Friday, January 29, 2021


SHORE LEAVE by David Whish-Wilson (Fremantle Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

It is Fremantle in 1989 and Frank Swann is at home, suffering from an undiagnosed and debilitating illness. When Frank is called in to investigate an incident at a local brothel, it soon appears there is a link between the death of two women and the arrival of the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the port city. Shore Leave is the fourth book in the Frank Swann series and also features Lee Southern, the main character from True West.

SHORE LEAVE is the fourth novel in the Frank Swann series. Frank's an ex-cop, now private investigator in 1970's/80's Perth and Fremantle. In this outing it's 1989 and the Yanks are in town, and with the arrival of a huge US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, there are lots of sailors on shore leave around, making for a busy time for the local pubs, clubs and brothels; two dead women and an AWOL sailor suspect.

Swann finds himself involved in the murder investigation when asked by US Navy Master-At-Arms Steve Webb (the ship's head cop for want of a better description) for some assistance with local knowledge / local identities. And there are plenty of them, as well as plenty of odd cases that eventually all seem to be pointing in the one direction. There's that murder of two women, and the main suspect - an AWOL African-American sailor; white supremacists; a terminally ill escaped armed robber on a mission; warring bikie gangs; a missing cache of M16s off the aircraft carrier; and a gold mine owner with a big problem, desperate for Swann's help. All this while Swann is extremely ill with a mysterious malady that local doctors haven't been able to identify, he's debilitated and losing weight, nauseous and struggling.

Since the inception of this series, there have been echoes of the lone-wolf stylings of Cliff Hardy, the iconic PI that sprang from the pen of Peter Corris, shading the sun-drenched streets of Sydney with touches of deepest, darkest noir. It's easy to imagine Fremantle, with ports and a convict past; history of displacement of the native people's; a goldrush, and a lot of similarities with Sydney's founding, as a likely successor to the mean streets of Sydney. The icing on the cake here is that it's also perfectly possible to imagine Frank Swann as the successor to Cliff Hardy. The descriptive elements of the writing are sparse, pointed and cleverly understated. There's the same dry sense of humour, love of place, love of family, and sense that whatever it takes is absolutely okay in Swann's book, as it always was in Hardy's. I particularly love the asides, the dry observational way that Swann goes about his business, the way that he has connections that aren't boasted about, they just are. Swann's also not a whinger, he just gets on with things, right down to trying to survive up until the American connection fortuitously solves the illness mystery.

It's worth also remembering the timeframe of these books, the way that mobile phones are new and quite astounding (and only work because of the mast on the carrier). Public phone boxes are still a thing, surveillance is done from the seat of a car, and disappearing corrupt colleagues can be achieved with enough will, and some smarts into the bargain.

Start with SHORE LEAVE if that's your only choice, but this really is a series that deserves a complete, in order, pursuit. The threads sound complicated, and a bit of background knowledge won't hurt, although it's not necessary. For quite a while it's very hard to see how this is all going to end up, but as the action heats up and the bad guys start to lose control, Swann's attitude of press on and damn the torpedoes starts to pay off.

There's a dark noir-inspired heart at the centre of SHORE LEAVE, the characters are gritty, real, messy and complicated. The storyline is beautifully crafted and there is just so much to love about this entire series.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best NovelThis review was first published on Karen's website; she kindly shares some of her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by Australians and New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

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