Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 10 January 2023)
Series: Detective Dana Russo – Book Three
Length: 307 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Impressive author S. R. White continues to lead the Australian outback murder mystery scene with his new and compelling release, Red Dirt Road, the third book in his Detective Dana Russo series. I had the great pleasure of reading the second book in this series, Prisoner, back in 2021 and I really enjoyed his unique take on the outback detective novel. As such, I have been rather excited to read his new book, Red Dirt Road, especially as it featured a particularly enthralling mystery.
One outback town. Two puzzling murders. Fifty suspects.
In Unamurra, a drought-scarred, one-pub town deep in the outback, two men are savagely murdered a month apart – their bodies elaborately arranged like angels.
With no witnesses, no obvious motives and no apparent connections between the killings, how can lone police officer Detective Dana Russo – flown in from hundreds of kilometres away – possibly solve such a baffling, brutal case?
Met with silence and suspicion from locals who live by their own set of rules, Dana must take over a stalled investigation with only a week to make progress.
But with a murderer hiding in plain sight, and the parched days rapidly passing, Dana is determined to uncover the shocking secrets of this forgotten town – a place where anyone could be a killer.
Red Dirt Road ended up being a very fun and captivating murder mystery novel and one I had a wonderful time getting through. I really enjoyed White’s cool and clever plot scenario and the entire concept of a cop attempting to solve a mystery in a small town with limited suspects is a fun idea that harkens back to classic whodunits.
Red Dirt Road’s story itself hits the ground running quickly, as complex protagonist Dana Russo is forced to travel to the small town for the investigation and soon becomes wrapped up in its many foibles. This includes the sheer isolation, the lack of modern comforts and the unusual locals, many of whom are hiding from the outside world. There is also a set of creepy angel-themed statues that mysteriously move around town, the work of a guerrilla artist who has remained hidden since the murders began. With time restrictions on her investigation and with minimal help from the local police, Dana initiates an unconventional investigation that focuses on understanding Unamurra’s society and its people to solve the crime. After getting to grips with the various people living there, as well examining other clues and evidence, she is able to figure out which one of the town’s residents is the most likely killer and confronts them in a particularly fascinating reveal sequence. The full explanation for why the crime was committed, as well as the ingenious and very distinctive motivation of the murderer, was exceedingly clever, and I felt that White set everything up perfectly. While certain elements of the conclusion were a bit over-the-top, (a very unrealistic elite government SWAT team comes to town), I felt that the story was pretty damn impressive and I was absolutely blown away with the elaborate motivation that the author came up with. The plot of Red Dirt Road also simultaneously continues some of the series’ ongoing storylines, such as Dana’s personal relationship with her co-worker and the internal police politics that are impacting her career, and this ended up being quite a gripping read as a result.
One of the most noticeable things about Red Dirt Road was the unique, society-orientated investigation method that the protagonist used to understand the people of Unamurra and find out who the killer was. I personally thought that this was a very smart and intriguing way to frame a murder investigation that worked extremely well in the context of the setting and the series. When I reviewed Prisoner I noted that White likes to highlight the interrogation side of policing with his writing and this was once again in full display when it came to how Dana gathers information in Unamurra. The flurry of casual conversation she engages in ensures she picks up all the knowledge about the town and people she needs, while also putting the potential suspects at ease as they don’t understand her style or the subtle reasons behind her lines of inquiry. This information, when combined with some observations and additional background she gets from headquarters, allows her to pull together a full mental picture of the town and by understanding them and their needs she finally gets the insight she needs to understand the entire situation. This results in a very unique case, and I found myself getting really wrapped up in both the characters and the setting while trying to wrap the clues together in my head. While this style of investigation probably isn’t going to fit every murder mystery fan’s taste, I felt that it worked extremely well and I loved how the elaborate motivation was teased out through these discussions. The final confrontation with the killer and the various revelations it contained really ties all these previous discussions together perfectly and you quickly realise just how cleverly White structured his entire mystery.
On top of the cool investigation method, I also deeply enjoyed the dusty and desolate setting of Unamurra that served as the backdrop to the murders. White really tries to show the reader the full experience of such a lonely and decaying town, and thanks to the excellent descriptive writing you can absolutely picture every cloud of dust, quiet night, and the lack of movement. At the same time, the protagonist begins talking to each of the residents of Unamurra and you really get to understand the sort of people that would live in such a place, whether they are desperate, trapped, or have their own strange motivations. This excellent use of setting and compelling supporting characters greatly enhances the book’s already complex murder investigation, and I felt that White did an amazing job of working it into the larger narrative and mystery. The sheer isolation impacts every decision and insight that Dana has and you really come away trying to imagine what life in such a location would be like. While White does overgeneralise some areas of rural Australia in his book, especially as he makes the location of these crimes geographically vague, this setting added a great deal to the impact of Red Dirt Road and I deeply enjoyed my time in the elaborate setting of Unamurra.
Overall, Red Dirt Road was an outstanding new book from S. R. White that perfectly highlighted his distinctive take on a murder mystery investigation. Combining another outstanding outback setting with a unique case, Red Dirt Road will have you hooked all the way to the fantastic finale. I cannot wait to see what complex stories White comes up with in the future, but if they are anywhere near as clever and enthralling as Red Dirt Road, I know I am going to love them.