Darwin, Summer, 1963.
The humidity sat heavy and thick over the town as Senior Constable Ned Potter looked down at a body that had been dragged from the shallow marshland. He didn't need a coroner to tell him this was a bad death. He didn't know then that this was only the first. Or that he was about to risk everything looking for answers.
Late one night, Charlotte Clark drove the long way home, thinking about how stuck she felt, a 23-year-old housewife, married to a cowboy who wasn't who she thought he was. The days ahead felt suffocating, living in a town where she was supposed to keep herself nice and wait for her husband to get home from the pub. Charlotte stopped the car, stepped out to breathe in the night air and looked out over the water to the tangled mangroves. She never heard a sound before the hand was around her mouth.
Both Charlotte and Ned are about to learn that the world they live in is full of secrets and that it takes courage to fight for what is right. But there are people who will do anything to protect themselves and sometimes courage is not enough to keep you safe.
STILL is an evocative, page-turning thriller from a brilliant Australian writer. If you loved THE DRY and SCRUBLANDS, you will love STILL.
Gritty and compelling Aussie Noir
Still is an engrossing and frequently confronting read, exploring the theme of police and government corruption in Darwin, the capital of Australia's Northern Territory, during the early 1960s.
The book opens with the dramatic scene of an underworld execution in a dark mangrove swamp not far outside Darwin. Our flawed hero, Senior Constable Ned Potter, is the first representative of NT Police to come across the scene, where local fishermen have discovered the decomposing body of Ernie Clay. Clay was an indigenous man, who had survived a fractured childhood in Queensland, as a member of Australia's "Stolen Generation". Potter is quickly side lined from the case by his crooked and racist superior, Senior Sergeant Joe Riley, but visits Clay's widow, a white woman, to express his condolences. She's afraid to say any more, but makes the tantalising comment, "They killed him because he saw."
For the remainder of the book, we follow Potter's often thwarted efforts to investigate and lift the veil of police corruption and political interference from Darwin's ambitious Mayor, Desmond Landry, as further brutal killings occur and Potter is treated as a pariah by his colleagues.
Meanwhile, Charlotte, wife of NT Fire & Rescue officer Bobby Clark, is facing her own struggles. Her husband is a boorish man, who's in the thick of the conspiracy involving Riley and Landry. She unwittingly becomes drawn into the heart of the drama when she rescues a wounded indigenous man not far from the swamp where Ernie Clay was found weeks earlier. She secretly nurses him back to health, as an understanding grows between them.
The picture Matt Nable paints of 1960s Darwin, with its relentless humidity, overt racism, frequent domestic abuse and uncontrolled drinking, is not pretty. Nevertheless, there are passages of stunningly evocative prose, as Nable details such apparently mundane subjects as an aged Land Rover, the smell of a pub during wet season, or the process Charlotte follows when fishing for whiting from the beach. The stillness to which the title refers, is repeatedly conjured in the view from the coast towards the Timor Sea, which both Ned and Charlotte find restorative in the moments between oncoming storm fronts, both literal and figurative.
The two characters from whose perspectives the intertwined narrative unfolds, Ned and Charlotte, are not unexpectedly those who are best developed and the reader's sympathy for both grows over the course of the novel. Ned is particularly compelling as a character - he regularly gets so drunk after work that his relationship with his wife Bonnie and baby daughter are threatened, and yet his commitment to finding justice and truth are unwavering. He seems to be some years (decades?) ahead of his colleagues when it comes to matters of systemic racism and treatment of victims and their families. Meanwhile, Charlotte is a woman who is feeling dissatisfied in her marriage prior to the events detailed in the novel. She's tied to Darwin by her dying father, but yearns for a more fulfilling life.
I found Still a stimulating read, with occasional flashes of brilliance, but perhaps let down a little by several unexplained plot incongruities and a rather abrupt and overly-neat ending. Nevertheless, readers who are willing to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride will find this a worthwhile excursion into top-end noir, with plenty of character interest and an action-packed storyline.