Dust off the Bones

Written by Paul Howarth

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

Dust off the Bones
Pushkin Press
RRP: £16.99
Released: August 26 2021

Atrocities happen. From the Holocaust and the Balkans to Northern Ireland and school shootings, all are based on fear and hatred and people getting in the way; only the setting changes. This one, fiction but based on fact, occurred in the Australian outback in 1885.

The McBrides were a farming family murdered in Queensland. Two small boys, Billy and Tommy, escaped. The Native Police were alerted. They were commanded by a white officer, Noone, who forced the brothers to witness the resulting massacre of the Kurrong: a whole tribe of Aboriginals slaughtered in retaliation for the deaths of their parents and sister.

An Inquiry was held, evidence given by Tommy and Billy, by Noone, and by a Mr Bean, a missionary who, in the normal course of his work in bringing Christianity to the unenlightened, had stumbled on the police and a crater in the desert filled with burning bodies. His passionate testimony was ridiculed, the boys’ evidence was doctored, Noone’s was perjury; the magistrate, the Press and populace were partisan to a man and the “case” was dismissed.

Time passed. Billy and Tommy went divergent ways: Billy to marry a rich widow and run her vast drought-ridden spread, resented by her employees: grown into an irascible, vain and violent man. His brother Tommy, on the other hand, drove cattle for a time until, after accidentally killing a man, he became a fugitive and disappeared into the outback with Arthur, an aboriginal, his staunch mentor and only friend. We follow the brothers over the years, Tommy growing in stature but haunted by guilt as much as horror; Billy: reckless, always on a short fuse, neither brother aware of the other’s existence. And then Bean the missionary reappears.

Bean introduces the other main character in the story: Henry Wells, a gay lawyer, a family man desperately trying to conceal his disposition in an burgeoning Australian city which, in those days, sported a sophisticated veneer on a base of prurient homophobia. Mr Bean is another haunted soul because he, too, was a witness to the slaughter of the Kurrong people. He approaches Henry Wells and persuades him to set wheels in motion, to open an inquest on the massacre.

The story becomes an investigation into a cold case: the plot concerned with the triumphs and obstruction of the people so deeply involved: the brothers and Noone, the priest and the lawyer. There is bloodshed and more murder, blackmail and double dealing. Corruption is endemic. Women play traditional roles as help meets, as support and home makers, but they are mainly peripheral. Men are centre stage: plotting, killing, making, then twisting the rules.

Sex is there: sudden and shocking, with all the charm and finesse of a pile driver. The style is plain, the narrative as crude as the dialogue. Construction is obvious with echoes of creative writing,  and some of the set pieces go limp. However, there’s a good build-up to the climax, a crescendo neatly threaded with more nasty episodes.

In the 1920s this would have been called a man’s book: a high compliment.

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