Review: Ash Island by Barry Maitland

Ash Island by Barry Maitland is the 2nd book in the Belltree Trilogy (Available November 1, 2016).

Harry Belltree is having a torrid time of it all. He used to be a homicide detective in Sydney, but has now been transferred to Newcastle. Things have gotten too hot in Sydney, and his bosses would rather see the back of him—that or early retirement. Harry is not ready to hang up his police badge just yet. Too many things to be done, too many secrets to be uncovered, and too many wrongs to be righted. He feels his work has only just begun.

His troubles began with a series of events in Sydney that presented more questions than answers. Answers that Harry is not going to get by sticking to the rule book. An unwillingness to stick to the letter of the law is what got him into trouble in Sydney in the first place, but he knows that he is not going to get the answers he needs by being the police officer his badge and profession truly demands.

However, in Newcastle—and with a new partner, Detective Sergeant Bramley—Harry’s current beat is quite different to his previous work: a lot of teenage bandits, drugs, and domestic violence. That is until the discovery of a body sets off a chain of events that sees Harry caught up in a whirlwind of threats and danger that threaten to engulf and destroy him completely.

It is not the outback, but there is no mistaking where you are in this deftly written thriller by Barry Maitland, a writer originally from Scotland. Australian dryness, both in weather and humor, spring from every page:

“You were a hotshot homicide star, weren’t you, Belltree?” Fogarty barks.

 “Boss.”

“Well, here’s your chance to shine. Get hold of Ross and go out to Ash Island. Somebody’s found a body.”

They drive out of the city towards Hexham and turn off at the McDonald’s onto a narrow concrete bridge across the south arm of the river. On the far side they pass through a belt of mangroves growing along the mudflats of the river’s edge and emerge into the sudden empty silence of Ash Island. The sat nav goes blank, a white line twisting across empty space. Ross flicks open a battered old Gregory’s and gives directions.

They pass signs for the Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project and an area of new board-walks and visitor-information panels. Then these indications of recent activity vanish and the metaled road ends. Now the road is a dirt causeway across the salt marsh, barely higher than the still dark waters on either side. They pass through a belt of trees, casuarinas, and paperbarks, with mangroves beyond in the salty margins, then back out into bleak open marshland.

Eventually they catch distant views across a wide black lagoon to the yellow and orange super-structures of the giant loaders working on the coal stockpiles over at the port. Ahead of them is another copse of sparse trees and two uniforms next to a police truck, unrolling tape to establish a crime-scene perimeter.

They park and walk over to them, Ross says,

“What ya got?”

One of the GD’s points to the grass at the edge of the lake. From among the tufts and muddy clumps a dirty white hand sticks up into the air.

“Looks like a body, sarge.”

The book contains a multitude of twists and turns, and the author skillfully ensures that nothing is telegraphed, carefully making sure the obvious isn’t lurking around every page. It’s not easy to convey the feeling of the mundane combined with the ever-present threat of danger in police work in a balanced way, but Mr. Maitland achieves that with considerable skill. The characters are tight, awkward, and sympathetic at the same time, with some treading lightly into the world of criminality and others charging head on into the cesspool of crime and retribution.

The author keeps you guessing with Harry’s true intentions right up to the final page. The finest aspect of this story is the way Harry’s past keeps catching up with him and unfolding in ways that he could not have foreseen—just like real life. The troubles of his past are always lurking, ready to pounce when least expected, and even though the past is history, it always comes back as a surprise. The threats come from every angle, and doing things by the book will not protect Harry and his wife from serious harm.

“Jenny, right? Blind Jenny.

“Shame I won’t be able to show her what I’m goin to do to you, mate. But I’ll tell her. I’ll make sure she gets the picture before I put out her lights.” At his back, Harry feels the sliver of bone finally slip into the handcuff and depress the ratchet, opening the cuff. All around him the room erupts, the others running forward, throwing themselves into the melee, punching, kicking. Blows hammer down on Harry’s head and ribs and he is finally dragged onto his back, bleeding and barely conscious.

Ash Island is a serious thriller, and Barry Maitland’s other works will be well worth catching up with. I eagerly await the third and final book in the Belltree Trilogy, Slaughter Park.

 

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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.

Read all Dirk Robertson’s posts for Criminal Element.

Comments

  1. Jean Dickinson

    I’d like to catch up with Barry Maitland’s trilogy starting with first but I can always order it and read before I win the second!!

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