Darkness for Light
Emma Viskic blazed onto the literary crime fiction scene in 2015 with the private investigator Caleb Zelic. The character of Caleb has been deaf since a childhood bout of meningitis from which he never fully recovered. In many ways the author works within the chalk-marked outlines of crime fiction tropes – a dead body in the opening pages and the usual tortuous paths of sleuthing before truth and enlightenment – but Caleb’s deafness adds complexity, and at times an unexpected frisson, to the classic detective story.
Viskic is just one of the many Australian women writers who are killing it in the crime and thriller genres at the moment. She follows in the bloody trail of authors such as Tara Moss, Candice Fox, Vikki Petraitis, Angela Savage and Leigh Redhead, alongside newer authors such as Jane Harper, J. M. Green, Ann Turner and Sarah Bailey. Together, their novels have gained a large fan base and laudatory critical reception; this formidable talent pool has created high-octane, intricately crafted, propulsive books in which character development is as important as whodunit demystification.
Darkness for Light is the latest in Viskic’s Caleb Zelic series; its predecessors have been heavily garlanded with prizes. Resurrection Bay won the 2016 Ned Kelly Award in the category of best first fiction, as well as an unprecedented three Davitt Awards: best adult novel, best debut and readers’ choice. The sequel, And Fire Came Down, also won the Davitt Award for best adult novel in 2018, and there would be little surprise if Darkness for Light gathers some lustre of its own in due course.
As the third volume, it picks up on narrative threads from the previous two novels, and a sequential reading of the trilogy will provide the fullest understanding of Caleb’s private and professional life, and how the two intertwine.
We meet the chastened PI trying to reconcile with his estranged wife and weary and scarred from former battles. He’s determined to take on safe jobs: “employee checks and embezzlement cases, security advice – nothing that could bring fear and violence back into his life”. Alas, his wishes for quiet obscurity are dashed when a potential client is found dead with a shot to the back of the head. The slain body is ever so incongruously sprawled in a wooden shed at a children’s farm, surrounded by chickens pecking at darkened patches of grass – a grim pathway that leads to Caleb’s discovery.
Soon, the Australian Federal Police are involved and, despite his best attempts to honour his new motto, “Make Good Decisions”, Caleb inevitably strays into making foolish ones. Reluctantly, he is also forced to reconnect with Frankie, a former sergeant and long-time friend who turned rogue, endangering and betraying both him and his wife but also risking her own life to save his. In other words, Caleb and Frankie – she with “a mind like a serrated knife” – have a complicated relationship.
The novel itself becomes messy with several interwoven strands to be untangled by the increasingly frazzled investigator who no longer knows whom to trust. If the plotting seems rather convoluted – maybe unnecessarily so – it’s because Viskic is doing her best to pervert expectations of an easy denouement, gleefully ducking and weaving two steps ahead as the reader falters trying to follow her.
Viskic has always had a good sense of place, whether big city or small coastal village, and this effort is no exception. Darkness for Light is set in and around the author’s home town of Melbourne, and her local knowledge is ably translated onto the page – from the inner-city Yarra trail, to the western bayside, to the “money-kissed” eastern suburbs.
As with the other novels, the writing here is characteristically spare, the dialogue terse, the humour dry, the pages quick-turning and the death tally high. What begins as a simple case of lost documents soon spirals into chaos, with money laundering, blackmail, intimidation, kidnapping and murder. So it’s business as usual, really. Our hero finds himself in the company of renegade police, cop killers, hackers and informants. To his chagrin, Caleb finds his life now includes a black-market laptop and a gun stored in Tupperware.
If that isn’t enough material to offload to his long-suffering therapist at some future point, he’s also, for a spell, responsible for Frankie’s nine-year-old niece, who’s haplessly caught up in the drama of crims and paybacks. The reader’s concern for the child’s welfare provides much of the book’s impetus and drive, and there’s a clock ticking in regard to her safety.
Viskic adeptly and sensitively integrates Caleb’s hearing impairment into the narrative, and there is a subplot involving the sabotage of the catering business run by one of his deaf friends. Early on there is a reminder that Caleb’s disability can affect balance, which poses particular challenges when he is running and trying to scale a wire fence.
Although Caleb’s deafness affords him outsider status, the compensatory reliance on his other abilities – his stubborn persistence, spatial awareness and keen eye – make up for frustrations not experienced by the “heary” population. We learn how moustaches and beards impede lip-reading; how homonyms are tricky to differentiate, as are personal names; and how a lot of the time Caleb has to figure out meaning through context. In fact, Caleb’s attempts at interpretation are crucial in this book and Viskic herself learnt Auslan to better understand her character.
There’s more darkness than light in this novel, yet there’s also tentative hope. After being in a vortex of activity for so long, Caleb – to our relief – is allowed to stand still. Until, of course, Viskic conspires new adventures for her intrepid investigator.
Echo, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 7, 2019 as "Emma Viskic, Darkness for Light". Subscribe here.