had thought was a control virus for rabbits.” The world is changing and he’s not keeping up. It’s like looking in a mirror, excepting the bullet scars. Small wonder that readers relate to him rather than the coppers – although Sergeant Muecke is pretty similar to Wyatt, on the other side of the law. If the two of them met over a beer when they were off the clock, they’d probably get on.
Setting is important in crime fiction and Wyatt’s sojourn to coastal New South Wales opens Kill Shot to new possibilities in plot and characterisation. This isn’t the Newcastle of the tourism brochures: the sea is choppy, the weather is menacing, and there’s a feeling of edge-of-a-cliff exposure to the elements that increases the tension of the story. There’s nothing cosy or soft anywhere: the Ponzi-schemer Tremayne and trophy-wife Lynx have a sitting room that “… looked like a corporate foyer with chrome, leather and glass, and the Antique White walls. But the leather was imported, the Ken Done paintings were genuine and you could buy a car with what they’d spent on the rug, so fuck you.”
The glamour that comes with riches is tainted and false; even Tremayne’s million-dollar yacht is confined and desolate, rather than an idealised millionaire’s dream. In these expensive houses, money brings nothing but trouble. It’s almost like Wyatt’s doing them all a favour in relieving them of it. “These are some pretty awful people,” Wyatt thinks, towards the end, and he’s right.
The first Wyatt novel, Kickback, was published in 1991, and Disher continues to imbue both this series and his police procedurals featuring coppers Challis and Destry with thrills and a wry commentary about the state of the nation. He also wrote the book on mastering fiction (Writing Fiction: An introduction to the craft) and well understands the world of crime novels and his place in it. (Touchingly, the building in Newcastle that houses one of Tremayne’s cronies is called Corris House.) Kill Shot is both a great read and a touchstone for anyone planning a life of writing crime. LS
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 8, 2018 as "Garry Disher, Kill Shot". Subscribe here.