Alex Palmer is the name I created when I started to publish my crime novels. It’s separates me from my other writing published under my own name where I write non-genre fiction. But my pseudonym is also a homage to my grandmother. Her name was Carmen Palmer and she died too soon for me to know her. She wrote but never published so this is my way of doffing my hat to her and her work which was lost when she died.
I’ve written three crime novels under this name, all connected as a trilogy but which also work as stand-alone novels. In order of writing they are Blood Redemption, The Tattooed Man, and The Labyrinth of Drowning. All three feature two detectives, Paul Harrigan and Grace Riordan as they work their way through their difficult relationship.
What I mainly wanted to do in this trilogy was to look at how people are affected by being the victims of violence, how we as individuals react to that kind of damage. My two main characters, both victims of extreme violence, became detectives. But the people they are trying to track down, who were also victims, have become killers instead. The question for me is why this difference? Another question I always ask myself whenever I’m developing a scenario is, if this were to happen, what would be the consequences? I then try to work that question through and see where the answer takes me. It’s always people who are at the heart of all my work: who we are, what we do, why we do what we do.
All these novels are available as e-books from JB Hi-Fi, I-Tunes and HarperCollins, and in paperback from HarperCollins, ABE Books and on e-bay. Blood Redemption is s also available as a talking book from Bolinda Publishing.
So ye shall not pollute the land where in ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. Numbers 35: 33
O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. Hamlet
In Blood Redemption a young girl shoots a man dead in a public street. He is an accidental victim; the real target was his wife, a doctor who is badly injured but survives. The real question here is why did this young girl do this? Two detectives, Paul Harrigan and Grace Riordan, become deeply involved in the investigation. Grace is a strong woman with a bleak past that she’s since put behind her. Harrigan is a lonely man with a profoundly disabled son, Toby, who has a defective body but a brilliant mind and a strong will. Harrigan has raised Toby since he was born and is deeply attached to him. Toby connects to the world through the net under the guise of the name Turtle and unbeknownst to Harrigan, is in regular contact with the murderer who has a persona called the Firewall. Both of them speak openly to the other, Toby from the perspective of his disability, the Firewall from her terrible past. Toby is bound in his body while his mind ranges free; in contrast the Firewall’s past troubles her like Hamlet’s bad dreams and never lets her rest. The questions are: will the police find her before anyone else dies and if she does kill again, who will that person be?
Blood, in this bleak light a shining, dark liquid stained Grace Riordan’s coat as she sat down with boy in the gutter. She saw it brush from clothes onto hers as she wound her arm around his thin waist and felt him cling onto her in reply. The curt orders from Harrigan still sounded in her head: Stay with that boy. Keep him with it because we need him.She let the blood lie there, damp and untouched on the fine black wool, and said. ‘We’re here, Matthew. You can hold onto me. We’ll have your mother in hospital as soon as we can.’
Grace was forcing calmness on them both as sirens screamed and a more human racket exploded around them. A rush of people stepping either side of the boy’s shock, knocking on doors, stopping traffic, and searching the street for witness or a killer, whichever they might find first. Close tot heir feet, the paramedics treated Dr Agnes Liu where she lay on the wet road just now being strung with blue police ribbons, her breastbone broken open by a bullet. Grace did not have to tell the boy, probably only thirteen, that his mother held on by a thread. It was said in the blood on his school uniform and in the expression in his eyes, emotion displayed down to the bone, nakedness Grace chose not to look at too closely just then. She chose also not to think too much about the woman lying so near to them on the street. Later there would be time for her but not now.
‘What are they doing? why are they taking so long?’
She held Matthew Liu upright as he spoke, his compact body racked with tears. They sat in the speckling cold rain of sun and showery day, in a dog legged street of old terraces, warehouses of textile merchants and a red brick building with a discreet sign hung on its restored Art Deco facade: The Women’s Whole Life Health Centres Inc., Administrative Offices, Chippendale. At a distance too close to them, the corralled media began to gather and howl for interviews and footage.
‘They’re doing everything they can, Matthew,’ Grace replied, listening to her cliche. ‘Don’t think about anything except this minute right now.’
‘I know why. I do know why. But not Dad. I don’t understand Dad.’
‘If you want to talk to me about that Matthew, you go right ahead. I’ll be with you all the way to the hospital and you can tell me anything you want to.’
As she spoke she saw the boy turn to look past her, down the short distance along the street to where his father lay on the roadway. She stopped him, turning his head away and shielding his eyes with her hand.
‘Don’t. There’s no point.’
‘No, I should. I should be able to handle it.’
‘No, Matthew. Don’t. Don’t do it to yourself.’
