Moonlight Downs
nolead ends nolead begins By Adrian Hyland

Soho. 304 pp. $24

Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky

Adrian Hyland says he is drawn to Osip Mandelstam's view of the writer as " 'a stealer of air' who works in the way that lace makers work to make a design that is 'air, perforation and truancy,' or the baker of doughnuts who puts as much care into the hole as he does to the dough."

"What the hell does all that mean for a crime writer?" Hyland asks. "It means that there is no part of our world that should be 'immunized.' "

That world, in Hyland's debut novel, is the outback of Australia's Northern Territory and, for all Hyland's weighty theorizing, he has written a delightful, engaging book that remains true to the venerable amateur-sleuth tradition even as it explores a world that will be new to many Australians, to say nothing of readers on the other side of the world.

Hyland's protagonist is Emily Tempest, a restless young woman of Aboriginal and white parentage who has come back to live among her "mob," the shifting clan of Aborigines among whom she spent her youth. The group's wise and revered leader is killed soon after Emily arrives, and circumstances force her to turn investigator and flee the group's camp for the neighboring town of Bluebush, to which Emily refers in terms as tough and salty as the town itself.

At least four credible suspects present themselves, including a miner, a rancher, and a strange, feral local character, and Emily is a fine vehicle for Hyland's artful misdirection. As smart and as determined as she is, she's a neophyte. Her doubts, misplaced certainties and wrong guesses work because in her place, we might react the same way. She's a perfect amateur sleuth, in other words. She even finds herself in harrowing peril, as a good amateur sleuth ought. The scene, like much of the rest of the novel, takes good advantage of the story's rugged setting.

When Emily goes to Bluebush, Hyland also goes to town, creating a colorful gallery of miners, cattlemen, police, pub owners, aid workers, and all manner of marginal characters that one might expect in a town near nowhere. These characters are variously dirty, violent, kind, hilarious, empty-headed, and of unexpected strength and talent. That's why Hyland's whodunit works as a character study and as a portrait of a setting both beautiful and homely. The book abounds in good humor and good jokes, too.

But why a mystery? "I've always loved the genre," Hyland says. "I think some of the strongest writing being done today is in the mystery field. But there's more to it than that. The Australian Outback is a place of conflict and violence, not just between its black and white populations, but between - well, between just about everybody. Progressives and conservatives, for example, or miners and farmers. And that vast group of sociopaths who gravitate towards the Outback and are in conflict with everybody, themselves included. A crime novel seemed the ideal way to capture that world."

Moonlight Downs is the U.S. title of the novel known elsewhere as Diamond Dove, under which name it won Australia's Ned Kelly Award as best first crime novel of 2007. Soho Press asked for the title change to avoid confusion with Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond mysteries, which include Diamond Dust. The diamond dove, a small bird, is the "dreaming," or ancestral spirit, of several characters in the novel and of people to whom Hyland was close in real life. Soho's cover, haunting and dark, is evocative of just a few passages in the novel, whose characteristic mood is lighter and more boisterously good-natured. Be wary of judging this warm, incisive and entertaining novel solely by its cover.

Peter Rozovsky is an Inquirer copy editor. He blogs about international crime fiction at Detectives Beyond Borders, http://detectivesbeyondborders.