Hermit by S R White
It turns out that S R White is a Brit, however, since he moved to Australia years ago and Hermit is set there, I’ll claim it for my contribution to Southern Cross Crime Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.
The book begins very early one morning with Dana Russo contemplating suicide.
This was her Day. The day Dana granted herself full permission to think about all this; to examine it and ask if she found herself wanting. Each day through the year she kept it as locked down and hidden away as she could/ Often, she failed. […] For this Day alone, she deliberately and overtly questioned from every angle if she wanted to live another year. If she was still asking at midnight, the contract was made: she would try to carry on until the next Day.
This Day she is closer than ever, she has her gun out, when her phone rings and won’t give up. She holsters the weapon and answers the phone, it’s her boss Bill. Dana is a police detective; they’ve found a dead body, and Mikey who should have been on call first is at the hospital with his son. It’s going to be a very long day.
The local police had answered a silent alarm from a general store in the bush between two towns. The body is that of the owner, Lou, who had been stabbed, straight up into his heart with a longish knife; they haven’t found the weapon yet. But they do have a suspect. A man was found in the store in a nearby aisle with blood on his hands. He told them his name, Nathan Whittler, but otherwise said nothing at all. He’d got a rucksack full of loot, and was wearing plastic bags over his shoes, got in through a window, it looks like a planned burglary gone wrong.
Luce back at the station is already checking out Nathan Whittler. Soon, the team discover that he disappeared fifteen years previously – just vanished into thin air. There is no trace of him anywhere. They have 24hrs before the state will insist he gets lawyered up to get him to talk, to find out where’s been, what he’s been doing, why he came back and was in Jensen’s store, and if he murdered Lou Cassavetes.
Bill decides he wants Dana to interrogate Whittler. If anyone can get him talking, Dana will be able to build that trust with some authority, Mikey would be too empathetic and risk Whittler clamming up. None of the team know that first thing that morning Dana was ready to take her own life. Can she remain mentally strong enough to last the day?
The majority of this novel takes place in the police station during the rest of this Day, following the short sessions that Dana has with Whittler, Bill behind the glass; Luce, Rainer and Mikey doing the admin, phones and legwork. They have to ask if Lou had any enemies and whether his wife Megan has a motive for killing her husband. They need to track down Whittler’s relatives too if there are any and ask them about Nathan.
Bill was right to pick Dana. She is able to gradually get a few words out of Whittler despite his obvious terror of being around people. Slowly, tortuously for Dana who is suffering too, they begin to unpick the hermit’s home and work life before he took himself off-grid. As more information comes to light from Whittler himself and the team, a terrible picture begins to emerge, and it really begins to take a toll on her. Alongside the murder is the mystery of what has taken Dana to her own dark place…
Covering just one Day in 375 slowburn pages, a detective who is as damaged as her suspect, Hermit takes its time to reach the shocking conclusion. I was never less than gripped by the narrative, which cleverly reveals it secrets as the clock ticks on. It was amazing to see how much they manage to fit into one day between them, but it did start very early. It was most refreshing to see the close-knit team of detectives working together so well – something that reminded me of my current TV binge – Unforgotten – which is led by the wonderful Nicola Walker as DCI Cassie Stuart who, by the end of the third series, is nearly as damaged as Dana Russo.
As a police procedural, I enjoyed this one at least as much as other Aussie crime reads of recent years (see Jane Harper here and here, Chris Hammer here). It will be really interesting to see if White brings this team back for another investigation. If he does, I’ll happily read it. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you. Headline, Sept 2020, 375 pages.
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