She might have to look herself but the boy did not. he had seen it once already, when it happened, that should be enough for him whatever he thought. He did not fight with her.
She glanced back to where Paul Harrigan, with a number of other police, was standing over the boy’s father. The man half sat, half lay on the street, his head resting against the front wheel of his car. Professor Henry Liu, late musicologist from the University of Sydney. Much of his face was gone but his eyes remained, open and human, staring upwards. As she watched, Harrigan reached into his pocket and taking out a large blue handkerchief, dropped it over the man’s face. The fabric clung and was stained immediately into a pattern of red. Grace blinked at the unexpected sight of the makeshift dealt mask and suppressed the recoil of her shock, the sudden in-drawing of her own breath.
Harrigan and Toby
‘What’s all this?’
Toby felt his father’s hands on his shoulders, the familiar light pressure of the heel of his palm on the muscle, it was their greeting. He knew his father’s individual odour, a tinge of sweat mingle his familiar aftershave. His father’s presence , the sound of his voice and the touch of his hands soothing the twisted muscle down Toby’s spine, were his first memories. His good hand flickered over his custom-made keyboard with its built-in mouse but it was too late to close the window. His father was reading aloud from the screen.
‘She was evil. You’re not. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. And I don’t believe you think like that. You tell me what you think. For real. You tell me that. Do you really want to know? I wish I’d never shot either of them, Turtle. I really do. Maybe I could have lived with just shooting her. I don’t know. But shooting that man, I wish, I just wish, I’d never done that. It’s as simple as that. I told you it was simple from the start. It’s just that there’s nothing I can do about it now.’
Harrigan repeated the final words and then stood there in silence. His unspoken greetings, his apology for arriving unannounced like this, were lost.
‘What is this, Toby? Is it a joke? Are you and a friend doing a bit of role playing over the Net. Is that it? Or are you going to tell me this is real?’
Toby had a file in which he kept his one-way conversations with his father, a silent recording without a playback option, a series of response which begged the other side of the conversation. He opened it to a smaller window. He reached out to type, Yes, just a joke, dad, and stopped. His father pulled up a chair beside him and they sat int heir common silence. Harrigan, who had never really heard his son speak more than a few disjointed words, always listened in his mind to the voice he imagined Toby might have had.
‘Do you want to tell me?’ he eventually asked.
If I do, Dad, will you cut me out of this? If I could have just one more talk to her, then I could get her to give herself up to you. I could have said to her, you call my dad. He’ll come and get you, he’ll make sure they won’t hurt you.
Words which Toby did not type, which instead like so much of his speech, found no way into the atmosphere, living and dying like small moths in the hermetic seal of his thoughts.
Blood Redemption won the Ned Kelly award for best first crime novel, the Davitt Award for the best crime novel by a woman from the Sisters-in-Crime and the Canberra Critics Circle Award for Literature. It was published in Germany by Blanvalet under the title Engel der Vergeltung.
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What is the price of experience do men buy it for a song? Or Wisdom for a dance in the street? William Blake.
In The Tattooed Man Harrigan is called to macabre scene at a house in Pittwater, one which haunts him with memories of his own troubled past. Drawn deeper into a net of intrigue and double games, he is forced into making a Faustian choice between the life of his son Toby and his loyalty to the men and women he works with. Grace becomes drawn into the net as much through her own addiction to playing a game with danger to see who will win, her or fate, life or death. In the end it becomes a dance of death which asks almost everything of them to escape.
The Tattooed Man won the Canberra Critics Circle Award for Writing in 2008.
Harrigan turned off his mobile phone. White external light burned the road ahead. The Ice Cream Man erased them both. The scene in his mind was night-time in a back alleyway in Marrickville ten days after his father’s funeral, where he had gone supposedly to meet an informant. The arrangement had been a trap. Around him, out of the dark, three other policeman had appeared: Jerry Freeman, Joe Saba (dead years ago, found shot, slumped over his steering wheel one Sunday morning early) and Mike Cassatt.
Their punches hit home into his rib-cage, knocking the air out of his lungs. With a crack to his head with a nightstick, Saba sent him to the roadway barely conscious. His attackers pitched into him with ferocious, incessant kicks, all three laughing, high as kites. Cassatt was almost choking with glee. He spoke: ‘Get him up.’ Saba and Freeman dragged Harrigan onto his knees, standing either side to hold him upright. He swayed in their grip, wondering why he kept blinking, only later understanding that blood had been pouring down his face. Cassatt pulled his head up by the hair.
The jokes on you this time, Paulie. You’ve fucked me around once too often. You’re going to do this to yourself. You’re going to paint your brains on a paling fence.’
