Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong, now part of the Major Crime Unit in Perth, is dealing with two, apparently unrelated, mutilated bodies – one an ex-cop one an ex-schoolteacher. Sharon Wang, his wife, is a federal agent, working nights at the international airport. She deals with an unruly passenger off a flight from Darwin, who is later discovered hanging under a bridge in Freemantle, with Kwong’s details in his pocket. Rory Driscoll (who we first met in Bad seed) leaves his quiet life as a “simple fisherman out Woop Woop”, when his name appears on a hit list along with three others, and he has no idea why. Kwong, Wang, and Driscoll all work separately and then together to try and work out how all is connected. They end up in the murky world of corruption, conflict atrocities, retribution, big business, and unholy alliances.
Kwong is “looking older, carrying a bit more weight, had some grey at the temples”. Due to their work, he only sees Sharon briefly each day. Ella, their daughter, is at the quicksilver terrible-twos stage. Kwong keeps going by using anti-depressants more frequently than prescribed. It shows – as Sharon observes: “Sometimes you seem like the old you. Other times, I don’t know. You seem flattened out. No edges, no highs, no lows. Not present.” He wonders why he is still on the job, but this latest case is intriguing, he keeps getting text messages telling him he is on the wrong track – and has no idea who is sending them.
When Kwong finally sees Driscoll “he detected a certain mellowing with age, nothing specific, but not quite the man he recalled”. Driscoll has been dragged into the story and is finding it harder and harder to discern who the good guys are, who the bad guys, and who the ‘not-quite-so-bad guys’. It is a confusion Kwong and the reader shares with him. The two men progress through complicated territory. In each of the Cato Kwong novels, a social issue is explored. In Crocodile tears it is the involvement of governments in inciting or suppressing internal conflicts in other countries, the aftermath of atrocities, the role of business interests in controlling government policy, the dangers arising from governments outsourcing their security work, and the migrant crises that arise from international conflicts.
The conflicts in question are the many that took place in Timor-Leste – the struggle for independence from Portugal in 1975 and then from Indonesia in 2002. The ongoing struggles arising from outsiders trying to make a buck and enjoy their positions of privilege. Kwong discovers the connection between his victims goes back to their volunteer work in Timor-Leste, and then their later work at the Christmas Island Detention Centre – holding asylum seekers, plus ‘501s’, ex-prisoners awaiting deportation to Aotearoa or the UK. There is also a connection between Sharon’s unruly passenger and one of the people on the hit list with Driscoll – both connected to Timor-Leste. The connections keep falling into place, but clarity takes a long time to emerge.
What starts to become clear is the far from noble role that Canberra has been, and is, playing in the region. That massacres and atrocities were committed, and the skulduggery continues. And that Kwong and Driscoll have no idea who they can trust – or whether they can even trust each other. Driscoll, when trying to keep safe the ‘hit list’ group (all but him due to be witnesses at a Hague committee on Timor-Leste) finds they are being tracked – but by whom, and how did they always know where the group would be? Kwong starts to think he is being used – but by whom, and for what? Sharon has her fair share of action – “Give me some credit. Why’s it always about you?” – when she tries to investigate the man she dealt with at the airport, and becomes a person of interest, and embroiled in violence.
All the clues lead to a past militia-leader and long-time liurai (district lord). He is a man guilty of heinous crimes, who turned out to be on the wrong side of history. But he is now connected to people in high places. He is certainly guilty of past crimes, but is he guilty of Kwong’s cases, or has he been set up? “It had spooks written all over it – but whose?” And for some does it matter if he is guilty of current crimes or not? Those who feel safe in the present often leave the past behind, however there are those whose lives have been so damaged they can’t forget the past. For some it is all a game, but “The game didn’t seem so great once you saw it from the point of view of its innocent victims”.
Kwong and Driscoll are not friends, but they do arrive at a partnership: “Should you be telling me this?”, “Probably not, I think it might be an official secret”. Driscoll’s controller, Aunty, “a taxpayer funded mandarin”, is an ambiguous character – Driscoll comments: “Sometimes Aunty, I wonder if you’re making this up as you go along, do you even know whose side you’re on?” Kwong proves good at left-field distractions in times of crisis. But both men are wondering why they are doing what they are doing. Those who have been immediately and involuntarily damaged have a clearer view – they want revenge, or they are “trying to see a way forward that doesn’t involve violence. We’ve seen enough.”
Crocodile tears involves an endless circle of Big Oil, private and corporate greed, and personal retribution. There are the dangers from “The pathological need to win at all costs” and the numbness of an age where “Nothing is shocking anymore”. With a horrible twist on the modern phrase, amorphous alliances are described as heralding “a less binary future”. In the face of implacable power, going back to Woop Woop or taking your kid to the beach seem sensible options. At the heart of the novel are the personal stories we hear along the way.
Crocodile tears is phenomenally well plotted, and it is a darker read than the previous Kwong outings. There is plenty of action – bombs exploding, throats being cut, guns being held to heads – and the voracious crocodiles are never far away. The story ranges through Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and Timor-Leste. Although a hard political thriller – full of agency abbreviations; ASIO BIT AFP PNTL DFAT … – the novel is an intelligent and moving read. Carter has presented some clear messages, for example asking if remaining “silent and inactive if you really despise the things governments do in your name” is conscionable.
This is the last in the Cato Kwong series, and it is a fitting ending. Although I would have liked to follow Sharon Wang in her new position in the AFP – maybe she’ll pop up in a future series. Crocodile tears is reviewed here as Alan Carter was part of the #YeahNoir scene for a while and continues to be part of the Kiwi mob. I think the takeaway line of the novel for me would be: “All this knowing and still the world would turn as it always had.” A great read.