Under the Cold Bright Lights, by Garry Disher

Alan Auhl puzzled me. For most of Under the Cold Bright Lights, by Garry Disher, Auhl is a very good man. He shelters women and children escaping from abusive partners in his home. He works doggedly on cold cases in and around Victoria, Australia. He even has a good relationship with his ex-wife. Hell, this novel is bookended with Auhl going on down on women and worrying that he hadn’t shaved closely enough. But Auhl commits criminal acts in this crowded, busy book that still have me re-evaluating just how “good” Auhl actually is. Can a detective turn vigilante and still be considered a good person?

There are a lot of plots and sub-plots in Under the Cold Bright Lights. In the opening chapters Auhl’s docket fills up. There is a cold case featuring a dead rancher, whose daughters call Auhl once a year to ask for updates. Then there is a male skeleton found underneath a cement slab on property with a tangled history. And then there is a custody battle over a girl who is staying with her mother in Auhl’s house; the girl’s father is a terrible man. Oh, and there’s another terrible man who might be a Bluebeard and a cult. This really is a busy book, almost like short stories told in parallel with each other.

I was enjoying this novel, for the most part, until the moment with Auhl starts crossing ethical lines. On the one hand, Auhl and the women involved in his cases and the women he shelters are caught in impossible situations. Either they’re trapped by their circumstances; they don’t have the money and wherewithal to escape. In the case of the custody dispute, the father has the money to hire a good lawyer. The mother is so broken down and afraid that she fails to make a good impression on the court—who believe that any father is better than none. When the mother panics at the thought that the father might get more time with their daughter, she runs and makes everything worse (legally speaking). The law can’t or won’t deliver justice in this case or in the case of the possible Bluebeard. But taking action against these mean would mean that Auhl becomes a criminal himself, no matter how much we might sympathize with him. What bothered me is that I actually would have been okay with Auhl’s vigilantism if it weren’t for the fact that it seemed out of character. His criminal acts struck me as more startling than anything else.

Readers looking for a mystery in a far-off setting and/or mysteries involving breakthroughs in cold cases might like this book. Also, readers looking for a (mostly) good guy protagonist might also enjoy Under the Cold Bright Lights. I think this book was weak in terms of character development, but the investigations were pretty good.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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