There’s no shortage of small towns with deadly secrets in the thriving landscape of Australian crime fiction. The trope is perpetuated globally, obviously — hell, Jack Reacher wanders into a new one every year — but our geography, so wide and varied, is perfect fodder for writers of mystery fiction. That said, you’ve got to give your setting soul, and its population a heartbeat, for it to stand out; which is why Aoife Clifford’s “When We Fall” is so luminescent in a jam-packed field.
Walking along the beach in the coastal town of Merritt, visiting lawyer Alex Tillerson and her mother make a ghastly discovery connected to the death of an art teacher. The local cops — incompetent, or complicit? — deem it accidental, despite glaring irregularities at the crime scene, and Alex can’t let it go; particularly when a possible connection is established between this death and an unsolved murder from years ago.
If the set up is conventional — an outsider takes it upon herself to interrogate the town and expose its underbelly — Clifford’s confident narrative hands on the wheel makes “When We Fall” a standout. Insightful characterisations, even of minor figures, means Merritt and its townsfolk feel textured and alive; and Clifford plays with our assumptions, too. Characters initially pitched as stereotypes — the local cop with an ax to grind, for example — are developed beyond orthodox representations.
Clifford understands the mechanics of a good mystery: the plot is brilliantly intricate and twisty, and she ably ratchets the suspense in time for the pulse-pounding finale. But it’s the heart-piercing emotional revelations that make “When We Fall” memorable. We are as concerned for the soul and wellbeing of its protagonist as we are her untangling of the two murders.