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  • An impressive debut novel

    “The truth will not be hidden forever. If you do not seek it, it will seek you. It will follow you over land and sea. It will devastate; it will lay you to waste.” Death Leaves the Station is the first novel by Australian author, Alexander Thorpe. Nineteen-year-old Mariana (Ana) Harris, adopted daughter of wheat farmers Neville and Ruth, chooses a nameless friar with whom to share her greatest worry: what to do about the stranger who died right next to her at the old gold-mine site the previous night. By the time Detective Sergeant Arnold Parkes and his native tracker, Cooper arrive, it’s almost forty-eight hours since the man died, and the corpse has mysteriously disappeared. Parkes insists Ana accompany him to Geraldton to assist with a sketch of the man; to her parents’ consternation, she agrees, on condition that the friar comes along. This unlikely quartet then sets forth: first to a nearby town en route, to spread the word via telegram; then to a grisly find at a pigsty; after their encounter with the sketch artist, they head south. Each stop garners further information, not all of it absorbed by Parkes, and ultimately, they are on the night train to Fremantle, where the excellent denouement takes place. What a marvellous tale! Thorpe easily captures both the era and the setting with some superb descriptive prose; his characters are interesting; and his plot has sufficient intrigue, twists and red herrings to keep the reader guessing to the very last pages. As fits the era, the dearth of technology necessitates ingenuity and talents of a classic type: the facial reconstruction sketch is achieved with artistic skill and anatomical knowledge (and the sketch artist is a delight!); careful observation and reasoned deduction are what solves the mystery. Parkes is clearly not the smartest of detectives: the friar notes: “His investigative technique – which had all the subtlety of a tenderising mallet – was simply to hammer his suspects with the same question over and over again until cracks began to form in their stories.” Another who is familiar with his work expresses her confidence in his ability thus: “I’d say there’s a good chance he’ll find the murderer. That is, as long as the man is so good as to handcuff himself to the telegraph pole beside the police station with a written admission pinned to his collar and an embroidered shirt bearing the legend ‘I did it’.” The writing style and subject matter are heavily reminiscent of Arthur W. Upfield’s (that’s a compliment!) and Thorpe gives his characters subtle humour, wise words and insightful observations: “In my experience, it’s the incredible accounts which are most often true. Liars tend to keep their stories neat. Reality, on the other hand, is inherently untidy.” This is a very impressive debut novel, and more of the friar and the sketch artist, especially, but anything from Alexander Thorpe, will be most welcome. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Better Reading Preview and Fremantle Press.

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