Pace, depth and darkness

It sure is a nice time to be a crime writer in Australia.

The world is suddenly enamoured with what's being dubbed 'outback noir', in which Aussie vernacular is the norm, and the landscape - be it urban or rural - is a character in itself. The weather and climate is a narrative device, and the characters' actions are born of desperation.

Australian author Emma Viskic. Picture: Getty Images

Australian author Emma Viskic. Picture: Getty Images

Emma Viskic, for one, is loving every minute of it, and it's not just because she has her own best-selling version of the gritty genre.

It is, she says, a joy to be part of something which such momentum. Her own trio of books, all featuring the loner private detective Caleb Zelic, began with 2015's Resurrection Bay, followed by And Fire Came Down, and now, Darkness for Light. In many ways, her books are definitive of the genre - a protagonist who's something of an outsider, the juxtaposition of urban and regional life, the role of the harsh Australian environment in everyday lives.

But they are also unmistakably hers, even as they form part of what has become a grand tradition.

"There's a huge amount of really good quality crime writing at the moment [in Australia], and has been for a few years," she says.

"As there are more and more good writers, it just feels natural that there'll be more people coming off their experiences."

Still, her starting premise is particularly bold; Caleb Zelic, as well as being a lone ranger with marriage issues, is also profoundly deaf. He's a creature she likes to tell people came from the "murky recesses" of her own brain. And certainly, when she set out to write Resurrection Bay, it felt like he had always been with her.

"I didn't set out to write a deaf character, but Caleb was one of those characters that absolutely wouldn't let me go," she says.

"After having written the first novel, I was able to sit back a little bit and think about where he came from, rather than just think about the mechanics of writing him and how I would do that."

She realised that a girl she had known in primary school, who was profoundly deaf, had stayed with her.

"I met her about that age, around 8 or 9, when you start really realising other people are different from you, and other people have different lives. So she had quite an effect on me," she says.

"But I think back further than that, my only grandparents were Croatian immigrants, didn't speak English, I didn't speak Croatian, so that idea of being isolated and lack of communication has been there right from when I was very young.

"And lots of my childhood writing and my teenage writing has been about communication, about a character who's mute or a character who is blind, or a character who is invisible. So it's obviously been lurking there for quite some time, but it takes writing a book to work it out."

She has also spent three books honing her characters, many of whom belong to communities to which she does not, herself, belong. Caleb moves through both the deaf world and the hearing world; he has contacts in the deaf community - what Viskic calls the Capital D Deaf community - but tries not to let his deafness define him as he works in the wider world. He lip reads and uses sign language, but prefers to hide his deafness as much as possible.

In this latest instalment, Caleb is in therapy, trying hard to make amends, and stick to making what he calls "good" decisions. His fragile marriage to Kat is hanging by a thread, and he's doing all he can to keep his life on an even keel. But, as is often the case for those in his line of work, people from the past catch up to him. As in the two previous novels, Viskic places the reader directly in the action; a body turns up on page three. By page 13, he's running for his life and clambering over a high wire fence. Shortly after that, his old mate - and double-crossing partner - Frankie is back on the scene. There's no chance of putting the book down.

"I think I'm always worried about boring people. I do like to drop people right into the middle of the action," Viskic says.

"Then the trick is to work out where I can slow things down to explore the things I'm really interested in exploring, and to have those moments that really make you connect with the characters.

So to drop in the little back story about Caleb's growing up deaf with a hearing father, and about his relationships with the people around him, and about all the other characters, it's a matter of knowing, alright, this is a little quiet moment, we can put some more in here. It's always about balancing pace with more depth, and humour with the darkness."

It's the pockets of introspection that transform her characters into something more than just ciphers, or narrative devices. Apart from her own experiences living in regional communities as well as in Melbourne (making it easier to work those landscapes into the narrative), she has also been exploring the deaf community ever since she began writing Resurrection Bay. She's even learnt sign language. As a result, there's a lot for the average reader to learn here - the different attitudes to deafness as a disability, or a lifestyle.

"It just exposed me to lots of different groups, and there are so many different people with so many different experiences," she says.

"Caleb is very much 'small d' deaf in that he's physically deaf, and he does use sign language, but he lives in the hearing world, whereas there are people - one of whom was a sensitivity reader for Darkness for Light - who are very much culturally deaf, they embrace the whole cultural identity of being deaf, and they mainly use sign language.

"They're both really different experiences, so I've really liked having that contrast in the Caleb books, I've been waiting to do a little bit of showing him in the hearing and deaf worlds, and that he's somewhere in between them and not quite choosing either of them."

She also has in-laws from the Aboriginal community, and so has an advantage when creating some of her characters.

"I'm very like Caleb in that I am a privileged outsider in the Koori community, I have a lot of Koori relatives, both close and extended family, so I really wanted to write some great, complex, strong indigenous characters right from the beginning," she says.

"Kat was a very obvious choice, Kat and her family. It has been lovely, but done with great caution and trepidation, too, but also I do get family members to read my books as well, to just tell me if I've got things right or wrong along the way."

In the meantime, Viskic is already working on a fourth instalment in the Caleb Zelic series - she had always planned a small collection of books with the same character. But as for other genres, she's not looking too far beyond crime thrillers.

"I think one of the great things about crime fiction is that it lets me do everything I like," she says.

"I like to write about people and about society and justice, and exploring motivations, I really like the murkiness of human behaviour, and I think you can do that with any type of novel. So I could see myself doing straight literary or historical or crime, but I also think it's quite nice to have a murder."

  • Darkness For Light, by Emma Viskic. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.
This story Pace, depth and darkness first appeared on The Canberra Times.