The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis. Allen & Unwin. 384pp. $32.99.
Vikki Petraitis has been writing about true crime for the past 30 years, covering everything from police dogs, to Lawyer X to the Russell Street Bombings. She has been critically acclaimed for her expertise in interviewing both police and the victims of crime to create compelling narratives.
Petraitis has used her past experiences in her debut novel, The Unbelieved, explaining that, "Even though my writing in the true crime genre is substantial, fiction was a whole new thing for me; a way of pushing my skills of craft and storytelling in a new direction . . . I used every ounce of knowledge and insight I'd gained working in the true crime space and explored many of the issues that I had written about over the years."
As a result The Unbelieved won the Inaugural Allen & Unwin Crime Fiction Prize, with Jane Palfreyman, the publisher, describing it as "everything I want in an unputdownable crime thriller, as well as tremendous emotional intelligence and the feeling that what is unfolding could be happening in any small town".
Senior Detective Antigone Pollard has returned to her small home town of Deception Bay on the Victorian coast after an investigation into a rape case in Melbourne goes horribly wrong. She moves into her grandmother's cottage with Waffles, a "failed" police dog for protection and discovers she's working in a town of secrets dominated by dangerous alpha males.
There's a rapist targeting women in the area. All the victims tell a similar story of drinking at pubs alone or waiting for a friend, when a man "rescues" them from unwanted attention. After accepting a drink from him, the girls remember little until they wake up dumped in parks or bushland, victims of sexual abuse.
The women of the town are scared and reluctant to report attacks because they don't trust the law nor the justice system. When Antigone is herself targeted in the local pub she realises hers is the first reported case in Deception Bay.
She knows there must be more.
Petraitis is on a mission in The Unbelieved to educate her readers about the reality of domestic violence and rape in Australia. Antigone tells a young female police officer that in the past year 4300 victims in Victoria alone reported being raped but that only 41 rapists were convicted. Later a male detective admits, "Consent is the issue. You see it time and time again. He says she consented, she says she didn't. For some reason juries believe the guy".
And she succeeds through the strength and determination of her heroine and by imagining a small town full of abusive, predatory men. The only flaw, in an ending that ties up all the loose ends, is a final twist that adds little to the overall impact of the story.