I love it when a good friend (thanks Fiona Stager) presses a book into my hands, a book that I’ve never heard of (BONE LANDS Affirm Press 2024) by a new (to me) author, Pip Fioretti, and says: ‘I’m keen to know what you think of this!’, because I have no clue about the genre, the author, the plot, any reviews; it is a totally clean and unknown slate from which to begin. What did Fiona mean? Did she love it or hate it? (She loved it) and WOW, I thoroughly enjoyed Bone Lands, for reasons I will elaborate. It’s not even out until the 26 March, but as they say, do yourself a favour and pre-order from your favourite indie bookstore so that you’re ahead of the pack when word gets out.

Bone Lands is an historical crime novel written in an absolutely unique and distinctive voice. And while the setting, the crime/s, the characters and the plot are all well-crafted, it is the voice which elevates this novel above others. Reading this book is like sitting beside a campfire while an old-timer tells a story about days past. The dialogue is authentic and natural, the narrative is compelling and page-turning and the characters are unforgettable – I cared about them and was uncertain what would happen to them, both vital in any book.

Set in 1911 in the arid back blocks of New South Wales wool country, the story features mounted trooper Augustus Hawkins, who is responsible for the local one-man police station.

‘Isn’t it your job to stop people being murdered?’ is a question asked of Gus many times during this story, but it begins with his discovery of three dead bodies on a cold winter’s night. Not just any bodies, but three of the four young adult siblings of one of the richest families in the region, the Kirkbrides. All three have been brutally murdered. This is the first (but not the only) time that Gus gets asked that question, because at the time of the murder, when he was supposed to be patrolling an evening busy with boozing and rowdy shearers and farmhands in the midst of a rare night of dance and frivolity, he had his trousers off and was busy bedding the local schoolteacher. Took his eye off the ball, for sure, and he begins paying for it almost immediately.

Despite being a distinguished but traumatised veteran of the Boer War, Hawkins is summarily put in his place by the arrival of Sydney detectives. When his honour, dignity and professionalism are questioned, he is determined to not only find the murderer, but to reveal the dark secrets harboured by the region, not only its miscreants but its eminent families too.

Themes explored are race, misogyny, class, colonialism, land destruction, loyalty, betrayal and intergenerational revenge and violence. It’s not only the lowly, poor, filthy hardscrabblers who get up to no good. The rich and successful families, with large landholdings and even larger egos and reputations, do their own share of scheming, manipulating and blackmailing.

Trooper Hawkins (Gus) narrates the story in the first person, and it is something about this and the clever but casual language that makes this book so readable. It is, as I said, as if he is telling you the story face-to-face, with honesty, insight and sometimes incomprehension. And the humour! You mightn’t think an author could come up with much levity in a story so dire, but some of the situational comedy, and certainly the witty, pithy and perceptive thoughts and dialogue add a certain something to this book that really makes it stand out. There it is again – the VOICE.

There is a cracker of a twist (or few) towards the end that I did not see coming.

The author has a background in art and was inspired by such iconic Australian paintings as ‘Shearing the Rams’ and the ‘Ned Kelly’ series, and this is evident in her evocative portrayal of the difficult and dangerous conditions of life on the land at the time, and the harsh and brutal native bush surroundings.

‘The Death of John Lacey’ by Ben Hobson is the book that comes closest to mind when I’m trying to think of any comparison reads, but anyone who enjoys good historical crime fiction, especially set in Australia post-invasion, will devour this book with enthusiasm.