This could be listed as historic crime or YA, but Westbrook has produced something that doesn’t neatly fit into any genre – a dark and fascinating exploration of a true, unsolved crime from the point of view of two teenagers deeply affected by it.

dark firesWestbrook delves into Sydney’s seedy underbelly for this story, based on a real crime, set in 1946.

Two girls – Frances and Nancy – play hide and seek in a cemetery, already too old for it, but enjoying being out on their own and taking time out of their difficult home lives. Their backstreets world is poor and rough, and often dangerous.

One night Frances sees something she shouldn’t have – an attempt by one local tough to kill another, the vicious Jackie Tooth. The terrifying moment brings her into contact with Templeton, the teenage brother of Jackie’s lover.

Templeton and Annie are on their own, getting by on the fringes, and find safety of a kind at a brothel run by one of the city’s most notorious madams. But the violence is building around them, and will affect them all.

Westbrook, a young Sydney writer, has created an atmospheric tale of post-war life, full of sly grog, war-damaged soldiers and prostitutes. The young people at the heart of the story are awakening to sex while trying to survive whatever way they can.

Templeton, in particular, is heartbreaking as he navigates a world without a home or family, and where being gay is a seriously dangerous choice.

Despite the lurid subject matter, which made it a sensational crime in the newspapers of the day, Westbrook carefully avoids taking an exploitative approach.

She explores the circumstances and the consequences of the crime, but allows the specifics of this young girl’s murder, and the terror she must have suffered, to remain off stage and out of our view. 

This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. The book was published in April 2016