Gunshot Road, Adrian Hyland’s second novel featuring the irrepressible, Aboriginal, world-wandering, but inevitably Central Australian sleuth Emily Tempest is a wonder to behold. Sophomore efforts can often turn sophomoric in the arts. An author’s first novel, especially one that, like Hyland’s initial outing, Diamond Dove (aka Moonlight Downs in the USA) takes the Ned Kelly for Best First Novel, can be a hard act to follow. Clearly, nobody passed that message on to Adrian.
Gunshot Road takes all the wit, energy, and suspense that Hyland bottled into Diamond Dove and shoots it straight out into the stratosphere. What was mere melancholy in the first novel has precipitated out into sharp and bleak darkness in the second. Diamond Dove occasionally made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt; Gunshot Road is even funnier. But this time around Hyland delivers gut-wrenching kicks to the solar plexus that left me wriggling with shock as well. And yet it is still the funniest book I’ve read all year, and Emily’s own gutsiness is inspirational.
In short, it’s a terrific book. Take Peter Temple’s brilliant prose styling, the engagement with Aboriginal affairs that made The Broken Shore a standout best-seller, leach out Temple’s cynicism and replace it with a healthy dose of sentiment, and shoot it through with some of the most original characterization and outrageous humor an Australian can invent, and quite simply, you’ve got Gunshot Road. The dust jacket tags it as an “Emily Tempest Investigation,” shortchanging the novel into the realm of serial genre fiction. If I’d been in charge of the blurbs, I would have rather characterized it “a novel of Central Australia.”
If you haven’t met her before, Emily Tempest is the twenty-something daughter of a white geologist and an Aboriginal mother whose restlessness took her off to Asia and ultimately brought her back to the desert people she grew up among and who still form the nucleus of her emotional world. Her wit and her mouth are as sharp as her brain and as strong as her determination never to get beaten at anything she undertakes.
In Diamond Dove, she’s driven to investigating a murder out of loyalty to the old man who was its victim and out of her need to protect her country from rapacious invaders. This time around, Hyland starts with the same set of premises: an old mate of her father’s murdered, a vague threat humming through the air of her country. There’s a teenager, Danny Brambles, who is the incarnation of the unease that permeates the land, and Emily is drawn in by need to protect him and to support a community (loosely modeled on the Mt Theo program) that devotes itself to keeping kids and country safe. And just to complicate things a little bit, Emily has been taken on as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer by the ocker-laden police force in Bluebush, the most outrageous town in the Outback. Meet two of her new colleagues:
One was stocky, double-chinned, wore his belly like a weapon; he had an A-frame mustache and a head like a wild pig. The other was stringy, with red hair, blistered lips and an Adam’s apple I could spot at twenty feet: a long, thin face, like a blacksmith had laid it on an anvil and taken to it with a hammer (pp. 11-12).
But Hyland is a master at taking these simple narrative conventions and making magic out of them. In stage magic and in mystery-novel writing, misdirection is the key element. The magician’s patter distracts the audience from the sleight of hand; the mystery writer’s red herrings keep the reader from guessing the secret at the heart of the thriller.
Hyland’s brilliance comes from his ability to distract you, the reader, with language so dazzling that it blinds; you’re so busy laughing or picking your jaw up off the table that you don’t even begin to wonder whether he’s tossing a red herring your way. And in truth, he’s not misleading you with his riot of character and incident. There’s never time to wonder whether any episode in the novel is taking you off-road, out bush, and away from the solution. And by the time the roller-coaster slows down at the book’s conclusion, you discover that every one of those turn-offs was really a necessary part of the plot. Even the comic description of the two cops above is a clever foreshadowing of a much grimmer character named Paisley who appears later in the story to disastrous effect, a creep who sports a pig’s head on his bullbar and operates a welding shop that leads Emily to places she ought not go.
Hyland’s talents combine to produce a picture of life in the Central Australian Outback that is (nearly) equal parts humor and horror, dazzle and dread. (Sounds a lot more like real life than fiction, doesn’t it?) Emily is worldly wise, but not world-weary. Despite being hammered by everything from misunderstanding to outright murderousness, despite straddling at least two worlds, she never gives up. Her Dreaming (the diamond dove) is a source of strength and succor at her lowest moments. And her sympathy for her fellows, be they the handsome but angry Sergeant Cockburn, the mysterious Chinese woman, Jet, whom she meets near the murder scene, or the broken-down but not broken Bandy, Danny Brambles’ father, makes her strive to find the common ground that all the denizens of Bluebush and its surrounding bush country must respect and share.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of Emily Tempest’s company and Adrian Hyland’s literary gusto, don’t wait a moment longer. My only caution to neophytes is to begin with Diamond Dove and then take up Gunshot Road. It’s not so much that the novels need to be read in sequence, although understanding the relationships among some characters in Gunshot Road is easier if you’ve read the earlier book. Rather, reading them in order will give you the added delight of witnessing the creative surge and the development of the novelistic skill that Hyland exhibits from book to book. Just make sure you don’t have any commitments you’ll miss by opening the pages of a book you won’t be able to put down once you’ve started.