There was shrill laughter from one of the men holding him, he still didn’t know who. Cassatt squeezed Harrigan’s hands around his own gun and pushed it against Harrigan’s clenched mouth, his clenched teeth, with all the obscenity of a cock.
‘You’re dead, mate.’
Words spoken with utter joy. Through his blinking eyes, he had seen Cassatt’s face up close. His eyes were half-closed, his mouth was set in a strange half-smile. Transfigured with ecstasy on the edge of the single moment when he would see the back of Harrigan’s head shatter.
There had been a glitch in time in which Harrigan had felt his body dissolve and a black pit open underneath him. Then all at once they were dazzled by car headlights turned on them at high beam. For whatever reason, pinned in this light, Cassatt had not forced a shot from Harrigan’s own hand. He smashed his jaw with the gun instead. ‘Run!’ he shouted. They threw him forwards onto the lane way and were gone, all three, while he lay there in atrocious pain, astonished to be alive.
Harrigan, driving through the strip of shops fronting Collaroy beach, found himself in slow traffic. He turned into the parking area next to the surf club, fluking a spot vacated by someone else. Leaving his car there, he walked the short distance to the beach. It was crowded with sunbakers in luminous costumes. The hot wind carried the sound of their laughter, of people’s small screams while they ran into the water. Swimmers dotted a blue sea too flat for surfers; mothers held their tiny naked children by the hand on the edge of the immense Pacific. With pink plastic bubbles wrapped around their arms, the toddlers danced in the docile waves. The sea and the sky had the shining sticky liquidity of melted ice cream.
Harrigan sat down on the sand. With his index finger, he traced the slightly uneven line of his reconstructed jaw, feeling the old ache come to life light a twist of hot wire in the bone. His life had teetered in a fragment of time, perhaps no longer than the blink of an eye. In that instant his fear had peeled him to the bone. Bare-headed in the heat of the late sun, he was cold with the memory. Handfuls of hot sand slid through his fingers. He thought of Cassatt’s death mask. The man’s preserved skin, his shrunken face, merged into one with the colour of the sand.
Harrigan had always seen the occasion of his near murder as a fixed point to which one day, in the event of his real death, he would be forced to return. A gunshot was a final sound. In his dreams he waited to hear the single shot that in life had never been fired. He knew that as soon as it was, nothing would save him and he would die. Each time he had this nightmare, he fought his way out of it, feeling that he was surfacing from his grave.
They sped down the motorway in silence. Brinsmead was staring at the road. race weighed the alternatives. In the first, Brinsmead was the murder Harrigan said he was and this was some kind of trap, the reason for which she did not know. But why would he want to harm her? If he wanted a witness, she was a reliable witness. She had given him no reason to hurt her. She glanced quickly at him. He was too frail and in too much pain to threaten her physically. Harrigan had told her no guns were allowed in the LPS building. She remembered his description of a place full of people and activity.
In the second alternative, three were the dead. The people she had seen on the net, murdered and then buried in a makeshift grave. She could see this as the kind of operation she did in her own work. Staying with the target , calling for backup when she needed it. But in this case, the man she would have called her target, Brinsmead, clearly wanted to die. Maybe that was the most merciful thing to let happen.
When she had been a singer out on the road with her ramshackle band, she had liked driving those long empty roads in the outback. The name of the town they were going to had never mattered much. She had been driven by a different compulsion. For her, the destination was always a vanishing point in the distance. That was why she was driving towards it, to find out what it was. A hunger to see what was next. She had lived all her adult life with that need; it was a way of cleaning away all the emotional dross from the past that was otherwise stuck to her. That compulsion was in her mind now, driving her to what was next.
One day your judgement has to be wrong. Harrigan’s voice came back to her.
The images of the dead were more powerful that his words. She was on the trajectory; she would see this through.
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Nobody knows himself. The World is a Masquerade. Face, dress and voice, all are false. Goya, Los Caprichos, Number 6.
In The Labyrinth of Drowning Grace finds herself torn between her life as a police woman and the fact that she and Harrigan now have a daughter, Ellie who she deeply loves. Working undercover with a dangerous suspect, Grace begins to wonder which of them is the hunter and who is really watching the other and setting the traps. Meanwhile Harrigan realises that both his daughter and his house are being watched. Tracking the stalkers leads him to into a world where identities are fluid and can be sold to the highest bidder. In seeking to protect what he most values, Harrigan himself becomes a target. It all leads to a solitary hut in the forest which on a dark night is, as Harrigan himself comes to understand, a very good place for a murder.
