Book review: King of the Road by Nigel Bartlett

(image courtesy Random House Australia)
(image courtesy Random House Australia)


Humanity has a fraught relationship with justice.

While we have gone to great lengths to give its often divine imperatives workable earthly form, setting up aspirationally-impartial policing and judicial systems beholding to no one person or hierarchy, in practice, they have often been found lacking, their ability to bring about the desired results sullied by the flawed motivations of the very people charged with executing their noble intent.

This systemic failure has inspired the rise of the vigilante loner, the determined hero who sets forth on their own recognisance, many times with the weight  of the prevailing legal and policing systems arrayed actively against them, a man or woman of such purity of purpose and certainty of resolve that they can’t help but bring about the fulfilment of true justice (admittedly a rubbery concept in many instances).

While these people have powerfully captured the popular imagination, one thing often missing from the telling of their tales is the very thing that should be at the very centre of their inspiring narrative – an authentic, compelling, affecting humanity that explains why they go so far as to run from the so-called  “boys in blue” and toss aside Lady Justice’s sword, scales and blindfold, for their own brand of justice.

There is no such oversight in first time published author Nigel Bartlett‘s compellingly gritty thriller, King of the Road, which wears its heart very much on its sleeve throughout, refusing to forsake raw, bleeding emotion in favour of mindless forward narrative momentum.

True, it is never less than page-turningly gripping, with twists and turns aplenty, its revelations of the dangerously dark and seedy pedophiliac underworld of Australian society and the victims caught in its perverted grip never less than utterly engrossing (if often distressing); but what sets it apart from many of its genre mates though is Bartlett’s gift for investing each and every moment with the stark reality of the emotions at play.

The man at the centre of King of the Road, David Kingsgrove, is never portrayed at some mindless, emotionless Terminator-like automaton, a favoured archetype of vigilante stories both literary and cinematic, but rather as a concerned and devoted uncle, a man who would risk everything, and he does come close to losing everything he has on more than one occasion, to save the life of his much-loved 11 year old nephew Andrew.



Theirs is a tight bond, forged over many weekends spend kicking back at the beach, reading together and playing video games, and so when Andrew disappears on his way to visit a neighbouring family’s son to play for a while before dinner, David immediately feels an understandably deep and persuasive need to do everything he can to find him.

It’s a harrowing task that becomes infinitely more problematic when David realises that the police have already settled on him as the main culprit; while it’s an understandable assumption on one level, their dogged adherence to constructing the case against him and him alone, one built on flimsy circumstantial evidence of the square peg into round hole type, and their refusal to consider any other possibility, soon sets David on his lifesaving lone seeker of justice trajectory.

The title is drawn from David’s transformation, aided by good friend, personal trainer and ex-cop Matty, who lost his own son in similar circumstances, into the King of the Road, a lone wolf travelling the highways and byways of Sydney and country New South Wales, chasing each and every lead, gathering together every last scrap of evidence, anything that will take him to his nephew, a boy it quickly emerges hasn’t simply just disappeared into nothingness.

Bartlett’s distinctively-fresh take on what can often be a tired and overwrought formulaic genre means that his book is not simply some stringing together of well-worn tropes hastily painted over with a gossamer thin fresh new coat of paint.

On the contrary, while there is one customary gasp-inducing moment after another, and the expected heart in your mouth scenes that leave you breathless with expectation, precedence is always given to the living and breathing of David’s agony, capturing all the terrifyingly exquisite fear, sadness and guilt that anyone who has gone in search of a missing person will know all too well.

It’s this sense of emotional immediacy, its insistence on never losing sight of the desperate humanity inherent in this sort of nightmarish situation that gives the book an arresting quality that is almost impossible to ignore.

Yes, it is realised against a larger than life backdrop but it remains throughout and above all, one man’s intimate tale of love and devotion to his nephew and his willingness to do whatever it takes to bring him home again, a tale of raw humanity writ large that is never less than profoundly affecting and compulsively page turning.

Related Post