Dishonour by Gabrielle Lord
Author: Gabrielle Lord
Copyright Year: 2014
Review By: Robyn Walton
Detective-Inspector Debra Hawkins has domestic violence in her sights. But as head of a new police unit targeting violence against women, she has hit a wall of silence.
How can she help Rana al-Sheikly, a young woman who yearns for the freedom to lead her own life while her brothers are planning to send her into a forced marriage in Iraq? And what is the connection between these men and the crime gangs that are running rife in the suburbs?
A series of anonymous emails has Deb following her personal secrets, too – back to her childhood and the murder of her police sergeant father. Who is digging up the past, threatening Debra’s hard-won career, and even her life?
Fraught family relations are at the core of Dishonour, which is mostly set in Sydney in 2014. Thirty-four-year-old Debra Hawkins must deal with the reticence and health problems of her ageing mother, with whom she has a testy relationship – an increasingly common scenario in crime fiction by baby boomers. Then there is Debra’s even more terse and distant relationship with her sole sibling, an itinerant brother enslaved to hard drugs and the daily criminality required for funding his fixes. Years ago Debra compromised her integrity by helping her brother evade trouble, and now that secret is at risk of exposure. Top these challenges with the advent of anonymously sent crime-scene photos from the place where Debra’s father was shot dead 22 years ago, and we have a protagonist with plenty to distress her and distract her from her workplace duties. With her partner unable to do more than commiserate over the phone from the other side of the continent, and only one local friend offering support, Debra does admirably to remain sane, sober and shopping. Even better, after just a few days’ investigating she manages to find out the truth of what happened 22 years earlier, opening the way for some emotional healing.
In other hands all of this could have constituted a worthwhile narrative in its own right. However, after beginning her novel with two chapters set in country New South Wales in 1992, Gabrielle Lord opts for making the Aussie family drama her subplot, while Debra’s activities as a Detective Inspector dealing with Arabic Islamic communities in south-west Sydney form the ostensible main story. I say ostensible because, although Lord told interviewers that this novel (her sixteenth for adults) is about women subjected to hidden domestic violence, Debra’s policing activities don’t ring as true or seem as vital to the progress of the narrative as do her family dealings.
In addition to the question of whether the family drama or policing storyline deserves to predominate, unease is generated by Debra’s divided impulses in the workplace. Our protagonist has a recent history of working in the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad and liaising with the Gang Squad, and she seems unable to sufficiently separate from that to see her new role in its broad dimensions. Debra not only continues to insert herself into crime inquiries within Sydney’s Arabic communities but also expresses visceral hostility toward perpetrators: “[A] renewed wave of horror and revulsion shook me at the memory of him spitting in my face … Staring at his photograph, the drooping, hooded eyes under heavy brows, the vicious mouth above the straggly beard, I could almost sense evil pulsing out from his image.”
If it was Lord’s intention to chart the career hiccups of a likeable protagonist who is a little too immature to handle the responsibilities of a pioneering new job and not astute enough to think through the political and ideological ramifications of what she is being charged with doing, then she succeeds. As readers we initially expect to be cheering Debra on as she heads up a new squad, RED-V (Religio-Ethnic Domestic Violence). But it soon becomes apparent she lacks leadership skills. And where is her zeal for identifying women needing help in faith, cultural and ethnic communities other than Middle Eastern Islamic? After a didactic mission-statement gathering, Debra spends nil time planning initiatives with her staff. Instead she retreats to her desk and to reactivity. After taking a call from an established informant, she immediately leaves the office to obtain intel concerning a gaoled Australian-Middle Eastern criminal said to be arranging a hit. By these means Debra learns of a threatened woman. The other domestic violence case which Debra takes on is also acquired indirectly. When she accompanies a senior colleague to the home of the al-Sheikly brothers following a report of a drive-by shooting related to a dispute between two outlaw motorcycle clubs, she spots the brothers’ sister, a Pharmacy student. The question is not merely whether this girl is being coerced into helping with clandestine drug manufacture but whether she is subject to patriarchal domination in all areas of her life. Both female victims prove plucky enough to repeatedly relocate themselves in the interests of staying alive, with Debra providing such intermittent assistance that neither storyline is an engrossing read.
Late in the book a leak produces a newspaper report quoting a community leader accusing Debra’s squad of racism, discrimination and hindering social cohesion. These are accusations warranting debate, particularly since Debra is championing a girl whose escape from her Muslim extended family involves conversion to Christianity. But Debra has previously interrupted team discussion and modelled a blinkered way of defining the policing role: “Our job is to respond to crimes, not to groups”. She is indignant that her mission “to protect vulnerable migrant women and girls” has been criticised and furious with the leaker (“the traitor”). Neither emotion can protect Debra from being suspended from her position nor RED-V’s continuing existence being placed in jeopardy.
It remains to be seen whether Lord will bring back her Debra Hawkins character and persist with RED-V. Although domestic violence against women is as prevalent as ever, I imagine it is hard to devise ways of telling lively stories about confined and unheard victims without privileging the visibly nasty activities of perpetrators. If Lord can find fresh ways, Debra will be a detective worth following. Readers may also hope to hear more about the progress of Debra’s private life. Lord leaves that possibility open by bringing her protagonist’s boyfriend home from interstate to attend to his vegetable beds. The small matter of a Molotov cocktail thrown into the backyard early in the novel has not been explained, but Debra is content to splash around the champers.