Eli Bell notices details. He is taught the value of this skill when he is twelve years old by his infamous friend and babysitter, Slim Halliday, who is known as the ‘Houdini of Boggo Road’ for his successful prison escapes. Remembering the small details of life, by associating moments and visions with things on his person or familiar objects to assist with recall of the memories, is what helped Slim survive in prison. Eli remembers Slim’s stories and advice in detail. He hones his skill of noticing detail, with the hope it will help him get a job as a newspaper reporter. He scrutinizes the people around him, especially the men, analysing the influences on their lives and attempting to understand what it means to be a good man. The analysis reveals the multiple dimensions of people and the different roles they combine, leading him to conclude that most are a mixture of good and bad.
Eli’s story is recorded as detailed fragments of memories, and through the narrative he searches to understand his memories: memories of a traumatic event which caused his brother to stop speaking and resulted in his parent’s separation; memories of his mother’s drug dealing boyfriend who is a father figure to him but mysteriously disappears; memories of the violent man his mother moves in with on her release from prison; memories of corresponding with some of Slim’s friends in prison; memories of meeting various key figures in Queensland’s underworld in both calm and frightening scenarios. A lot of these fragments are confronting. It is surprising that Eli and his brother survive such trauma. Eli recounts them in such a pragmatic way, along with his hopes of raising enough money to buy a house in a nice tree filled suburb and working as a crime reporter alongside the beautiful Caitlin Spies. The resilience and simplistic hope that Eli and his brother have is remarkable. They persist despite incredible adversity.
As time passes, Eli begins to understand how his memories are linked and finds out additional information. The fragments in the story gradually come together, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, culminating in a spectacular ending.