The Australian landscape is legendary. As a nation, we’re in love with our inhospitable continent, but we are also afraid of it. The heat, the bushfires, the extreme distances and the menagerie of peculiar animals create an environment that largely works against the interests of its inhabitants. This difficult, if not malign environment is the perfect backdrop for a crime novel. Jane Harper, with The Dry and now Force of Nature, has set a new benchmark in manipulating the landscape to serve the purposes of the plot; Emma Viskic with And Fire Came Down is following close behind.
The opening chapter of And Fire Came Down starts off with our hero, Caleb Zelic, being drawn into a dark alley in Melbourne. A woman unknown to Caleb has sought him out specifically for his help. As he tries to make sense of what she’s telling him, they’re both attacked by another man and in the ensuing melee, the woman falls from the pedestrian kerb into the path of an oncoming van. Haunted by her death, Caleb is determined to find out why this young woman needed his help. His journey takes him back to his hometown of Resurrection Bay where he is tasered, kidnapped, lied to, threatened by bikkies and nearly dies of heat exhaustion. It’s a heck of a journey.
Caleb Zelic is what I loved most about this book. Like all good crime novel protagonists, Caleb is damaged. His wife has split up from him, his investigative business is flailing and he doesn’t look after himself well at all. Most importantly though, Caleb is profoundly deaf and his understanding of events is mediated either through his lip-reading or Auslan.
Viskic has painted Caleb brilliantly because it’s not ‘Caleb, the deaf investigator’, but ‘Caleb, the investigator who happens to be deaf and is also lots of other things as well’. In other words, Caleb’s deafness is one element of his character and he’s not defined by it. Other aspects of Caleb’s personality are as equally important to the storyline – his inability to ask for help and his self-destructive tendencies, for example. I’d be interested in knowing what the deaf community thinks of him, but to me, Viskic’s characterisation of Caleb’s disability seemed more than a device for her plot. And it made me realise how few literary heroes or heroines there are like Caleb.
In addition to this hugely likeable central character, Viskic has created a cast of other personas who are equally well-constructed and believable, including Caleb’s brother Ant, who’s a recovered heroin addict. At times the repartee between Caleb and Ant was a bit too witty and had me wondering if anyone can actually banter like that, but at the same time Viskic accurately captures the awkwardness of siblings in adulthood after a period of estrangement. I particularly love this quote:
Their adult relationship was exactly seven months old: a rickety construction built on a few honest moments and a memory of childhood closeness. Hard to know what its load-bearing capacity was.
Similarly, Viskic believably creates the claustrophobic atmosphere of country Victoria (my bet is that it’s somewhere around Apollo Bay), exposing the intrigues and racial tensions contained in a small town, while the heat of Australia in January is consistently pulsing in the background: ‘It was cooler inside the house, the temperature of a low to moderate oven’ / ‘He checked the fire danger sign as he took the turn off into town… The needle was set to ‘severe’, two down from the worst rating’.
I hadn’t realised it initially, but And Fire Came Down is a sequel to the hugely successful Resurrection Bay, which scooped up a whole raft of awards. These two novels are now called ‘the Caleb Zelic series’ (I guess there’s more to come). The book does stand up on its own however, if you’re keen, you may as well read these books sequentially.
It’s hard not to compare As Fire Came Down with The Dry by Jane Harper: small town setting, flawed male hero, the heat, the fires, and of course a couple of murders. Viskic’s writing is much more blunt than Harper’s, which makes it a super fast read. At times, the plot became a little over-complicated and whilst I’m sure by the end it was all wrapped up tightly, I know I had lost a few of the minor threads by then. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a fast plot, an ace central character, some humorous one-liners, and an authentic portrayal of a small town Australia during bush fire season, As Fire Came Down will certainly not disappoint.
Many thanks to Bonnier Publishing Australia for giving me a review copy. I’ll happily review Emma Viskic’s books anytime!