REVIEW

ABC journalist Michael Brissenden's latest thriller, Dead Letters, combines politics, journalism and crime

  • Dead Letters, by Michael Brissenden. Hachette, $32.99.
Michael Brissenden, with a voice as familiar as a close friend. Picture: Mike Bowers

Michael Brissenden, with a voice as familiar as a close friend. Picture: Mike Bowers

Michael Brissenden would be known to most Canberra readers. A senior ABC journalist whom we have learnt to trust and respect, whose voice is almost as familiar to us as that of a close friend, is, perhaps, one of the best arguments for the continuation and proper funding of "our ABC".

Then Brissenden turned his hand to writing. A crime novel. He joined what has become almost a genre in Australian writing - journalists and crime. Paul Daley, Chris Hammer, Chris Uhlmann and others. Then Michael Brissenden. Published by Hachette, Brissenden produced The List in 2017 to acclaim. He introduced us to Sidney Allen, a soldier from the war in Afghanistan, now an "investigator".

Sid is damaged. He's seen too much, worried too much, looked at death straight in the face, but has survived. He has strong values, seeks a better Australia, but knows its pitfalls. He will face danger, he will confront evil and evil-doers, and he will give the reader an exciting journey.

Readers admired and enjoyed The List, rewarding Brissenden and his publishers with strong sales. They decided that here was a new Australian voice and that Brissenden was a writer to look out for.

Three years later - well, he is a full-time ABC journalist - we have Brissenden's second novel and the good news is that it is even better, maybe far better, than his first. That is high praise.

A prominent federal politician, a rising man in the governing party, is brutally murdered on the shores of Botany Bay, and, for good measure, the cops find another body in the boot of the car. Sid Allen is the lead investigator tasked with finding what went on.

The reader enters the murky world of the New South Wales police force and the even more murky world of the "plastics", Sydney cop slang for our own Australian Federal Police. Working on the theory that the AFP has never had a serious intention of solving federal political corruption, Brissenden leaves his readers with severe questions of trust in those set to protect and guard us.

Waiting while the Forensics do their work, Sid Allen spies a young Herald journalist, Zephyr Wilde, already working her impressive list of contacts. Brissenden knows journalism inside out and Dead Letters, to list one of its many unexpected joys and complexities, becomes almost a eulogy to journalism in its heyday, now long gone.

There is a lyrical quality to Brissenden's writing that readers don't often find in crime fiction. Sid and Zephyr work together, on this crime and on the murder of Zephyr's mother, Shirley, 20 years earlier.

It dawns on the reader, slowly, that the two murders may be connected. Sid and Zephyr are drawn to each other, and the developing relationship causes grief to the investigation.

In the course of the story, we meet the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, Barry Angel, we engage in a federal election campaign, which Angel and the prime minister are destined to lose, we see the workings of the much diminished newsroom at the Herald, and we have a picture of the grime and hardness of inner Sydney as the backdrop to it all.

Brissenden asks the reader big questions about trust, political manipulation and the operation of Australia's intelligence services.

He also recounts Brian Williams, the prime minister's, failing attempt to manipulate voters through fear of a terrorist threat to the security of Australia.

Sound familiar? Current commentary is one of Brissenden's strengths.

This might all sound like too much in just one novel but Brissenden moves it all along briskly and convincingly. The reader who can put the book down with only 100 pages to go is someone whose stoicism I respect but could not equal. This is absolutely gripping stuff.

And the title? Well Shirley Wilde, expecting that her enemies will soon eliminate her 20 years earlier, writes a series of letters, one for each birthday until Zephyr reaches 30, letters from the grave, dead letters.

Well-intentioned, of course, they become such a burden to Zephyr.

Her murderer never discovered, Shirley demands, from the grave, that her daughter find her assailant.

So, top journalist though she is, Zephyr is a damaged and driven woman and Sid, damaged too by the suicide of his father and the appalling war he endured, concludes they can both solve the murders and find a path to redemption.

Such a complex story in the hands of a less gifted writer might have demanded too much of the reader.

But Brissenden brings it off beautifully and, surprisingly, with emotion and lyrical force.

This is a book that readers of crime fiction, and fiction generally, will relish, admire and enjoy.

This story Politics, journalism and crime first appeared on The Canberra Times.