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It's not unknown for crime fiction followers to point out that the genre frequently explores the rights and wrongs of society and human behaviour. Because of that it's reasonable to expect that the settings and central subject matter may have unlimited scope, but I think this is the first book I can recall that gets into the question of over-permit limit Abalone catches, as well as the more predictable drug smuggling. The storyline of QUOTA centres on a dispute between two families in a small coastal town and the murder of Patrick Lanegan's brother on a fishing boat, just offshore, late at night.
Within the setting of a small fishing village in regional Victoria there are the haves (the Murchisons) and the have-nots (the Lanegans). There's a sense of entitlement about the haves that make them particularly ruthless, and the instigators of much of the trouble that both families now find themselves in when the Murchisons are implicated in the death of a Lanegan. Despite the question marks over both families behaviour there is much that is sympathetic about the Lanegans making them easy for a reader to connect with. Which seems to affect big city lawyer / fish out of water character Charlie Jardim as well. Seconded to this case as a last ditch hurrah for his legal career, which is borderline terminal after a massive eruption at a Judge during a Court hearing, it's through the kindness of friends that Jardim finds himself briefed as junior for the prosecution. When this role takes him to the fishing village of Dauphin on the basis that he and Senior Counsel feel that there's something not quite right about Lanegan's statement, even the getting there is fraught with the problem that many city drivers find when they head to the bush. Kangaroos are frequently big, and hitting them is extremely problematic for the kangaroo and drivers. Once on the spot, as he starts to understand the Lanegan's situation and find out more about their lives, there is something about them and this odd little town that he connects with.
Jardim is wonderfully dry, and surprisingly taciturn given that aforementioned courtroom outburst. He's damaged obviously by his past (there are fleeting references to a brother who has died), but in many ways QUOTA isn't a novel solely devoted to building Jardim's character and background. He's also romantically entwined with a woman who is particularly driven. Which, with all the will in the world, you could never say about Jardim. Their relationship, even allowing for opposites attracting, seems to befuddle Jardim almost as much as it might a reader, but again, the vagaries of his personal life are not explored in minute detail. Because there is much that's sketchy, withdrawn about Jardim, he could befuddle readers, even be a little off-putting. He'd be a tricky sort of bloke to know - fictionally or in real-life - and somehow that makes him all the more intriguing and baffling.
QUOTA is a look at small town life in Australia, as well as something of an investigation into the class differences that might not be mentioned, but do exist here - frequently to do with money and influence. It's also a courtroom drama and whilst Jardim continues in his role as investigator and seeker of truth, once the action switches to the courtroom his influence diminishes and senior Defence and Prosecution Counsel take over. Here much of Jardim's activities in Dauphin come in for some scrutiny and the novel really does give the reader a view of the verbal and tactical games that make up much of a criminal trial.
As is frequently the case though, this author is definitely writing about a world that he knows (a lawyer himself, living in a smallish seaside town in Victoria), but that doesn't always translate to something believable. In QUOTA however we have pitch-perfect dialogue, and a strong sense of place about this small town in particular. The characters there are particularly believable and even allowing for the slightly off-camera nature of Jardim, actually quite likeable (a bonus). All of these elements combine to make for a very engaging, and extremely realistic debut novel.
QUOTA was awarded the 2015 Ned Kelly prize for Best First Fiction.
§ Karen Chisholm has been reading crime fiction since she could hold a book upright. When not reading she builds websites and pretends to be a farmer. Her website, AustCrimeFiction has been covering fiction from Australia and New Zealand since 2006: http://www.austcrimefiction.org/
Reviewed by Karen Chisholm, June 2015
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