The innocent voices of children ring painfully true as they endure family dysfunction, self-identify issues and deal with the loss of a young classmate in “Dirt Creek,” a powerful debut by Australian author Hayley Sivenor.
This smart, page-turning mystery begins with the disappearance of Esther Bianchi, a 12-year-old whose body is unearthed in a field on December 4, 2001, mere days after she’s walked part-way home with her best friend Veronica (Ronnie).
The author then backtracks to November 30th, before anyone knows of the grisly discovery, allowing Ronnie to tell her story, how after school the girls split up at the church, headed for their prospective homes. When Esther doesn’t show up panic sets in with Constance and Steve, her parents. Soon all in the small country town of Durton are immersed in the couple’s anguish and fearing for their own childrens' safety.
Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels is called in from Sydney to handle the case, with detective constable Wayne Smith (Smithy). Previously Sarah was with Missing Persons, so she’s experienced in cases like Esther’s but still flummoxed as she and Smithy interview townspeople and students checking alibis and the like.
Reeling from a break-up with her girlfriend, Sarah’s suffering from a slip she didn’t foresee, proving her father’s belief correct, sometimes we don’t know what we’re capable of, a theme threaded through the novel.
While Sarah ponders her personal misstep, Esther’s mother Constance is coming apart at the seams. Her best friend Shelly Thompson consoles, sitting with her for hours. Shelly is a longtime resident of Durton, actually went to school with Constance’s husband but the two have never been friendly, for reasons Constance doesn’t understand. When Shelly finally tells her why, and when one of Esther’s shoes is found under the seat of Steve’s vehicle, he becomes suspect in his daughter’s disappearance and is jailed. Constance loses trust in her husband, thinking he’s involved in Esther’s disappearance.
Lewis is a classmate of Esther and Ronnie—a misfit kid with an abusive father Lewis struggles mightily, his only comfort his friendship with Campbell. The boys saw something at Dirt Creek they are keeping to themselves, to divulge it would expose what they believe is a shameful secret.
In poignant chapters narrated by Ronnie, Sarah, Constance, Lewis, and We, the collective voice of Durton children, the case is solved in days with a shocking revelation. “Dirt Creek” is a marvelous must-read with a strong sense of place. The story captivates with its empathic characters, a thoroughly believable plot and extended dénouement. This reviewer eagerly awaits more from Sivenor, a talented writer to watch.