Halstead Press, Australia, 2021
Designer Mark Rashleigh
Two brutal murders begin this story, set in north-west NSW. As we know the identity of the perpetrator, the focus of this book is not on discovery of the criminal but rather on understanding his character, on following the much-thwarted police investigation into an ever-mounting number of deaths surrounding him, on political and financial corruption and on the lives of the landowners and the rural community.
Barry Kingscliff immediately presents as the archetypal sociopath. Coming with a dark past, changing his name and identity to move from Sydney to the bush, he slowly works his way up the ladder of power, laying waste as he goes.
He marries and murders Andrea Jennings, daughter of the long-standing National Party member for the seat of Anthony; he systematically acquires a strip of properties where valuable mining resources have been identified by using the greed of the local banker to bring about foreclosures and cheap quick sales; he builds his reputation in the party and knowledge of the Jennings family secrets to gain preselection over assumed heir apparent, young William Jennings, and then is elected with a resounding majority. He’s got it made.
However, greed knows no bounds and he soon becomes embroiled with Chinese investors and power brokers, now clearly out of his depth. Things unravel as he must commit more and more ruthless acts to hold on to power and to elude justice.
Hugh Watson ably uses a keen and insightful knowledge of politics gained from his career in the field to paint the picture of the unscrupulous behaviour of the rich and powerful. He also understands the challenges of the Australian farmer and the constant battles with weather, stock and crop prices and the like, as well as their emotional connection with their land.
While there are plenty of reprobates in this tale, there are also the ‘good guys’ we need to identify with as readers, many but not all of them women. Strong female characters carry the story and, in the end, lead to the solutions.
Andreas’s mother knows her habits and this leads to some vital evidence; journalist Jacqui Brentnall knows a good story and is courageous enough to chase it down, Detective Susan Swift has good investigative instincts along with the sense to know that hard evidence holds the key to nailing this criminal.
The country cop Sergeant Crapp is a stalwart ally, not only demonstrating the value of local knowledge but also a willingness to set aside orders from above when justice needs serving. The Jennings too are models of family loyalty, solid folk who face loss with dignity and strength.
In telling this story of the ruthless Barry Kingscliff, Hugh Watson has touched upon many contemporary issues – domestic violence in a rural setting, sexism across the board, climate, corruption in politics (large and small scale)and in other big institutions, foreign investment and interference in government, the struggles of rural communities and the intergenerational wounds of childhood abuse and trauma. It’s all wrapped up in a crime thriller, but it’s there and it’s significant.
The Silo is a book of our times, bristling with the nefarious, astutely observed and assuredly written. Hugh Watson proves himself to be a savvy observer of society, warts and all, but he leaves us with the hope that only goodness can bestow. Here is a stark view of Realpolitik. And would anything induce us to involve ourselves in our own politics after this? Hmmmm.
Thank you to Halstead Press for my review copy and to Hugh Watson for a fascinating and informative conversation.