Australia - an island continent with a desolate inner landscape where heat rules and life has no way. The outer limits serve as an oasis for the populace - a place to live, flourish, and thrive. Despite the shiny veneer and overseas promo hype lies a very different Australia. One where the hopelessness and hardness of the desert meets the bikini clad million dollar smiles of advertising. Grit meets girt by sea and no amount of water can wash away the dirt. 'Hard Labour', the all Australian crime anthology exemplifies this in a similar yet uniquely down-under way. Language as colourful as its characters, plots as sharp as its knife wielding crims - from tales of outback horror, traitorous hit men, MMA fighting, and cults, to not so common thieves, there is a little something here for everyone.
The anthology gets off to a great start with the first short story featuring Wyatt, Disher's own Aussie version of Parker (by Richard Stark) - the thief who's more common man than hard criminal. In 'Wyatt's Art', Wyatt faces a cross continent smuggling ring involving more than the product he's pushing. I liken this to 'Parker-lite' - the criminal element is there, however Wyatt is more of a thinking thief as apposed to violent hard man. Next up was 'Grassed' by Leigh Redhead (better known for her Simone Kirsch PI series) in which a physically mature 14yr old girl, Ananda is the object of 38yr Kyle's affection. This love story ends before it begins, only it's bones that break, not hearts. It was good to read something a little different by Redhead . 'Grassed' for me was on of the highlights of this collection.
The good thing about this anthology is the diversity in storytelling. 'Killing Peacocks' by Angela Savage writes a about a rural town where domestic violence extends its bloody tendrils to peacocks to cover a murder. The culprit, a petite package of innocence with lethal intentions uses her assets to reel in a scapegoat. 'The Town' by Cameron Ashley, and 'No Through Road' by Greig Johnston couldn't be more different, one looks at alcoholic squatters, the other gives new meaning to the term 'criminally insane'. I really liked Johnston's story, it was quick, precise and laced with dark humour. The lead criminal uses a sawed off antique shotgun for a robbery to net a measly score only to find out the shotgun he ruined was a collectable worth upwards of $10,000. Criminal masterminds at their best - not.
'Hard Labour' enlists some well known names in crime fiction in Helen FitzGerlad ('Killing Mum'), Adrian McKinty ('The Dutch Book'), and Peter Corris ('Prodigal Son') amongst others. While each of these stories were entertaining, McKinty's 'The Dutch Book' was the strongest and most involving. Written so well that it felt like a full length. In 'The Dutch Book' McKinty pits a small time collector against the organisation for the purpose of financial gain only to see friends, girlfriend and family safety net dwindle away. 'Prodigal Son' was the only true PI story in 'Hard Labour' and rounds out the anthology well while 'Killing Mum' was depressing, sober, and a glimpse at age old age no one wants to see.
To compliment the well known authors, a talented bunch of lesser knowns provides a glimpse at the future of Australian crime fiction. JJ Decegile's 'Death Cannot Be Delegated' is about an introspective compulsive gambler who is swayed by the allure of his targets provocative manner (oh and nakedness). The hit man switches allegiance in favour of a better deal. Quick, efficient and brutal. 'The Break' by Andrew Prentice is about a former cop charged with assault following a citizens arrest. The characters were well developed with the short story reading more as an opening chapter to a novel. I sure hope Prentice explores this further. 'A Forgiving Kind Of Nature' by Amanda Wrangles was surprisingly deep for a short story - I want more!
There are many highlights to 'Hard Labour', 'Underhooks' by Liam Jose had a semi 'Choke Hold' (by Christa Faust) feel to it yet was more raw, brutal and entertaining. I would love to see this fleshed out to a full length. A former mixed martial arts athlete is forced back into the ring following a stint in prison for killing a competitor. Cage fighting, sex on bloodied matts and hard hitting storytelling. 'Chasing Atlantis' by Andrew Nette (author of Ghost Money) contains cults, double crosses, murder, a hot dame, and thievery. One of the best. Rounding out my favourites is 'Dead Fellow Churls' by Andrez Bergen in which a drunk cop gets caught on a stake-out and has to rely on his partner to get him out, there is a distinct femme fatale feel to this. Like 'The Break', 'Dead Fellow Churls' felt like a novel teaser rather than short story - left me wanting more.
Much like any anthology there are good and average stories depending on the reader tastes. Luckily most of the shorts in 'Hard Labour' hit the mark. Crime Factory have served up a well rounded and diverse entree of Australian crime fiction which has left me craving a main course. I look forward to tracking down the Wyatt series by Disher, reading 'Ghost Money' by Andrew Nette and getting stuck into the novels by Andrez Bergen ('Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat'). My wishlist has grown by a few books thanks to 'Hard Labour'. This is a satisfying collection not to be missed - 4 stars.
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