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The Way it is Now by Garry Disher review – provocative whodunnit interrogates small-town misogyny

·4-min read

Disher’s story of a burnt-out cop investigating his mother’s disappearance asks complex questions of its male characters

In his latest novel, award-winning crime writer Garry Disher interrogates the cultural landscapes of power and misogyny within the coastal town of Swanage, a fictional locale nestled among the back beaches of Dromana in Victoria. Contemporary attitudes towards male violence are pitted against the stereotypes of a small-town old boys’ club in this complex and thought-provoking story.

World-weary Charlie Deravin has grown 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 lodger and prepare her house for sale. When, eight days later, Charlie’s mum goes missing on the same day as schoolboy Billy Saul, people assume their disappearances are unrelated – Billy’s a tragic accident, their mother a victim of domestic violence. Charlie’s father, Rhys Deravin, is accused of murdering his ex-wife, and although there’s no proof to convict him, the accusation is enough for Liam to turn his back on his dad and for the local cops to stop investigating other leads. But Charlie fixates on tracking down the lodger – the man he’s convinced is responsible for his mother’s death.

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Twenty years after the events of the novel’s extended prologue, Charlie is staying in Swanage while on leave for punching a superior officer. Now a divorcee with an adult daughter, Charlie has worked his way up through the police ranks, all while investigating his mother’s disappearance on the side. A particularly gritty rape case, in which privilege and entitlement seem to take precedence over truth, has left Charlie disillusioned with his job, and with a heightened awareness of the lack of justice for women. When two skeletons are unearthed at a local building site and revealed to be the bodies of Charlie’s mother and Billy Saul, his old obsession takes an even firmer grip, leaving him determined to get to the truth of what happened.

The “dead girl” trope in crime fiction is the subject of much criticism and debate. US author Alice Bolin writes in her book of essays Dead Girls: “The victim’s body is a neutral arena on which to work out male problems.” In some ways this rings true in The Way it is Now: Charlie’s mum is somewhat downtrodden; as a mother, ex-wife and landlady to key male characters, her position is relational to the men in the novel. Although Charlie’s mother is more complex than the standard female cadaver, her death is in many ways the catalyst for her son’s narrative. Disher leans further into this trope than most writers, turning the narrative towards the dynamics that allow toxic masculinity to fester as Charlie reflects on his relationship with masculinity and power, and his fear of becoming like his father.

The sun-bleached, asbestos-lined beach shacks of Swanage are like a metaphor for the tired attitudes of the old cops who still roam the streets. The town feels out of time, ripe with nostalgia and sweltering summers. The threatening presence of detective Valente seems to seep into all corners of the investigation. There is a power struggle happening 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, dismissing the old cops as “vicious old homophobes”.

Underpinning the investigation are simmering domestic tensions: Liam’s strained relationship with his father, Rhys’s deteriorating health, and his new wife Fay’s growing anxiety about the unnamed illness. Tensions in the Deravin family come to a head and Disher captures well the mix of loyalty, obligation, resentment and love that all families navigate. Both brothers have a good relationship with Fay, who is a likable character, far from any wicked stepmother.

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Love is an unexpected theme in the novel, particularly for Charlie, whose burgeoning relationship with feisty jury member Anna makes him reflect on ways he might have loved better in the past. Disher charts Charlie’s journey towards self-reflection, and while he is far from perfect in his new relationship, there is a sense of his capacity 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 deft and compelling crime novelist, and he has crafted a provocative whodunnit that is grounded firmly in the current moment.

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