Outback noir is a star of Australian literature. New novels from Jane Harper and Chris Hammer – to name just two – are seen as publishing events. Harper’s 2016 debut, The Dry, and its 2017 sequel, Force of Nature, have been made into films. Hammer’s 2018 debut, Scrublands, is in production as a television series.
Hammer has described Peter Papathanasiou’s approach as “outback noir with the noir dialled right up”. I agree, and in Papathanasiou’s third novel, The Pit, the noir isn’t the only dial in the red zone. This ambitious, well-written page-turner travels to destinations that television’s 1970s outback explorers, the Leyland brothers, never visited.
It opens with 65-year-old Bob Cooper confessing to a murder. The police officer who takes his call is Senior Constable Andrew Smith. They are in Perth and Bob is calling from a nursing home.
Smith returns from the author’s first two novels, The Stoning (2021) and The Invisible (2022). He is an Indigenous Australian, gay, and has a question mark on his policing record. He’s known as “Sparrow”, an avian nickname that’s an authorial nod of respect to Peter Temple and his Indigenous police detective Paul Dove. He hopes that solving a cold case – Bob tells him the murder happened 30 years ago – will restore his reputation. So he, Bob and another nursing home resident, Lukas Harper – who is 32 and a wheelchair user – rent a van and head for the scene of the crime: the Pilbara mining region in the north of Western Australia. Sparrow knows it’s a rash decision but tells himself he’s armed and travelling with a pensioner and a paraplegic, so what could go wrong? A lot, as it turns out, and that’s before they fall in with a highwaywoman known as Mouse, whose nickname has nothing to do with timidity. She’s a “modern-day siren” on a personal crusade.
The time line alternates between this 2017 road trip on “the highway to hell” and 1969 to 1979, when the young, fit, handsome Bob, working as dump truck driver in the Pilbara, becomes close to a geologist known only as “Stretch”. There is a third time frame late in the novel – the late 1990s – that takes an unexpected geographical and emotional shift.
Greek-born, Canberra-based Papathanasiou explores themes such as Australia’s reliance on mining companies, the fly-in fly-out culture of that industry, its misogynistic world view and its treatment of Indigenous Australians and their land.
As interesting and timely as these are, it’s just the surface. Dig a little deeper and there’s Bob, in a tent at a Pilbara worksite in 1979. “The nightly mayhem of the camp reigned, the world coming to an end,” he reflects. “Inside, all I could hear was waves lapping against a shore, an orchestra playing a symphony.”
MacLehose Press, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "The Pit".
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