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Book review: Those Who Perish, Emma Viskic

An audacious imaginative accomplishment features a differently-abled detective.

Those Who Perish is Emma Viskic’s fourth, and by far the best, Caleb Zelic novel; those who follow his adventures will not be disappointed. There is no need to be familiar with the earlier novels to enjoy this one although, like all crime series of this type, the experience is enhanced by watching a hero develop through the course of several volumes. Caleb has become a little more mature and somewhat more thoughtful. Even so he still blunders his way, courageously as ever, to a triumphant finale.

As in the earlier novels, Caleb’s profound deafness proves a handicap while his lip-reading skills and the use of Auslan are used to advantage. He joins other fictional sleuths with a disability, like Dick Francis’s one-armed ex-jockey Sid Halley and Jeffery Deaver’s quadriplegic Lincoln Rhyme, in demonstrating what can be achieved in spite of a physical disadvantage. These two sleuths are among those whose stories have been adapted for the screen and there is a distinct possibility that Caleb may join them. He is just the sort of flawed character with a heart of gold and unshakeable integrity to have wide appeal.

Viskic skillfully deploys the Australian vernacular to breathe life into Caleb and his contemporaries:

Max turned from the console, eyes widening in alarm. ‘Mate, don’t come in here spewin. Pay at the other end.’
‘Non-spewer,’ Caleb told him. ‘Caleb. Came over the other day.’
‘Caleb. Gotcha. Guess you can pay now, then.’

So Viskic can be forgiven when she has Caleb uncharacteristically thinking Max has contracted ‘full-shit zaSprosopagnosia’ when on further questioning Max can’t recall any faces.

The power of the novel is derived not only from the quality of the language, however, but from Viskic’s creation of an interesting and easily recognisable cast of characters, people who, like most of us, are far from perfect. Caleb especially is his own worst enemy. He repeatedly misunderstands and fights with the brother he would actually die for. He is madly in love with his wife Kat, but the way he lives scares her to death (as well it should). He frequently takes on more than he can manage. Above all, Caleb is real. As are the minor lawbreakers who populate the story and who occasionally double as red herrings.

By contrast, the main antagonists, which include a sniper, are less convincingly drawn. They share with the evildoers of many a novel the propensity for behaving in far more complicated ways than would seem entirely necessary. They may not be James-Bond-opponent obvious, but some elements of Those Who Perish recall that particular style of overcomplicated villainy. 

Read: Exhibition review: Frances Barrett, Meatus

Above all, though, Those Who Perish is a page-turning mystery fuelled by constant tension. Something new and unexpected happens on every page and if that weren’t enough, the fate of the local football team also hangs in the balance. Viskic’s imaginative accomplishment is that she can simultaneously inspire the reader to conceptualise being deaf while getting entangled in an emotionally fraught sniper-hunt. 

It looks like this just might be the final instalment in the Caleb Zelic series; it is to be hoped that is not so.

Those Who Perish: by Emma Viskic
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
ISBN: 9781760686772
Paperback: 304pp
RRP: $29.99
Published: 1 March 2022

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info