Damned Murder by Burt Surmon – Review

A mystery whodunnit set in South Australia’s stunning Clare Valley. I came across this by chance when it caught my eye in my local library just after I’d returned from a short stay in the Valley.
The author’s blurb gives little away about Burt Surmon other than he was born and grew up in Kings Cross, Sydney, is now retired and lives in Adelaide with his wife Jeni.
I assume he is the former proprietor of Mt Surmon Wines who sold his Clare Valley vineyard to Kilikanoon in 2014. If so, it’s no wonder he knows the area and its characters so well.
Short, quirky and laid-back, this is Surmon’s second book set in the Clare Valley. The writing is a bit clunky in parts and the murder investigation is almost secondary to the story-telling, the setting and the web of relationships. It’s less of a police procedural and more like a love letter to the Clare Valley, occasionally breaking into the kind of prose you might find in the breathless text of a local tourism brochure, the effusive menu for an up-market restaurant or a verbose wine label.
And yet it is quaintly engaging, especially if you are fond of the area. Let’s face it, there is a lot to like about the Clare Valley and Burt Surmon namechecks plenty of its best features and associated brands – wineries and wines, restaurants and chefs, festivals, towns, foods, landmarks – often described in loving detail.
Many of the characters are only lightly sketched but are recognisable as exactly the kind of folk you might encounter in the Valley: mature foodies and wine enthusiasts pursuing the good life, local artisans and restauranteurs, wine makers, people in the arts world and the Adelaide chattering classes.
The intersecting time lines are interesting. It’s not a strict chronological narrative. There are two timelines that come together with the discovery of a body near a dam on 28 October 2018. As the one timeline follows the subsequent investigation, the second recounts various events that preceded it, with vignettes of the characters and their intertwining relationships and possible motivations. This second narrative arc, interspersed with the first, jumps forwards and backwards in time, revealing new information and insights in a way that parallels the manner in which evidence and clues might be revealed in a real life investigation – like picking up pieces of a jumbled jigsaw puzzle – ad hoc and in random order until a complete picture is revealed. It’s a bit of a “Bridge of St Luis Rey” approach to storylines.
It’s not great literature, and the author is not yet up to the ease and mastery of an author like Garry Disher who has also written crime thrillers set in South Australia’s mid-north as well as Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. But then, Garry has published over 50 books so far and this is Burt’s second.
In spite of its limitations, I quite liked it eventually, once I got used to the style and structure. What helps make it work is Surmon’s undoubted affection for the area and its disparate personalities. A slight shift of perspective and tone and it could easily have become a satire or send-up of the Valley and its denizens. I’m glad it didn’t.

Note added later:
Yes, it is that Burt Surmon. Just looked up his first book “On a Clare Day” described as “a vine change story” which recounts how he and Jeni made a lifestyle change, giving up city life and moving to the Clare Valley to set up a winery and art gallery. I guess that should go on my ‘to be read’ list.

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