She made a grateful exit from the building and began the drive to the nondescript building in Mascot that housed Orion’s offices. In the flow of traffic, her mind returned to the dissection room, to the marks on Jirawan’s body that had reminded her of the marks that had once covered hers. Chris Newell, now in the dock at Darlinghurst Court House, had been the one who had put them there, and then raped her, fifteen years ago when she was just nineteen. When she’d heard that Newell, already in gaol for armed robbery, had been charged with the murder of a fellow prisoner, her first thought had been that this time he’d managed to kill someone. McBride had been spot-on: Harrigan was at Darlo Court House to see Newell go down for murder. After that first nightmarish attack, Newell had stalked and threatened her on and off through the years since. The worst incident had been not long before she met Harrigan. She’d come home late from a party to find him waiting for her in the car park of her apartment block. He had thrown petrol over her and tried to light it. The lighter failed, she ran for her life. The next day, she got hold of a gun to protect herself. Swore that if she saw him again, she wouldn’t hesitate. Not long afterwards, he’d gone down for armed robbery. He’d almost served that sentence and had been due for release within a few months. If he was convicted for murder, he would be out of her life for another twenty years, perhaps forever.
People assumed Grace did the work she did because of her father’s influence. Discipline, upholding the law. A duty to serve and protect. Her father was an army officer who had fought in the Vietnam War and been awarded the Military Cross, later retiring as a brigadier. These days, he worked as hard for peace as he had ever done for war. There was some truth in the theory — she had lived with her father’s ideals throughout her life — but when she looked in the mirror and saw her scar, she knew it was this thin thread that drove her. She felt it as a mental thing, a mark in her consciousness as well as on her body. No one should go through what I went through. A simple sentence that carried too much weight.
Maybe once you could lose it. You could go mad. But nothing in the history Harrigan had uncovered suggested any set of circumstances like that. If his beliefs were correct and Janice Wells had been the first victim, then that murder had been planned; planned for years by someone still in their teens. What had come first? This weapon stolen from his father or the intent to kill? Or had they both gelled after this weapon had first come into his hands? I can use this. A few simple words. Meeting a boy whose father had taken that step already. Did he hit her? How? The first realisation that this was possible, breaching the membrane that restrained you, to be followed by the act that confirmed: yes, you can kill. Either way it had been a deliberate choice. He could have said, I don’t have to do this. There were always other possibilities. If Harrigan was right and Wells had created his own new persona out of the death of the real Joel Griffin, why not choose to create a new life for himself some other way? Because he wanted this. He wanted what it gave him.
Harrigan set the axe down where it had been, stepped back from what felt like the edge of nowhere. He had to get out of here soon. It was a terrifying place. His torch beam touched on the net curtains. The blackness impregnating the material wasn’t only dirt, it was old blood. This was the epicentre. While you were waiting to see the doctor. He glanced in a line from the reception desk to a door, now shut. The consulting room.
He opened the door slowly. The smell of mould throughout the building had grown to be almost overpowering; in this room it was the stink of death. Harrigan took out his handkerchief and put it over his mouth and nose.
It was a large room with an old desk facing the door. A high-backed chair stood behind the desk, giving the impression that someone had just this minute got up from it and walked out of the room. Behind the chair and along one wall to his left, overgrown plants pressed against bare windows, crowding the cracked glass like silent onlookers.
Harrigan walked inside. The silence felt loud, like someone shrieking for his attention. He looked at the empty walls, the bare wooden floor. In the far corner, the floor had caved in. He walked forward and looked down into the space between the broken boards. Pale in the shadows, the bones he saw were all too real. There were two of them. Lying on their sides in the darkness, bodies that had decayed to skeletons, looking as if they were about to be absorbed into the ground. Thin locks of dark hair still clung about their skulls, their teeth were scattered like seeds. One had its hand just in front of its face, the way children lie sometimes when they’re sleeping. Indifferently, efficiently, the insects had cleaned their bones and built their nests around their shreds of clothing. Whoever they were, these people had been here for a long time.
They couldn’t be the source of the stench he smelled now. In the torchlight he saw a line of ants near his feet. The busy column had cut a path through the muck on the floor towards the opposite corner of the room. He shone his torch on the column and followed it. A line visible through the dirt and leading past the windows that looked out of the front of the surgery. There were crude, broken marks on the floor where the boards had been roughly taken up and then laid back down again. He counted them as he walked. Four, making six with the two in the corner. One set of marks was newer than the others. Here the ants were disappearing into a crack in the floor, busily at work.
Someone had died here recently. Someone had stood out there in the waiting room facing the unimaginable before finding release in their own permanent silence. Harrigan stood over these makeshift graves and looked down with an instinctive respect for the dead. The silence no longer jammed in his ears. I’ve found you, he thought. You can lie quietly now.
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