The Dragon Man is first in a series of five, soon to be six, novels about Detective Inspector Hal Challis and his Sergeant, Ellen Destry. It’s one of my favourite kinds of novel, in that it describes in detail a police investigation into a crime, provides a strong sense of location and society, and also addresses the personal and professional lives of the detectives concerned.
The crime in this case occurs when a woman is abducted on the Old Peninsula Highway in a (fictional) area south-east of Melbourne, Australia. Challis is responsible for crime over a fairly large area in this peninsula, where constant state cutbacks to social services make the job of the police harder – not just because of the increased likelihood of crime, but in creating a challenge for people’s daily lives, for example in organising child care when nurseries are closed down and you have to work shifts.
Challis is a serious-minded policeman, whose disastrous marriage has resulted in his wife being imprisoned. His domestic history is gradually revealed via his wife’s late-night, drunk phone calls to her husband from jail – he cannot bear to cut her off completely by divorcing her. Challis is a loner, taking refuge from his less than satisfactory personal life and his heavy workload via his hobby of slowly restoring a vintage World War Two-era plane. His sergeant, Destry, is a highly competent police officer but has her own domestic struggles in the shape of a resentful husband who is also a policeman but at a lower rank, and a sulky teenage daughter – a telling subplot which I am sure reflects many people’s experiences.
The story of the crime investigation is very well paced throughout the book as we come to learn more about the day-to-day life of people who live in the Peninsula, as well as and the inner lives of the various members of the police force, positive and negative, as they attempt to find the person who is abducting and killing vulnerable women.
There are several intriguing threads to the main plot, which gradually come together in a tense climax. I have to admit that the identity of the perpetrator was pretty obvious, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this highly atmospheric novel, which transported me right into the lives and concerns of the people within its pages. I’m definitely going to seek out the subsequent novels in the series.