TEXT review

Pushing back

review by Andrew Nette


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Jeremy Fisher
The Dirty Little Dog
Fat Frog Books, Haberfield NSW 2016
ISBN 9780959035063 (pb)
ISBN 9780959035070 (ebook)
Pb 200pp AUD23.95


The Dirty Little Dog is a hard-boiled crime novel, set in an alternative dystopian version of Sydney, with an overtly gay sensibility and main characters. While it is the third novel by Jeremy Fisher, former Executive Director of the Australian Society of Authors and now Senior Lecturer in Writing at the University of New England, it appears to be his first crime novel. This last point is significant because, while the book can be read from multiple viewpoints, this review specifically pertains to The Dirty Little Dog as a crime novel.

Fisher’s Sydney is presided over by a dictatorial state premier in an uneasy alliance with a venal media mogul, Wardell Costello. ‘The Premier’s Office’, as it is referred to, employs a quasi-military squad of thugs who beat up, imprison and torture anyone who gets in their way, while Costello uses his extensive business interests to smear or buy off his opponents. While there is a facade of democracy, together they run Sydney as a large company town.

Detective Sergeant Terry Bradley is on a break at Newtown Police Station, about to imbibe some rare Columbian coffee (unrestricted free trade deals mean, legally, Australians can only buy American instant coffee) when Pup, a young street hustler he’s encountered in the past, visits. Pup, rent boy of Julian Costello, Wardell Costello’s closeted, gay son, leads Bradley to a townhouse rented by Costello junior, where they find the dead body of one of the Premier’s private security guards. Meanwhile, a famous footballer is found floating in Sydney Harbour. The two corpses share similar injuries, indicative of very violent sex. There is no sign of Costello junior.

Bradley is assigned to the case, just as his long time lover, journalist Jack Rutherford, returns from assignment in the Middle East. Rutherford’s previous attempts to report the truth about Costello senior’s operations had destroyed his career in Australia, forcing him to work overseas, including in Cambodia, where, somewhat bizarrely, he spent time in a Khmer Rouge prison.

Rutherford and Bradley both have secrets. Wardell Costello discovers Rutherford’s and blackmails the journalist into finding his son before his son’s sexuality and possible involvement in the two murders, becomes public. The Premier, too, is keen to keep a lid on the fact her murdered security staffer was gay, but seizes the opportunity nevertheless, to sniff around for useful dirt to use against Costello and his media empire.

As crime fiction historian Woody Haut writes, ‘private-eye fiction always seems to flourish in periods of, or immediately following, government secrecy, duplicity and paranoia’ (Haut 1999: 73). As evidence, Haut explores the way investigatory crime fiction received a new lease of life in the United States in the seventies, amid the corruption of Watergate and the domestic blowback of Vietnam. That era produced a more diverse group of private investigators and, what we can call, accidental or quasi PIs, many of whom, like Rutherford, have an avowedly antagonistic relationship to the state and its organs.

Among the new group of investigators to emerge at this time was David Brandsetter. This openly gay insurance investigator created by Joseph Hansen, first appeared in Fadeout in 1970. Brandsetter’s importance came not just from his sexuality but, according to Bill Mohr, Associate Professor at California State University, the fact that his life and the way Hansen wrote about him was a conscious repudiation of the eroticisation of homosexuality that marked so much previous crime fiction. As Mohr stated in a 2014 article in the Los Angeles Review of Books: ‘Hansen’s writing pushes back and rectifies that error while simultaneously ratifying the tactile bond in human companionship’ (Mohr 2014).

The Dirty Little Dog contains this same push back. Linked to this, another noteworthy aspect of the novel is the complete absence of any bifurcation between the personal and work lives of Rutherford and Bradley. There is a very real and intimate sense of the lived reality of their fraught relationship and the impact of the, at times, dangerous work they pursue – physical and mental – on their bodies and the intimacy between them. As Fisher writes:

While Jack was fighting off rats in the muddy pits of his Cambodian cell, Terry had been fighting Koori street kids, Lebanese drug dealers and Samoan stand-over men. His Constable’s uniform was often ripped and dirtied, and his body lacerated and battered, but he won more than he lost, which helped (70).

Fisher is doubtless aware of the parallels to Hansen. At one point in The Dirty Little Dog, after Pup is given temporary shelter in Rutherford and Bradley’s apartment, he asks his hosts:

“And do you mind if I read a book?” He’d already checked out the shelves where Joseph Hansen leant against Andrew Holleran, Dean Kiley and Kevin Killian shared a shelf, and Amistead Maupin and Frank Moorhouse were uneasily aligned. (57)

Bradley and Rutherford have to contend with violence, sleaze and homophobia. In the Sydney they inhabit, gay identity (and it is gay men that are the subject of the book) must be kept a secret at any costs. Failure to do so can lead to being marked as a pariah and worse. While it is tempting to suggest that, at times, Fisher makes too much of this straight-gay conflict, the continuing opposition to marriage equality from a significant section of Australian society, amongst many other overt examples of homophobia, indicates otherwise.

The one reservation I have with The Dirty Little Dog as a crime novel is the balance between showing and telling. While the prose style is competent, the book contains numerous long descriptive passages, usually character backstories, which, while often interesting, slow the plot down and take away some of the mystery. If, as author and lecturer Andrew Pepper contends, crime fiction is on the whole read ‘more for what uncertainties it provokes that the security it provides’ (Pepper 2000: 71), The Dirty Little Dog does a little too much of the reader’s work for them.


Works cited




Andrew Nette is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His second novel, Gunshine State, has just been released. He is currently undertaking a PhD at Macquarie University on the history of Australian pulp paperback publishing. His on-line home is www.pulpcurry.com.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste