Harper Collins, Australia , 2019
Tara Moss appeared at the Terror Australis Festival, 1 to 3 November 2019 in Cygnet, Tasmania
Dead Man Switch is Tara Moss’s first foray into historical crime fiction, set in Sydney in 1946. It is her 12th novel and introduces us to a new character, Private Investigator Ms Billie Walker.
(And yes, Wiki tells us that Ms was an acceptable abbreviation for Mistress, in England, in the 17th and 18thcenturies, which then enjoyed a revival in the 20th century, a surprise to all of us who thought it was a modern phenomenon.)
Like most authors, Tara Moss interests herself in important social issues, which underpin the fiction in a vicarious ripping adventure for the reader. The story’s the thing, but the intellect is also engaged from the outset in the ideas. In this case, war widow Billie Walker dives immediately into the darkness of Nazism, war crimes and crimes against humanity and into sexual slavery. Her investigation focusses on a missing person and this in turn uncovers a much greater crime scene.
Billie Walker is a quintessential heroine – she darns her nylons as assiduously as she pursues evil doers. She drives a fast car when petrol rations allow and sips champagne by choice. She employs Sam Baker, a returned soldier who has been injured in the war as her secretary-assistant, forging her determinedly feminist way in a post-war world that equally determinedly tried to put women back into their boxes after a brief emergence when the men were away fighting.
Tara Moss’s sympathy for the oppressed and voiceless runs firmly through this tale of underworld crime, thuggery, cruelty and greed. Her obviously deep interest and thorough research into the era and Sydney of the time is evidenced in the many details she drops in about architecture, fashion, day to day life and social conventions. It is a pleasure for Australian readers to find women steering this story as heroines not sidekicks but also to see the validation of Sydney as a setting for crime fiction – nice not to have to imagine ourselves in New York, San Francisco or Chicago.
This is a highly visual work, scenes following fast upon one another almost in technicolour on the page. One very much hopes that Dead Man Switch is the first of many Billie Walker mysteries and that, in time, our plucky heroine, her lips daubed with Tussy’s Fighting Red, will find her way onto a screen near us.