Wednesday, March 16, 2011

*Scream Black Murder, by Philip McLaren

Intrigue Press/WorldKrime, 2002
originally published 1995
252 pp.

Although this story is fictional, there is a true backdrop to this novel.  In Sydney, Australia, 1989, a police raid resulted in three arrests and one death, that of the homeowner, David John Gundy. To make matters worse, in 1992, an appalling video was shown on national TV of a police staff party where two cops arrived in blackface, one with a hangman's noose around his neck. Signs were hanging around their necks, one with the name of Lloyd Boney (who mysteriously died in police custody), and one bearing the name of David Gundy, both indigenous Australians. Political pressure had been put on the police regarding the number of unsolved black deaths, and with the death of Gundy and then the airing of the tasteless video, several human rights groups including Amnesty International got involved, protesting against the racist component of policing. 

In Scream Black Murder, a unit known as the Aboriginal Homicide Unit has been created, based largely on this pressure.  [To be honest, I have tried to find any reference to this unit on the internet and cannot, so I can't say whether or not this is a real part of the New South Wales police. Any info would be helpful just to answer my question.]  Out of fifty Aboriginal officers, two made the cut: Gary Leslie and Lisa Fuller. Their first case involves the deaths of two indigenous Australians, one male, one female. The State Police are the first to respond; after Leslie and Fuller arrive, the case is turned over to them. The two face a series of challenges in getting to the heart of the matter -- not the least of which is the fact that their involvement isn't much welcomed. And, as more bodies are discovered, one of them white, the two find themselves under intense media scrutiny, only heightening the pressure to nail the killer.  The narrative is told in alternating points of view -- first, in a third-person narrative detailing the lives of Gary and Leslie both on the job and off, and then the musings of the killer, who offers a look inside his head as he targets his victims and then kills them.

I actually read this some time back and then took some time to give some thought to my response to this novel.  Scream Black Murder gets great reviews on and on Goodreads, with about a 4.5-stars average rating.  I have mixed feelings about this book. Although I appreciated the author's commentary on the problems of the Aboriginal community, the racism of the police department, and his storyline about indigenous children being taken away from their parents at an early age (all done quite well, by the way), the mystery component of the story seemed rather tame.  It's sort of a thing where the tension ratchets and then we're off into a foray into the personal lives of the two officers -- for me, there were just too many interruptions in the flow in the progress of the criminal investigation.  I realize this is a personal issue, but when I read crime fiction, I'm in it for the crime and how it's solved (or not), preferring a tighter narrative that gets to the point and stays on target throughout.   On the other hand, the author highlighted many important aspects of  the racial and social issues confronting indigenous Australians, many of which I was previously unaware.

I'll definitely try more of McLaren's work in the future. I recommend Scream Black Murder to crime fiction enthusiasts who aren't so much on the edgy side of crime reads as I seem to be, and I also recommend it as a work from an indigenous Australian writer who isn't hesitant about setting forth the issues mentioned above. 

fiction from Australia

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