Matt Nable is perhaps best known for his acting career but his fourth novel, Still (Hachette 2021) will add to his reputation as a writer of gritty Australian rural crime noir. With comparisons to The Dry and Scrublands, Still is a page-turning crime thriller with a large cast of characters and a complex mystery to be solved.
Set in Darwin in 1963, Still is a novel very much anchored to time and place. Even present-day Darwin – and the Northern Territory as a whole – still has the status of cowboy country or a rebel area full of misfits or the place people go to run away or escape. 50 years ago, that was even more true. The law was different there, the people were harder and tougher, and the race relations problematic. Darwin was a melting pot of croc hunters, bull riders, fishermen and those on the run from civilisation; a potent mix with the local Indigenous population living on missions and having to cope with their children being stolen as well as their lands. Nable nails these characters and he also completely captures the environment, the harsh and unpredictable weather, the tropical storms, the thick and viscous humidity and the unrelenting heat. You will finish this book dripping with sweat. He has also rendered well the social norms of the time – the 1960’s housewife expected to have dinner on the table, bear the children and not have any dreams of a life for herself; the local council members keen to do anything to build their reputation and secure their financial futures; the police force that considers itself outside of the law. It is in this highly volatile landscape that the story begins.
Still focuses on several main characters, including Senior Constable Ned Potter, who discovers a body in shallow marshland and – perhaps unwisely – begins to investigate despite being told to leave it alone. Charlotte Clarke is another main character, a 23-year-old housewife married to a wannabe cowboy, stuck in a suffocating marriage and feeling more of herself slipping away day by day.
As the body count rises and suspicions arise over unlinked deaths, Ned and Charlotte both come to understand the depth of secrets their town is hiding, and what people are prepared to do to prevent them being uncovered. They, and others, learn that courage is necessary to fight for what is right and to protect those you love. They also learn what they are prepared to sacrifice along the way.
Still is a very visceral book. The crimes are bloody and vicious and raw. The descriptions of people’s physiques are blunt and forthright. The language is menacing and the dialogue is rough and crude. The whole novel feels very filmic in nature, and I can easily see Nable’s screen experience in the writing of the book. There are a lot of dangerous, tough men featured, blokes who you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, and even the guys who are on the side of good still have flaws and personality cracks that make them hard to like at times. The women are written with more delicacy but they too show their strength when needed.
The resolution was a surprise to me – Nable kept up the tension and the suspense throughout the story, and the ending was out of left field. I enjoyed the way he explored ethical questions through the moral dilemmas facing some of the characters, and how they reacted when things went wrong or unexpectedly (and also how they responded when things went well for them). These aspects were all very telling. While there were a few moments of caricature, stereotype or implausibility in the first half of the book, I found that by the second half, Nable had really found his rhythm, and the characters became much more believable as their backgrounds and histories were revealed, and their dreams and hopes and ambitions began to become reality or to be thwarted. The very complicated plot all tied together in the last pages, and the actual ending is a really lovely ambiguous open question about what exactly happens on that last page and about what might happen next. Great novel for crime book clubs, with lots of issues and questions over characters’ actions to be explored.