The Case of the Wandering Corpse, by David Cairns

Amy Chandler

1860s Melbourne is the location as the detective duo of Gask and Rait return.
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David Cairns’ latest detective novel, The Case of the Wandering Corpse follows the investigative duo Errol Rait and Major Findo Gask in this Sherlock Holmes-esque mystery set in the late 1860s in Melbourne, Australia. The mystery begins with a distraught and fearful wife, Jane Malan, who implores the help of her friend Mary Mitchell, who requested desperate help from Rait and Gask in The Case of the Emigrant Niece. Mary asks Gask to investigate the threatening letters written in Afrikaans that haunt Jane’s husband, Andrew Malan. This sequel dives once again into the changing world of nineteenth century Australia and unfolds against the backdrop of the fever of the gold rush, empire and the desire for independence. The novel articulates the lengths many will go to secure fortune. These power struggles are carefully entangled with a deadly secret society that murder and backstab to achieve their goals. Cairns’ attention to detail presents the perfect blend of historical richness and secrecy that lures readers into the strange case of a wandering corpse, a bank robbery, a secret society and a criminal mastermind dominating the docks.

Cairns is able to deceive the reader, as friends turn into foes and those who were thought trustworthy become deceitful criminals. The absence of the novel’s notorious villains Jan Pienaar, Retief and Willem Nel from Gask’s narrative encourages the reader’s need to understand who these men are and how they are murdering in plain sight. The first person narrative is skilfully written to withhold enough evidence that immerses the reader to follow the seamlessly insignificant thread of events, which are then twisted into a web of deep-rooted criminal activities. Gask and Rait are determined to dig deeper to find Andrew Malan’s murderer and retrieve the stolen goods. The cunning protagonists are drawn into a pocket of society located in the heart of the docks, where their investigative tenacity rile some feathers and they must calculate their every move, or they might just end upside down in a barrel. The dock provides opportunity for illicit dealings under the disguise of trade disagreements and demand for dockworker rights. The Case of the Wandering Corpse perfectly captures the dark and manipulative nature that forms during moments of political and social upheaval.

Cairns orchestrates the separation of the detective duo leaving opportunity for ambush and a sense of anxiety to their pursuits. Rait is once again the calm and level-headed detective, who is not afraid to fight back and get his hands dirty to obtain the truth. In comparison, Gask follows his emotions, which helps him to apprehend the criminals, while landing himself right into the hands of danger. The novel’s fast paced denouement draws the threat and danger of these absent criminals into the light and creates a heightened sense of urgency for justice to prevail. Cairns cleverly apprehends the criminals, but leaves a crack in the door for readers to ask the important question – how deep do the roots of this criminal organisation go?

The Case of Wandering Corpse  by David Cairns is out now. Amy Chandler is an Assistant Editor at Aspects of History.