Ms. Walker is fashionably dressed and easy on the eye. Her lipstick shade is Fighting Red. She wears a double-breasted trench coat and smokes on occasion, but avoids drinking alone. Her ally in the police is a woman, and her street informer - observant, fearless and Aboriginal - is female. Sam, her assistant, has a war-scarred hand - an asset in a dust-up. Normally shy, he takes to champagne "like some kind of truth serum."
As well as treating readers to fresh versions of private eye tropes, Tara Moss judiciously tucks in details that reflect the atmosphere of the era. We're told that Billie's mother, like Marie Stopes, is in favour of women controlling their reproductive destinies, "despite what gray-haired men of religion had to say on the matter." We are also informed that "the great divide in Australia and elsewhere" is between those who served in the war and those who didn't.
Though not yet ready to admit her probable widowhood, Billie is well aware of the fate of the war widows of Australia - "some were objects of pity, others considered a threat." Those with children "received but a pittance," while childless widows got no pensions at all, since the men in charge believed they needed nothing more than another husband.
In contrast to the poor and unemployed of the city, readers glimpse the lives of Sydney's upper crust. Occupying homes with maids' quarters at the top, many show off their furs and jewels at fancy clubs like The Dancers, where gangsters are known to hang out. Unconcerned about provenance, they buy up pricey art at an auction house run by a well-dressed crook.
It is rumoured that the Australian government plans to flush out cash hoarded by war-time black-market racketeers by calling in all existing banknotes and replacing them with a new issue. As she broods over this, the detective concludes that a certain auction house is a likely place for the dirty money to be laundered before it becomes worthless.
To keep her mind off her probable widowhood, Billie loves to lose herself in the excitement of the chase. She enjoys driving her Willys 77 roadster fast - even if it means using up her petrol coupons halfway through the month. She also carries a pearl-handled Colt in her stocking top in case of need. On receiving a hand-delivered note, she's hit by jolt of adrenalim, as she's unsure "whether to expect a death threat or an invitation to tea."
Tara Moss's book is an alchemy of humour and realism. Periodic references to the recent war are described in bald and chilling terms with references to veterans walking around Sydney with skin grafts on their faces, the result of "airman's burn." We're also told that Ravensbruck women slaves "made parts for Daimler-Benz or electrical components for the Siemens Electric Company," while others worked on Hitler's V2 rocket or "were made to pull a huge roller to pave the streets."
Yet except when describing such harsh historic realities, the tone of the prose is generally light. The setting being Australia, there has to be a reference to a crocodile: in this case, one that escaped from a zoo. The author also has fun with double entendres. In one scene where Billie is intent on her driving as and Sam follow a gunman in a high-speed car chase, her assistant tells her he's out of bullets. "Take mine...take it now," she instructs Sam, offering her own gun from her beribboned holster, just as the wind blows her dress up to expose her thigh.
Later, when the country cops assume Sam is the driver and car owner, we're told the "sun had set on both the day and Billie's patience." She has good reason, as the rural police seem "more suspicious of her [a woman!] driving" than of the testimony of "a soldier's attempts to bring down a couple of criminals with his long-barreled farm gun."
Back in Sydney, she has to report to Central Police Station, where she feels the male stares at her back "as palpable as hands" and can "almost smell the testosterone." This sexist attitude greatly annoys her, because she knows that her friend Constable Annabelle Primrose "could have wrestled bank robbers with only one arm, if only they'd let her."
Throughout the book, Moss's use of language surprises, delights, and reflects the character of the feisty detective. A corrupt cop clenches his fists "tighter than a pauper grips a coin," and the auctioneer "conducts himself in a sedate and formal manner that wouldn't have been amiss in a mortician." The paid thug who makes the mistake of kicking Billie looks "underfed and over-beaten." After she pushes her hatpin into his ankle, we see him "standing on one leg like a cowardly flamingo."
Billie also shares occasional terse philosophical observations. The motivations for murder, she opines, are "money, jealousy and power." Considering the relationship between war and wealth, she thinks about "those who did well out of the debacle," and comments to Sam that "'wars wouldn't be nearly so common if no one made money from them.'" On the sober topic of mortality, she realizes how "the proximity of death taught you that you only had this moment."
A classic of its type, this book lightens the tone and shakes up the trope. As a bonus, reading this mystery includes a chance to learn a bit of history. I hope we'll soon be hearing more about the cases of Billie Walker and her sidekick Sam.