Australia has produced some pretty formidable crime writers – Peter Temple, Peter Corris and Kerry Greenwood to name a few – and first-time author Jock Serong could well be set to join their ranks. His debut, Quota, is a gripping work of literary suspense that blends tense courtroom drama with tight-lipped witnesses and brooding small-town strangeness.

Like Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore, Quota’s action mostly unfolds in a Victorian seaside town replete with the familiar hallmarks of rural Australian living: rough old codgers line the bar at the local pub and the Chinese restaurant on the main street has photos of its dishes ‘faded to various shades of blue, the food indistinguishable’ on display in its front window. Here’s where the similarities with Temple’s novel end. Quota’s protagonist isn’t a laconic detective but an angry young lawyer, Charlie Jardim, whose career crisis sends him from the high-pressure chambers of Melbourne to the isolated and insular south coast and its windswept secrets.

When the novel opens Charlie’s in the midst of a professional and personal meltdown: he’s had an outburst in court that could spell the end of his time as a barrister, and his fiancée’s ready to leave him. A friend and colleague steps in to help, giving Charlie a prosecution brief that’ll take him away to the remote seaside town of Dauphin: a place of ‘bruised sky, sodden earth, razor wind between’. It’s an opportunity for Charlie to clear his head and redeem his career, and he wonders if the experience will make ‘the whole shitty game fall away from the foreground like cardboard theatre sets, revealing something that would expunge the futile ritual of his weeks’. It does; but not in the way that Charlie expects.

The case seems straightforward enough: the victim, Matthew Lanegan, was involved in the illegal abalone trade, and was likely killed by two of the other men taking part in the operation, Skip Murchison and Mick McVean. But the key witness, Matthew’s younger brother Patrick, isn’t talking; and Charlie, with his impatient, moody demeanour and city-slicker appearance, isn’t exactly given a warm reception by the residents of Dauphin, whose greetings include baldly telling the ‘prosecutor guy’ to ‘fuck off’, or just ambushing him and beating him up.

Understandably, this local resistance makes Charlie want to pack it all in and speed back to Melbourne – the town ‘had revealed itself to him by giving away absolutely nothing’. Dauphin’s defences are up, and it’s quickly clear why. The Murchisons – the family to whom Skip, one of Matthew’s suspected killers, belongs – own ‘just about everything in the main street’ including the town’s only hotel and a lucrative abalone licence that’s led them to illegally sell their over-quota catch. The family used Matt and Patrick Lanegan as couriers, and for Patrick to reveal the truth about what he saw on the night of his brother’s death would throw Dauphin’s hierarchy of power and influence dangerously off course, threatening lives and livelihoods in the process.

Serong knows what he’s talking about: while he’s now a full-time writer and the editor of Great Ocean Quarterly magazine he was a lawyer for 17 years before that. He does a fine job of balancing Quota’s legal and procedural aspects with its atmospheric setting and vividly drawn cast of rough-as-guts locals (and although some of these threaten to drift into caricature, such as the laconic local bartender, Serong is a good enough writer to get away with it).

But Charlie is the real standout here and, like many memorable crime novel protagonists, his past casts a shadow over how he deals with his present. The Dauphin case begins to reawaken Charlie’s sense of purpose, and his personal recalibrations parallel the renewed perspective he develops on his work. ‘You don’t like people much’, Patrick tells him, ‘but you’re bloody obsessed with the law. I reckon it’s just one way of solving problems, and there’s a whole lot of other ones’.

As the Lanegan murder case goes to trial and the novel moves smoothly from procedural to courtroom drama, Charlie realises that ‘he himself was accustomed to a cycle of wins and losses, a process of constant renewal by verdicts and settlements. He couldn’t imagine a state of being in which life’s burdens just could not be shifted’. The novel is as much about Charlie’s gradually shifting understanding of how to reconcile truth and morality with the legal system as it is about a murder; Quota is proof that crime as a genre readily lends itself to explorations of complex and thought-provoking topics while still holding us firmly in its narrative grasp.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the tropes of small-town secrets and witnesses who don’t talk, but Serong uses a pretty classic crime set-up to create a deft exploration of community politics and how they intersect with family loyalties and the law. Quota has some striking scenes that are delivered with an assured combination of droll wit and elegant prose: physically as well as emotionally displaced, Charlie sees Dauphin as a ‘land arranged in a code he couldn’t decipher. He had left the language of his world behind and this place would offer him no translation, merely reflecting his troubles blankly back at him’.

Quota is a book about people whose circumstances and surroundings dictate – or even distort – their sense of justice and their moral codes. It’s a well-paced, atmospheric tale that manages to be page-turning as well as poignant; whether you’re a crime fan or not, it’s worth a read.

Jock will be discussing his debut this coming Wednesday at Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club. Further details about the free event at Melbourne’s Happy Valley bookstore can be found here. RSVP to [email protected]