IIn his latest novel, award-winning detective writer Garry Disher questions the cultural landscapes of power and misogyny in the coastal town of Swanage., a fictional place nestled among the back beaches of Dromana in Victoria. Contemporary attitudes towards male violence are pitted against stereotypes of a small town old boys club in this complex and thought-provoking story.
World-weary Charlie Deravin grew up around cops – he was practically raised by local sergeant Mark Valente and the other alphas of the ‘Menlo Beach Mafia’. As an adult (and now a cop himself), Charlie returns to Swanage with his brother Liam to help their mother evict a troublesome tenant and prepare her house for sale. When, eight days later, Charlie’s mother goes missing on the same day as schoolboy Billy Saul, people assume their disappearances have no connection – Billy is a tragic accident, their mother is a victim of domestic violence. Charlie’s father Rhys Deravin is charged with the murder of his ex-wife, and while there is no evidence to convict him, the charge is enough to make Liam turn his back on his father and make local cops stop investigating other leads. But Charlie focuses on hunting down the tenant – the man he’s convinced was responsible for his mother’s death.
Twenty years after the events of the novel’s extended prologue, Charlie remains in Swanage while on leave for punching a senior officer. Now divorced with an adult daughter, Charlie has worked his way up the police ranks while investigating his mother’s disappearance. A particularly serious rape case, in which privilege and law seem to trump truth, left Charlie disillusioned with his work and with heightened awareness of the lack of justice for women. When two skeletons are unearthed at a local construction site and are revealed to be the bodies of Charlie and Billy Saul’s mother, his old obsession takes an even firmer hold, leaving him determined to uncover the truth of what happened. pass.
The “dead girl” trope in detective fiction is the subject of much criticism and debate. American author Alice Bolin writes in her essay book Dead girls: “The victim’s body is a neutral arena to work on male issues.” In some ways, this rings true in The Way it is Now: Charlie’s mother is somewhat oppressed; as a mother, ex-wife, and landlady of key male characters, her position is relational with the men in the novel. Although Charlie’s mother is more complex than the standard female corpse, her death is in many ways the catalyst for her son’s tale. Disher delves into this trope further than most writers, turning the narrative towards the dynamic that allows toxic masculinity to fester as Charlie reflects on his relationship to masculinity and power, and his fear of becoming like. his father.
Swanage’s sun-bleached, asbestos-lined beach huts are like a metaphor for the weary demeanor of the old cops who still roam the streets. The city feels out of time, full of nostalgia and sweltering summers. The menacing presence of Detective Valente seems to seep into every corner of the investigation. There is a power struggle going on here, not just between Charlie and Valente, but between progressive and outdated attitudes. Charlie’s brother, Liam, is less willing to reflect on the past, calling old cops “vicious old homophobes.”
At the base of the investigation, domestic tensions simmer: Liam’s strained relationship with his father, Rhys’ deteriorating health, and his new wife Fay’s growing anxiety about the unnamed illness. Tensions within the Deravin family come to a head, and Disher captures well the mix of loyalty, obligation, resentment and love that all families navigate. The two brothers have a good relationship with Fay, who is a sympathetic character, far from any mean mother-in-law.
Love is an unexpected theme in the novel, especially for Charlie, whose budding relationship with fiery jury member Anna makes him reflect on ways he might have loved better in the past. Disher traces Charlie’s journey of introspection, and although he is far from perfect in his new relationship, he has a feeling of his ability to grow.
There is a sadness at the heart of The Way it is Now – a suggestion that our stubborn inability to change is doing untold damage. Disher is, as always, a skillful and convincing crime novelist, and he has crafted a provocative thriller that is firmly rooted in the present moment.