P.M. Newton is one of the most interesting novelists in Australia at the moment. Like her first book, The Old School, Beams Falling has great strengths but also major flaws.
Her Irish-Vietnamese detective, Nhu Kelly, is sent to Cabramatta in Western Sydney in the mid-1990s. This was the time of the most violent of Australia’s drug wars, when Cabramatta took over from Kings Cross as NSW’s heroin capital, and some 60 people died horribly, killers and killed usually Vietnamese teenagers.
Kelly helps investigate some shootings, and the solution spares us nothing of the tragedy of immigrant families caught between local crime gangs and a largely uncomprehending – and in some cases, corrupt – police force. It’s a wonderful setting and a reminder of how infrequently crime novelists have taken advantage of the rich possibilities of our suburban ethnic experience.
The greatest strength of this novel, like its predecessor, is the depiction of daily police work. No one has done this better than Newton, a cop herself for 13 years. At the end of one of Kelly’s long days we feel like we have been there – the paperwork and the booze, the stink of unwashed clothes and cardboard pizza. This is powerful in its detail but it goes too far. Almost all Kelly’s colleagues are unpleasant or nasty in some way or other. She experiences her job as a bleak mix of hostility and loneliness, the few professional victories qualified and tainted. I found myself asking too often why she stuck with it, and why I should.
Another powerful element is the account of Kelly’s recovery from a bullet wound received previously. This is searing, but here again there is too much reality, far too many scenes of therapeutic swimming in North Sydney pool. Her anxiety attacks and therapy sessions are well described but take us nowhere in particular. Of course, life is like that. Work is often boring, colleagues unpleasant, and time cures more than psychologists do. But just because something is real does not mean it ought to go into a novel, and I wonder if Newton is still struggling to assimilate her own experience into fiction.
Yet the crime novel needs to break out of its conventional treatment of plot and character from time to time, and Newton is possibly doing something important here, whatever the reason. Beams Falling is an odd book, and a terrific one. DH
Viking, 328pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 8, 2014 as "P.M. Newton, Beams Falling". Subscribe here.