‘You’d have to have a cold heart if you didn’t want to see this underdog win’ – Bitter Wash Road by Garry Disher

BITTER WASH ROADGarry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road is a cop story, a police procedural. It features a loner cop too smart for his pay scale and who does things his own way, regardless of what anyone else thinks. There’s a suspicious death that could be easily explained, but this guy’s gut tells him there’s more to it, so he tugs tenaciously at every lead until something, or somebody, gives. This is Paul Hirschhausen. Hirsch to his enemies; he, of course, doesn’t have friends.

Disher does his cops by the book, and that’s about the only way Hirsch deviates from every other Sam Spade, Dirty Harry or Philip Marlowe. He sticks to the rules, does what he’s told and follows procedure like a thriller writer follows a proven plotline. In all his years on the force, this is how Hirsch gets results. And it’s a method that works for Disher too.

The author has already written more than 40 books, although he’s hardly known outside his native Australia. That’s surprising because, despite Bitter Wash Road seeming familiarly formulaic, Disher knows how to tell a story and how to keep the reader turning pages. His prose can even sound a little Chandleresque:

‘Hirsch nodded hello; Latimer responded with a smile that was trying to come in from the cold. She was tall, fair; pretty in a recessive way, as if she had no expectations and understood disappointment. But what do I know? thought Hirsch. He’s misread people before and had the scars to prove it.’

This is typical of how Disher hints at a deeper backstory for Hirsch without resorting to flashbacks or extended exposition. Everything we know about this demoted detective comes from the natural flow of the story. Or should that be stories? While Hirsh is investigating one death, he’s also caught up in a corruption case while being drafted to testify against his current colleagues at a time when the country’s worst criminal duo are likely to be heading through his outback beat at any moment.

And Disher only gives away enough of each subplot to keep the reader interested but never wondering what’s happening elsewhere. He keeps us invested in Hirsch, a man hated by everyone, even his colleagues. Hirsch is only trying to do the right thing and nobody else can see that, except the reader. You’d have to have a cold heart if you didn’t want to see this underdog win.

Any Cop?: A publisher’s press release suggests that this is the first of many Hirsch tales to come. And that’s good news, even if you’re not usually a fan of police procedurals because Hirsch is definitely a character worth following.


Jim Dempsey



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