commissaire inspector dottore
a bibliography of detective-inspector novels
the hal challis seriesThe Dragon Man. St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1999.
∴ Drachenmann. Translated by Peter Friedrich. Zürich: Unionsverlag, 2001.
∴ Landvejsmorderen. Translated by Michael Krefeld. Århus: Klim, 2003.
∴ L'uomo dragon. Translated by Ada Arduini. Milano: Marcos y Marcos, 2005.
Kittyhawk Down. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003.
∴ Flugrausch. Translated by Peter Torberg. Zürich: Unionsverlag, 2005.
Snapshot. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2005.
∴ Schnappschuss. Translated by Peter Torberg. Zürich: Unionsverlag, 2006.
∴ Instantánea. Translated by María González Amezúa del Pino. Barcelona: Alba, 2010.
Chain of Evidence. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007.
∴ Beweiskette. Translated by Peter Torberg. Zürich: Unionsverlag, 2009.
Blood Moon. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2009.
∴ Rostmond. Translated by Peter Torberg. Zürich: Unionsverlag, 2010.
Whispering Death. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2011.
∴ Leiser Tod. Translated by Peter Torberg. Zürich: Unionsverlag, 2018.
Signal Loss. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016.
Hal Challis, carrying baggage from his harrowing, absurd past, runs an investigative bureau on a stretch of Australian exurb that is an unstable mix of old traditions and new residents. Challis is like a dozen other detective inspectors. Middle-aged, not in the greatest trim anymore, estranged from his wife, sullen and unreceptive to new relationships. Not much of a Poirot; more like Kurt Wallander, perpetually one step behind the criminals he pursues. But he has at least two novel features: he works in Australia; and he's estranged from his wife less by temperamental differences (they still quite like each other) than by the small detail that she's tried to have him killed.
To try to escape his weird past, Challis has moved to the "Peninsula" south of Melbourne, where he's become the local detective superintendent. This peninsula exists on maps, but is semi-fictionalized in Disher's rendering of it. It's an old industrial/agricultural area that is now earning most of its income from tourism and suburbanites seeking less hectic lifestyles. In other words, a hard place to police: people are either suspicious of outsiders or largely anonymous to one another; and Challis is an anonymous outsider. A lot of people in the First World lived in such places at the turn of the 21st century.
Now a crime spree typical to such places has hit: an unknown assailant has been kidnapping, raping, and killing women that he finds alone along Peninsula roads. Police procedure only gets Challis and his team so far. The killer is cautious, leaving minimal evidence behind. Witnesses are few and far between, and see little. Other cases distract them: a string of burglaries that are getting more and more violent, some vandalism, some arson. One of the patrol sergeants, Van Alphen, becomes uneasily involved with a victim of the arson vandals, and tries to keep their relationship a secret. Tha air-conditioning is out in the station house, and it's nearly Christmas.
Like many detective-inspector novels, The Dragon Man stays in Challis' head much of the time but feels equally free to inhabit many of his plainclothes and uniformed subordinates' too, as well as those of a couple of malefactors and a few witnesses. The one place where Disher's omniscience seems not to extend is Challis' supervisors, which I find telling. There is no interest in a boss's subjectivity: all bosses are insufferable suits, in the detective-inspector novel. If they held any human interest for us, the book would be about them, and their own supervisors would take shape as insufferable essences of "higher-up."
Everybody's got a flaw in The Dragon Man, and the omniscient narration allows us to see this, confessor-like, from the perspectives of the flawed. Several cops are corrupt or violent; most are unhappy at home. Challis, as noted, is simply distant. He has reason enough to be. The novel's title comes from his one consolation, the antique airplane he's restoring in his spare hours. A better hobby than the vices that dissatisfied cops so often get into in such novels.
I'll avoid spoilers, just to say that the plot, which begins as a standard procedural and moves with procedural slowness, comes together with increasing pace and very clever machinery. Many a detective-inspector novel gives us intriguing characters but not much detection; some offer intricate detection but stick-figure people. The Dragon Man succeeds on both fronts.