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It says much about Australia that the country's best work of literature so far this century is a non-fiction account of aboriginal tragedy and that the book has gone relatively ungarlanded in Australia, both in the literary community and the wider one.

The book is The Tall Man, by Chloe Hooper, in essence an account of the pointless death of a black man in police custody on tropical Palm Island, off Australia's northeast coast, but in fact it is hugely more than that. It's a haunting moral maze, described with such intimate observation and exquisite restraint that I kept pausing to take a breath and silently cheer the author.

It would have been simple for Hooper to write The Tall Man as a tale of racism and injustice. In November, 2004, a skinny drunken aboriginal man is arrested after swearing at a 6-foot, 7-inch white cop, and 40 minutes later lies dead of frightful injuries, as if he had been in a fatal car crash: head wounds, four broken ribs, a ruptured portal vein and a liver almost cleaved in two. The police claimed he had tripped on a step. The Palm Islanders rioted and burned down the cop's house and the police station. The police involved were awarded medals.

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So far, so familiar. But in her narrative about the fatal collision between two 36-year-old Australian men, black Cameron Doomadgee and white Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, Hooper never makes quick and easy judgments. The story and its background are too complex for that, and she is too much the novelist (her previous fiction was the intricate A Child's Book of True Crime) to be satisfied with cliché.

Instead, she ingeniously explores every character, black and white, shying neither from the institutionalized racism of the Queensland police force nor the chilling black-on-black alcoholic violence of the islanders. Along the way, she provides a lyrical lesson in both the mythology and history of her characters and their picturesque, brutal backdrop and greater tragedy.

With such subject matter, it seems odd to point out the stark beauty of the writing: "A row of men and women known as 'the riverbed people' sat along the weir, drinking: thirty, forty people in a straight line, their feet cool in the water. Nearby, other drinkers sat or lay in the middle of the road. Life rolled over, each day like the last: limbo with alcohol. Victoria Bitter beer cans lay by the water's edge, their red and green aluminium shimmering in the sun like an incarnation of the Rainbow Serpent."

Researching the story, Hooper moved mostly among those most brutalized: aboriginal women. "Aunty Betty was Doomadgee's younger sister and she sat pulling baby catfish from the water. She had high, sculpted cheekbones, frizzy salt-and-pepper hair in a natural bouffant, and missing front teeth. She was a grande dame like her mother, Lizzy Daylight, sitting barefoot by the river in a cotton dress. On her hook the fish made squealing noises until she hit them on the head with a rock."







About daily life on Palm Island, she writes: "In the past six weeks a man had critically knifed his brother over a beer. A woman had bitten off another woman's lip. A man had poured petrol over his partner and set her alight. The unemployment rate was 92 per cent. Life expectancy was more than 20 years less than the national average. This place was a black hole into which people had fallen. Rocks may as well rain down."

Two and a half years on, the case gave Hooper some intimate and contradictory insights. Sergeant Hurley had earlier been decorated for his work in black communities and for mentoring aboriginal children (they climbed on him "as if he were a tree"), and in another of his postings, in remote Cape York, the Aborigines had respected him to such a degree they had given him a "skin name" of kinship. One of his best friends was a leading black-rights activist, Murrandoo Yanner.

But it's soon evident that Sergeant Hurley had a dark side. He was quick to use his fists; he was a womanizer. Hooper compares him to Conrad's Mr. Kurtz, perhaps drunk on the power of the policeman in remote locales. ("Do the things that draw a missionary to savage places also lure a cop? Does the cop get the same rush from lawlessness that missionaries get from the godless?") Maybe. Just as writers lured to violent tropical places often turn to Heart of Darkness for inspiration.

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Hurley does eventually stand trial for Doomadgee's death, and The Tall Man's final chapters are largely given over to this event, in itself momentous. Simply getting the case before a jury was an accomplishment. Amazingly (the rate of deaths in custody for indigenous prisoners is at least 16 times higher than for whites), Hurley was the first policeman in Australia ever to be charged over the death of a prisoner in custody.

Perhaps the ending is a forgone conclusion, but that in no way diminishes the book's suspense or the polished yet painstaking narrative that precedes it. What is a shame is that The Tall Man 's reception by the Australian literary press, while wholly respectful, has skated over the book's fine literary attributes to concentrate on the reportage of the race issue. And Chloe Hooper has more than done justice to a worthy story. She has produced an Australian classic.

Robert Drewe lives on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia. His most recent books are the short-story collection The Rip and a novel, Grace.

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