“Headland” is a propulsive, lean and gritty crime thriller from a distinct new voice in Australian crime writing. It reads like John Byrnes hails from the school of Mickey Spillane. His debut is packed with debauched sex and gunplay.
It begins as classic Australian noir: outsider cop arrives in a small rural town and takes on a case that’ll eventually reveal its dark underbelly. Been there, read that, right? Detective Constable Craig Watson is a drug addict — he’s popping Xanax on the reg, at least every dozen pages. Once a rising star in the NSW Police Force, he’s now exiled to Gloster because of continual poor performance; a consequence of the twisted, abusive relationship that haunts him, which is revealed in italicized (yuck) flashbacks.
Early on, he’s tasked to work alongside constables Ellie Cameron and Larissa Brookes to monitor the river gauge, as continual rain has heightened the flood risk; very much the Chekhov’s gun of the story, because soon Gloster is cut off from the outside world, and the case Watson’s been investigating leaves him and his colleagues stranded with a killer hot on their heels. Cue shotgun shoot-outs in a rain-drenched abandoned town prime for cinematic adaptation.
There are several graphic descriptions of sexual assault and violence, which will be confronting for readers expecting content more akin to a Jane Harper or Chris Hammer mystery. Byrnes doesn’t detail the psychology of Watson’s trauma, instead presenting it through his pill-popping, and basic struggle to function day-to-day. Without that depth, some of those scenes come across as gratuitous. And I feel like, if you’re going to go there and detail this stuff, you need to do so considerately.
Crisp and economical prose means “Headland” won’t gather much dust on your nightstand. It’s relentlessly paced, and no-holds-barred. Assuming there’s a sequel coming, I’d love Byrnes to ease off the pedal, just slightly, and give his characters more space to breathe.