Monday, October 10, 2016


ASH ISLAND by Barry Maitland (Minotaur Books, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Detective Sergeant Harry Belltree, back on the job after a near-fatal confrontation with corrupt colleagues, has become a departmental embarrassment. The solution is a posting away from Sydney and a quiet life in Newcastle.

Or maybe not so quiet. A body’s been found buried just offshore on Ash Island; there may be more. There’s also Harry’s unfinished business. The car crash that killed his parents and blinded his wife happened not far from Newcastle. And Harry knows it was no accident.

After a dozen books featuring London detectives Brock and Kolla, one of Australia's most renowned crime writers has 'come home' with his trilogy featuring Aboriginal detective Harry Belltree, a maverick copper very much in the mould of Detective Tito Ihaka - Paul Thomas's Maori copper whose second adventure, INSIDE DOPE, shared the inaugural Ned Kelly Award in 1996 with Maitland's second Brock and Kolla tale, THE MALCONTENTA.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the Belltree series, CRUCIFIXION CREEK, and this action-packed instalment has my appetite well and truly whetted for the conclusion to come.

A note of caution for readers new to the Belltree books: backstory plays an important role in giving layers and meaning to the action, there's an ongoing thread running through the entire trilogy, relating to the 'accident' that killed Harry's parents, and the events of ASH ISLAND very much build on what has gone before. So I'd recommend reading CRUCIFIXION CREEK first, even though you could still enjoy this latter tale as an entry point. This is a series you get more from by reading in order.

ASH ISLAND follows closely on the heels of the events in CRUCIFIXION CREEK. Both Harry and journalist Kelly Pool are still recovering from the trauma of events that nearly killed them, trying to carry on with their jobs and lives while struggling with loose ends gnawing at their instincts. Sydney cop Harry has been banished to the regions. He may have uncovered political and police corruption in Australia's biggest city, but he's also become an embarrassment to his superiors. So Harry's shipped off to the coastal city of Newcastle, home to the largest coal exporting port in the world.

Harry isn't really built for a quiet life in the backblocks though, and with plenty of questions still simmering about the crash that killed his parents and blinded his wife (who's now pregnant), he's quickly getting himself involved in all sorts of incidents. An army veteran who served in Afghanistan, and the son of a respected indigenous judge, Harry is a determined man, happy to fight for what he believes in, regardless of the feelings of his superiors in the police force.

While Harry's new colleagues in Newcastle have mixed feelings about Harry, his expertise is called into play when a mutilated body is found on Ash Island. Then another. Has the island become the dumping ground for a serial killer? Or a cemetery for those falling afoul of organised crime?

Meanwhile Harry’s blind wife Jenny is pregnant, and troubling information comes to light about his parents’ crash. Trying to juggle all that is going on in his life, and follow his own instincts rather than the rules of others, Harry quickly finds himself in deep trouble once more. Especially as links between past and present crimes come to light. Who can he trust? What price for justice?

Maitland crafts an entertaining, action-packed read with a distinctive hero, flavoured with biker gangs, drug rings, corporate skullduggery, and aboriginal land rights. There are times when ASH ISLAND feels like a bridge between books one and three in the trilogy, or that Maitland is trying to pack a whole lot in to lay the groundwork for future revelations and conclusions. This can give the novel a bit of a 'thinner' feel than CRUCIFIXION CREEK when it comes to character development, but the story flows so well and there's enough engaging action that this isn't too much of an issue.

The Australian setting, from the city to the suburbs to the bushlands, is evoked well, and there was a good sense of some of the ongoing issues facing the country in modern times. There's plenty to like in the Harry Belltree series - it's a good switch-up from Maitland - and I look forward to book three.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 160 crime writers, discussed crime writing at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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