Quota, Australian author Jock Serong’s first book, was lent to me by my Aunty Gwen. She reads and buys good books, is a member of a local book group, and attends writer’s talks and bookish functions and as a result, her recommendations are always varied and interesting. In this case, Quota was even more interesting to me because the author had signed Aunty Gwen’s copy of the book. Also, the story is set in a fictionalised version of a fishing town in the Western District of Victoria, an area of the world which I dearly love.
Quota won the 2015 Australian Crime Writers Association Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction.
All of the above pre-disposed me to like Quota before I even started reading, but I genuinely enjoyed the story once I actually started. The story gets off to a great start with the court transcripts of a young lawyer, Charlie Jardim, losing his temper and telling the judge what he really thinks of him. For anyone who has ever wanted to tell someone in authority what they really think, read this chapter and reconsider…
Charlie is left to cool down in the police cells for a few days and once released, finds himself employed by an older, more experienced barrister to do the legwork for a murder case in Dauphin, a fishing town four hours along the coast from Melbourne, where a young man was shot and set on fire on his fishing boat.
The title, Quota, comes from the abalone fishing quota. It probably goes without saying that there is a black market for abalone (not sure why, I think they are too chewy. I think the rareness and cost make them more appealing for people who want things that are had to get, although maybe I’ve just never tried them cooked nicely). Anyway, the murdered man and his younger brother Patrick were running abalone and drugs between Dauphin and Melbourne for the Murchison family, who own everything that makes money in Dauphin.
Charlie is working for the prosecution and needs Patrick to open up to him, as his police statement doesn’t make sense.
Skip Murchison and another man get locked up for the murder and Charlie finds himself unable to get any information out of Patrick or anyone else in Dauphin. Charlie is threatened by the Murchisons and beaten in a seemingly unrelated late-night attack, but is otherwise ignored by the townspeople who are suspicious of him. Charlie makes it clear to Patrick that he is on his side and that Patrick’s needs to be completely honest about what happened out at sea when his brother was killed, but Patrick is an orphan with three younger siblings to look out for and he is not convinced that him being honest is in anyone’s best interests.
I enjoyed this story enormously. The location reminded me of a seedier, smaller version of Port Fairy or Warrnambool and I believe the author actually lives in Port Fairy. The character’s behaviour felt realistic to me, especially the townspeople who wouldn’t give the time of day to an outsider and the town’s dependency on the one dominant family who owned and ran everything. The slangy, laconic dialogue was spot on.
The ending of Quota felt a little muddy, but as this was the first novel by this author, I feel sure that the two books Jock Serong has written since will be tighter. Luckily for me they are in Aunty Gwen’s big bag of books. I’m reading The Rules of Backyard Cricket next.