The Dragon’s Skin heralds an innovative and powerful new voice on the Australian crime scene.  

Ben Bovell has strapped a bomb to his chest and taken his daughter hostage in her childcare centre. He will only speak to David Edge, a disgraced former copper he has come to trust more than anyone in the world. Reluctantly, the police let Edge into the operation, and eventually he, Bovell and Bovell’s daughter, Briette, walk unharmed out of the childcare centre. But when Bovell makes an unexpected move, the police open fire — three bullets to his back — and Edge is left with a tangled mystery only he can unravel:

After a minute or two of retreat into their own thoughts Gareth said, ‘Did you see what he did when the bullets started flying?’

‘He fell over, Gareth.’ There were equal measures of fatigue, exasperation and sarcasm in his tone. ‘A fairly normal reaction in those circumstances.’ Their minds hadn’t been dwelling on the same thing.

‘Not Benny,’ said Gareth. ‘The Fair Unknown.’ He gestured with his chin toward the bedroom door.

Around the same time that David Edge is realising the potential aftermath of Ben Bovell’s crime, Constable Carol Porter is involving herself in a case from Edge’s past: three women raped and murdered on their regular jogging routes; the case everyone, including Edge, believes led to his downfall. Porter is no stranger to Edge: she arrested him in Western Australia two years earlier, and information he’d given her advanced her fledgling career. But she is a stranger to Melbourne’s brutal underworld, and isn’t fully aware of the danger she is putting herself in by pursuing the unsolved case that most local coppers no longer want anything to do with.

To untangle Ben Bovell’s actions and motivations, Edge calls on a rag-tag bunch he knows are loyal and trustworthy, if not entirely law-abiding. Among them are Maeve Maguffin, another former cop with the most brutal pair of Blundstones outside the service, and Ernie ‘Digger’ Duggs, an odd-job man capable of anything his boss desires. Alone in a strange city, Porter has only the knowledge and experience of another Carol — Marks, a former cop who worked the Jogger Murders with Edge — to rely on. It’s Porter’s luck that Marks is sharp, takes a liking to her and is still eager to solve the case. As Edge’s and Porter’s off-the-book investigations progress, they are drawn towards each other into a dark world of exploitation, betrayal and murder:

‘Well, bugger me,’ [Nev] said in mild wonder. ‘She was tellin’ the truth.’ Edge was returning his scrutiny. ‘I’m not talkin’ ’bout my Carol.’

‘That’s a relief.’

‘You two really did only meet for minutes.’ He could see the question still flickering in Edge’s eyes. ‘Girl of the Golden West? Pert little copper from Broome?’

Dawn broke. ‘Carol … Porter – that’s right. I met her when I was up there a couple of years back. She arrested me.’ He opened his palms as if to say give me more.

 ‘She’s here.’ Edge waited. ‘In Melbourne.’ Edge’s expression said, So? ‘She’s doin’ a course at the Detective Training School. Thanks t’you, apparently … She’s been pickin’ Carol’s brains about a case she’s analysin’ for an assignment. Old one of yours, matter of fact.’ He’d turned to the coffee machine with the mugs, so he felt, rather than observed, the subtle change. Cold soup might feel a microwave that way. He turned back, a crease dividing his forehead from unkempt black curls to thickly vegetated brow ridge.

 ‘What case?’ asked Edge. Close your eyes and it sounded like curiosity.

‘The Jogger Murders.’

His eyes were blue icebergs against a pristine Antarctic continent. ‘Do you know where she’s staying?’ Casual question.

The first book in the David Edge series, The Dragon’s Skin is an intriguing entry into the world of Australian crime fiction. For all that he is the protagonist, David Edge remains as much a mystery to readers as he is to his associates. We are never invited into his point of view, instead learning about him through the eyes of the supporting characters, few of whom are entirely straight or reliable. Some see him as a fallen hero, betrayed by the police powers-that-be in an attempt to entrap an underground kingpin; some as a fairy godfather, lifting them out of the depths of drug addiction and a life on the street; still others believe the stories they’ve heard of a good cop enticed into the lucrative world of brothels and contract killing. No one knows who David Edge is: sinner? Saint? Something in between? But it’s clear that’s the way he likes it, and he uses others’ uncertainty to his advantage.

Not allowing readers into the protagonist’s point of view is a bold and interesting choice for such an intricately plotted novel, and relies on readers being able to keep up with the almost constant introduction of new characters to talk about or interact with Edge as well as the mosaic of clues being laid out. It also means reading backstories for each of those characters, a number of which begin to feel superfluous as the novel moves deeper into the plot: how much do readers need to know about someone they meet for only a few pages, and who has little effect on the larger narrative? However, Ross Gray excels at description and meeting these new individuals never fails to be a treat: one figure ‘At a distance … could be mistaken for something designed by Lego’, while Maeve Maguffin is ‘Built like a brick shithouse, with a face that kept a thousand ships in dry dock’, and brothel owner Rose Garden ‘looks like Mary Poppins’s aunt’.

The Dragon’s Skin is long for a crime novel, perhaps necessarily so, given the number of moving parts the plot requires, but Gray’s style means the narrative has a lively pace, and no scene is allowed to linger too long. Readers who pick up this book won’t fail to be rewarded with an involving and satisfying thriller peopled with complicated and interesting characters it’s a pleasure to spend time with. It will be fascinating to see what further books featuring David Edge will bring and to find out if readers will ever be allowed to come to know him better.

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 17 January 2017