WITHIN the select band of pull-no-punches Australian crime writers, Gabrielle Lord is the leading soloist. She writes elegies of raw passion and sophisticated insight, illuminating the darkest depths of human behaviour - and depravity - with unwavering clarity. She's been a forensic force here since her debut novel, Fortress, was written "in a three-week frenzy at the deadline-end of a literary fellowship" after a year of frustrating false starts. A taut tale about the kidnapping of a teacher and her students, it was published in 1980 and sold well, later doing repectable business when translated to the cinema. Three years later, the onetime uni student/saleswoman/teacher/fruitpicker/CES employment officer was writing full-time.
Now Sydney-based, she's just released her eighth novel, The Sharp End (Sceptre, 298pp, rrp $22.95), her first book for Hodder Headline after a long association with Penguin. And it's getting the full-gloss promotional treatment - national author tour, airport advertising, mass sampler distribution, blurb quotes of the "Lord is as good as Patricia Cornwall" kind ...
But, to be blunt, although there's a lot to like about The Sharp End, I have some reservations. As always, topicality, solid research and a racy read are features. Her last two novels, Bones and Whipping Boy, were lacerating expositions of child abuse, paedophilia and institutional corruption. The Sharp End is less overtly confronting, incorporating among a plethora of issues the stolen generation, Internet predators and feminist consciousness.
The scenario is promising: homicide detective Harry Doyle has joined the dog squad to improve the quality of his family life and escape the ghosts of bloodshed past. On both counts, he's failed. His family is suitably 90s dysfunctional - his wife Meg, embittered that he is married to his job, is having an affair while his two daughters are self-destructively alienated. They are all drifting Titanically towards disaster.
Harry, as nominal hero, is snagged on the cusp of old world police culture and New Age awareness. In middle age, he's capable of remarkable perspicacity, especially where his dogs are concerned (Lord is excellent with canine consciousness and pack politics - you'll look with new eyes at the parlour pooch after reading this), and equally remarkable emotional inertia. Murder with connotations is the circuit-breaker.
There's action aplenty, and the lasagna-like layers of plot and sub-plot are pretty well cooked. For the most, it's a page-turner with impulsion - yet ultimately, the OTT plot resolution was too highly spiced with coincidence and convenient revelations for my taste. All those flavours, and the kitchen sink too. Perhaps one preliminary white-board plotting too many? Nevertheless, Lord has given us a cast of unusually well-developed characters, while her emotional twists add a depth appreciably rare in the genre.
For the past couple of years, she has tag-teamed up with retired forensic policeman Roger Johnson as a fact 'n' fiction duo on crime and writing. It's a popular act on the literary workshop circuit, and their working relationship has only sharpened the writer's already-focused forensic eye - in The Sharp End, underplayed details of police procedure and incisive snapshots of 'force psychology' add a confidence of verisimilitude.
Now fifty-something, Lord is a vibrant personality with chutzpah who has endured more than her share of life's travails. Country-bred and city-educated, she was a convent school rebel "razed by the nuns", a literary larrikin who enjoyed a Behanish reputation in the 70s and 80s as "good company in a good time" before remaking her life with commendable tenacity.
A fiercely dedicated writer, she's admired by her peers as a solid performer - her fiction has been published internationally, three of her novels have been filmed or optioned, she's expanded her repertoire into non-fiction. Yet I can't help feeling she could be even more highly regarded, if only ...
Perhaps her craft-control has become too rigid, her crime neighbourhood too limiting. It's probably time for the next step, to leap beyond the bounds of genre plot and let the flair run free. There's some risk in that, of course, but not much - on song, Gabrielle Lord is lyrical and incisive, undoubtedly among the most persuasive of our prosesters.
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1998
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