Kittyhawk Down, the second in the Hal Challis/Ellen Destry series of police procedurals set in the fictional Old Peninsula district in southern Victoria, Australia, is even better than the first, Dragon Man, and that’s saying something. The characters have gelled and the author is more assured in his plotting and pacing this time round.
Hal Challis is an Inspector in the Homicide Squad, “tall, thin but hard boned, and looked slightly out of date in his jeans, scuffed flying jacket and plain leather shoes. His sunglasses were not an accessory perched above his forehead but shaded his eyes. He’d never worn a T-shirt as an undershirt or tracksuit pants out of doors. He’d never owned a pair of runners. His hair was straight, dark and lifted a little in the wind. It was cut once a month by a young woman who worked beside her father in a Waterloo barbershop. She was skilful and attentive, and for the sum of $10 returned him to the world with a neatly shaped head.”
Challis is investigating the case of an unidentified dead body that has been washed ashore, and slightly uneasily settling in to his relationship with the editor of the local newspaper, Tessa Kane. His sergeant, Ellen Destry, is herself on the trail of a man who attacks “courting couples” in parked cars at night, and pretty soon gets a good result, thanks to solid policing of the team, including the attractive character of constable Pam Murphy, her less attractive partner John Tankard and the sensitive Scobie Sutton. The thoughts and actions of these five policemen and women are the backbone of the novel, as they go about their professional and personal lives – personal lives that are intertwined in the local community and as such bring them into contact with people who may be of professional interest concerning various petty and not-so-petty crimes.
Challis’s somewhat desultory investigation and his ambivalence about Tessa and his imprisoned wife are swept aside by a series of incidents, starting in a small fashion but escalating way out of control. “The Meddler” is a person who writes anonymous letters to the newspaper complaining about petty infringements of the law by various residents or about failings of the local authorities. Tessa has made these letters into a regular column, but out of this initiative and an (uncharacteristically cruel) article she writes about a man who walks around with a pet ferret on a lead, are the seeds of some ghastly future events.
A lonely and introspective man, Challis has one hobby, which is to restore an old wrecked plane, the Dragon, which in 1942 helped ferry Dutch refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion of Java, from Broome to Perth. The Dragon is kept in a hangar at a local aerodrome, along with other vintage planes, one of which is the Kittyhawk of the title. Its owner is Janice Casement, whom everyone calls Kitty after her plane, and Challis feels more than a passing interest in her. One day, Challis witnesses a crazy incident while Kitty is attempting to land her plane, and feels compelled to investigate. While doing so, he finds some unsettling evidence in Kitty’s “office” area of the hangar that may involve or implicate her in some more serious, drug-related, investigations.
The novel tells the story of these several, apparently unconnected investigations, set against the evocative and vivid descriptions of community life in the Peninsula. Because we are following the lives of several law-enforcement characters, the same people who are questioned by the police in one chapter sometimes crop up in other circumstances – for example one of the policemen has a child at the same school as two “persons of interest” – and this adds a dimension to the novel that is quite unusual in my experience of the genre. While conveying a great sense of place, however, the author never loses sight of his storytelling role, and as the pages turn the reader gradually becomes aware of threads tightening up and connections coming together – how or why is, pretty much, kept obscure until the end, whose tense conclusion is sad in parts, but also satisfying.
I’ll end the review by quoting a passage that summarises one of the appeals of this series for me, concerning Challis’s visit to someone whose husband has been shot and killed. “She was red-eyed, her grief raw. Ostensibly he was there to ask her some gentle questions, but he learnt nothing new and hadn’t expected to; visiting and comforting the bereaved was the other side of a murder investigation. Waves of misery and anger can spread from a single act of homicide and swamp a family and its friends. Challis represented order. Where things were falling apart for the bereaved, he was competent, professional, focused, and familiar with a bewildering system. Sometimes his relationships with bereaved families and individuals lasted years. His was a shoulder to cry on; he was a link to the beloved victim; he represented the investigation itself and so offered hope and justice. He’d provide his phone number and find himself talking calmly, patiently, at the darkest hours of the night, and visiting from time to time, and taking people who’d almost lost heart into the squad room and showing them the desks, the computers, the photo arrays – the sense of justice at work. It often meant a lot and the flow was two-way, for as the bereaved felt valued and encouraged, so did he.” An excellent series, and one which I shall be continuing to read with eager anticipation.