Comic crime is almost extinct but Dorothy Johnston is carving her own niche.
Cosy crime novels (at least those where a cat doesn’t solve the crime) are getting rare these days, and comic crime is almost extinct. Alan Bradley still puts out a few, and now Australia’s own Dorothy Johnston is carving her own niche in what is, for her, a new corner of the bookshop.
Gerard Hardy’s Misfortune is the third instalment in the lives of the bumbling police officers of the small Victorian rural town of Queenscliff. Constables Cliff Blackie and Anthea Merritt seem happy enough to let life pass them by in their seaside haven until one day a tourist, lured to the town because it is a minor historical footnote in the life of the early 20th century author Henry Handel Richardson, is murdered in his hotel’s wine cellar.
Cliff and Anthea find themselves swept aside as Victorian CIU immediately send their best (or possibly not) detectives from Geelong to solve the case. Of course, in the true traditions of the genre our two constables, inept as they are, begin their own investigation.
Things don’t go well. They miss clues, avoid interviewing witnesses because the football is on, have doors slammed in their faces and spend most of their time having the townsfolk refuse to answer questions. Despite this, their investigation takes them to the local medium (a scenery chewer of the old school) who leads them a merry dance.
Devotees of serious crime may find themselves frustrated at times, particularly when the pair turn to the tarot for help, but it’s all good fun. Dorothy Johnston balances the comedy and the pathos well, adding scenes dealing with alcoholism, the threat of closure of the station, and Constable Merritt’s pregnancy within her decaying marriage. Johnston is to be commended for her deft hand in this balancing act, particularly towards the end where a subplot concerns possible child abuse.
It’s all brought off with aplomb however, and the final scene in which Constable Blackie decides to take matters into his own hands during an armed siege using only a pair of highland cattle is sheer comic genius.
The use of Henry Handel Richardson throughout the book allows Johnstone to insert some thoughtful moments which again contrast well against the levity, giving the book a layered feel. The supporting characters (including the hapless DI Masterton and the god-bothering DC Ferrier) feel real enough, although Johnston never really fleshes them out.
Johnston’s prose is purple at times, and some sentences seem oddly structured. This can lead to difficulty early on (particularly if you read in short bursts) but if you settle in for the long haul you soon get the hang of it.
A fun, layered, and entertaining book.
Reviewed by D C White
Distributed by: For Pity’s Sake Publishing
Released: October 2019
RRP: $24.99 paperback, $9.99 eBook, $24.99 MP3 audiobook