Chloe Hooper’s lacerating vision of tainted justice arrives emblazoned with praise from Philip Roth and comparisons with Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Does it justify the hoopla?

Hooper, 37, has spent most of her life overseas from the age of 19. She returns to her native Australia to find her comfortable view of the country shaken when she encounters a lawyer seeking to highlight a miscarriage of justice. The writer’s attitude to her own society is transformed as she investigates a death in custody on the racially divided Palm Island, northwest of Townsville, and an Australia she never knew is revealed.

Many of the island’s black inhabitants have been taken from their families and sent to live with missionaries, where they are obliged to show forelock-tugging respect to all the whites they encounter.

A 36-year-old Aboriginal, Cameron Doomadgee, is locked up for swearing at a white police officer — and 45 minutes later is dead. The police claim that he “tripped”, but the pathologist describes his injuries as similar to those received in an air crash or high-speed car accident. His death rends the fragile apartheid and leads to rioting.

Sergeant Chris Hurley, the eponymous “tall man”, at 6ft 7in, arrested Doomadgee, whose brutal demise in a cell leads to Hurley facing a criminal trial for manslaughter. The lawyer Andrew Boe (who hires Hooper) is determined to find out the truth. At a subsequent inquiry, the coroner rules that Hurley caused Doomadgee’s death — the first time in Australia’s history, Hooper writes, that a policeman is found responsible for a death in custody.

Hooper’s achievement is to evoke so trenchantly the benighted lives of Palm Island’s inhabitants; the riots that took place after Doomadgee’s death were an inevitable explosion of lives lived in quiet desperation. Without any overt special pleading, she makes an eloquent case for the denizens of black Australia. The Tall Man won’t be on the Australian Tourist Board’s recommended reading list, but it is provocative and visceral writing.

The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper (Vintage, £12.99;

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