Where does true evil lie?
It’s an endlessly pertinent question for anyone seeking to understand where the terrible things that befall us have their origin and what, if anything, we can do to confront or mitigate these influences.
The truth is, there may be no answer to the question; while various religions ascribe evil to the hearts of men or to the otherworldly trappings of the world around us, The Bluffs, the debut novel by Kyle Perry, ponders whether the origin of dark and terrible things, and they are legion in this gravely absorbing book, might have a foot in each camp.
Certainly, when four girls go missing in the impenetrable bush of Tasmania’s freezing and forbidding Great Western Tiers (Kooparoona Niara in the language of the traditional owners,the Pallitore of the North tribe), the first finger to be pointed is the Hungry Man, a towering bear of a creature that is said to haunt the ravines and gullies with a penchant for young girls.
Having last made his alleged mark back in 1985 when five teenage girls went missing, never to be found, and passing into local folklore as a result, the Hungry Man seems like the obvious suspect to a great many people who have never lost that sense of mystical connection and fear of the fearsomely beautiful natural world around their small town of Limestone Creek.
“She spun, spanning the fog. The motion caused her skull to throb. She put her hand to the back of her head and it came away red.
She realised her honey hair was stuck to her cheeks by something sticky-brown. She pinched it away from her cheek, confused.
A human voice – distant, but growing closer.
Eliza froze. All her half-thoughts snapped into one decision. She lifted a white gum branch off the track: thick and smooth. She stepped into the ferns at the edge of the path, her clothes catching on the laurel. Was there a place she could hide? Did she really want to leave the track?” (P. 2)
But as onetime Sydney detective Con Badenhorst and partner Gabriella Pakinga begin their investigation into the disappearance of Jasmine, Cierra, Bree and Georgia, he begins to suspect there is something far more earthly at work than the actions of a being who most likely is the stuff of feverish, fearful imagination and nothing more.
Prime suspect, in the eyes of the police and the more vigilante-inclined members of the local community, who react primarily where a considered response is desperately needed, is local drug dealer Jordan Murphy, father of Jasmine, who it is alleged must be prone to murderous intent because he is at the heart of many of the town’s ills.
But is Murphy really the culprit – Perry writes Murphy in an entirely compassionate and empathetic way, one that suggests he could have done it but likely didn’t, a delicate moral balancing act that adds to the book’s nuanced approach throughout – or are there are darker forces at work?
Such as YouTube sensation Madison Mason, sister of Sierra, who appears to be a bastion of social good and upstanding consciousness but who might be a twisted, sociopathic puppetmaster playing people for her own entirely selfish ends?
In the engrossing tradition of mystery novels down through the ages, The Bluffs only hints at who might be responsible, casually but with great effect, throwing our red herring after red herring which serve both to draw us closer to the truth and draw us away from it at the same time.
If you are an habitué of the crime genre, which this reviewer is ordinarily not (save for an obsession with Agatha Christie novels as a teenager, and more recently Stuart Turton’s masterful The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle), you will no doubt be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in quick order, piecing together the nuggets of direction and misdirection to conclusive effect.
For those of us, to our detriment I suspect when the writing is of this calibre, who don’t dip into the darker side of the human psyche all that often, you will likely have to stay the course to the thrilling final act to see all the pieces come together to glorious effect.
Whether you know your Sherlock or your V. I. Warshawski, or not, The Bluffs is an urgently impelling read, as much an excursion into the darkness of the human soul and its manifestations in small town Australia as it does an investigation into what has happened to the four missing teenagers and why.
It also touches on the way in which Indigenous lore is corrupted for entirely the wrong ends by white people, who see mysticism and New Age thrills when those who hold the beliefs as sacred and profound, see them as an inextricable part of their identity and being.
“Sara, if you’re up there – I need you now … bring Jasmine back and I promise, I’ll never smoke weed again, I’ll never …
He [Murphy] thought carefully of the things Sara didn’t approve of.
I’ll never smoke weed again. I’ll stop swearing. I’ll … make this right, God. Whoever I need to speak to. I will make my life right, I swear it … Jesus, bring her back safely and I’ll take her to church every bloody Sunday, I swear it …” (P. 215)
Both a missing persons mystery and a piercing exploration of the wickedness and monstrous darkness that sits just below the civilised veneer of human society, The Bluffs is a beguiling look into the complexity and hard truths that confront us when events strip away any sense that we have life under sort of control.
Whether you are Madison trying to have the digital world at her feet, Murphy trying to keep his daughter close after unspeakable tragedy or in contravention of poor decision-making or teacher Eliza mired deep into perspective-skewering grief, life is rarely something that comes with easy outcomes or any sense of straightforward understanding, something that becomes abundantly clear as The Bluffs seamlessly blends the very human with the supernatural in pursuit of where truth lies.
Interestingly for a novel where questions of morality are one of the central beating hearts of the narrative, Perry’s brilliantly-spun tale doesn’t make grand or ill thought-out judgement calls, choosing instead to let the people and events (all suffused with secrets aplenty) speak for themselves without commentary, hanging themselves, or not, on their own corrupted petard as events play out.
A fascinating mix of action, existential pain and past decisions and loss come home to roost, The Bluffs is mystical and yet grounded in some very flawed humanity, which while it feels very gothic in its atmosphere is nevertheless very everyday in the concerns and pain of people caught up in its utterly compelling circumstances from which there is no easy escape and from which any solutions will be sorely won and tinged with lasting regret.