Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

When the first Benjamin Black crime story appeared – Christine Falls (2006) which I reviewed here – there was no mention anywhere that this name was a pseudonym for John Banville, the highly acclaimed Irish novelist, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea – reviewed here. Banville had told the literary world that he was going to write a crime story, but there was nothing to alert an unsuspecting public that this was it. With The Silver Swan (2007), Black’s second crime story, the cover makes it quite clear that this is John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. And this is fair enough, because what Benjamin Black writes isn’t your normal crime story – there’s too much Banville in it for that.

This book is again set in Dublin in the 1950s and features the pathologist Quirke – he doesn’t seem to have another name. He is asked by a man he knows slightly not to perform an autopsy on his wife, who has been found dead in the sea.  Quirke initially agrees, but finds suspicious circumstances, and does one anyway. So he knows she didn’t drown. But what should he do about it? He gets as far as talking to Detective Inspector Hackett, who he met in the first book, but doesn’t tell either him, or the coroner the truth, and the verdict is death by misadventure. Why does he not speak out? Both he and Hackett are still bruised from the outcome of events in the first book; we now find that the corruption they discovered – ‘the wave of mud and filth’ – has been hushed up. Quirke doesn’t feel like sticking his neck out again, but he suffers from an ‘incurable curiosity’. So will he be drawn into the mystery whether he wants be to or not?

Quirke shares the story with the dead woman, Deirdre Hunt. Black is very clever at managing transitions between past – recent past in this case – and present, not stooping to giving dates and times as some authors do. It works smoothly enough, so we read about events leading up to her death mixed in with events after it. The story is also told through Quirke’s daughter Phoebe, and to a lesser extent through Deirdre’s business partner Leslie White. This provides an opportunity to get inside these characters’ heads, to understand their motivation. This is essential, because this book, like the previous one, relies on characterisation rather than fast-moving action for its interest. Quirke does a bit of traditional detecting, such as asking questions and putting pressure on people. Black also uses the crime story tactic of misdirection to keep the plot ticking along; ‘Nothing,’ he warns, ‘is what it seems’. There’s also elements of family saga, carried over from the previous book; they make more sense if you’ve read it. But overall, the reader is primarily being asked to engage with the disordered psychology of the main characters.  Black says of Quirke: ‘he is a very damaged person, as many Irish people are from their upbringing’. And is what he seems intent on showing – with somewhat mixed success, in my opinion.

For all that Banville continues to insist that he and Black are ‘two completely different writers who have two completely different processes’, the writing is that of someone with a literary sensibility. Where else would you find a crime writer describing a character’s eyes darting with ‘an odd, hindered urgency’? Or feeling ‘the touch of a cold tentacle of unease’? And these are just two random examples. In an interview, he describes Dublin as ‘a beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty’; in the book, the smoky, shabby presence of the city is almost palpable. Banville explains that ‘Quirke lives in the apartment in Dublin which I inherited from my aunt and he moves around in that area where I was when I first moved to Dublin … it’s soaked in my recollections.’ And so it’s not surprising that the language he uses to describe it is sensuous and evocative. Banville says ‘I certainly like the Benjamin Black books more than my Banville novels because they are pieces of craft work and I like to think they are honestly made.’ Maybe the Black books are less verbally dense, but you could read this book just for the pleasure of the writing.

I find this story to be ultimately pessimistic, both in terms of the fate of the characters and the society in which the action occurs. The society Black describes is narrow and stifling; he has an American visitor comment critically on ‘The way you go about in cowed silence, not protesting, not complaining, not demanding things that should change or be fixed or made new.’ We know from the start that Deirdre Hunt’s attempt to change her life ends in disaster; is she being punished for asserting herself in a male dominated society, or simply a victim of it?  And Black ignores the common premise of most crime novels that justice must be seen to be done, and order restored. The Dublin of the 1950s may be beautiful, but in Black’s hands it’s not a very nice place.

I was interested to see that the first three of the Black stories (there’s now seven of them) have been made into a BBC TV series, Quirke, and though it doesn’t seem to have been shown yet in Australia there’s a DVD available. You can find out more about the series here. And you can read more about the work of Banville here and of Benjamin Black here. The most recent Benjamin Black book is a Phillip Marlowe fanfiction, The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014). The most recent Banville book is Ancient Light (2012); after reading The Silver Swan, you might not be too surprised to find it’s a story of obsessive love.  Two completely different writers? I don’t think so.


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This highly acclaimed memoir was published in 2000, and has since been made into a TV series released in 2003. Robert Drewe, first a journalist and later a novelist, has an arresting tale to tell, and the literary skills to tell it with affection, humour, some bitterness and a good deal of drama.

The memoir tells the story of his coming of age from a child to a man in Perth, then the remotest capital city in the world, during the 1950s and ‘60s. When Robert was six, his father Roy, who worked for the Dunlop Rubber Company, was transferred from Victoria to Western Australia and the whole family had to make the adjustment to life in the raw suburbs built on the sand hills around the city. After a short period of transition – where his mother makes him wear shoes and socks instead of the bare feet favoured by the other boys, and warms him against sunstroke (or boiling brain as she calls it) – Drewe finds much to love about his new home. Through the prism of his family life, he tells of experiences that were common to boys growing up in this period – adventures with neighbouring children, Saturday afternoons at ‘the pictures’, interaction with girls and a growing interest in sex.

Through the specifics of his own family, Drewe also manages to give a fascinating picture of the social setting of suburban life in Perth at the time. Roy rises fairly quickly to become branch manager for Dunlop – it is ‘a branch manager town’ – and the family mixes with all the other middle class business people who live nearby. Since Dunlop makes sporting goods like tennis racquets and sponsors sporting events, Roy and his wife often entertain famous tennis players and other sportspeople; Robert rubs up against fame much more often than most boys. But his picture of family life also has darker currents running beneath it. Roy is bluff and hearty to his mates, but bad tempered and demanding with his wife and children. Does he hit her? Is he unfaithful to her? Possibly and probably, though Drewe never says so directly. He grows up alienated from his father, and at odds with his mother. Because he is such a good writer, this combination of family concerns and social backdrop works seamlessly.

But there is an additional element to all this; right from the beginning of the book, we are aware of the fear and horror caused to the people of Perth by a serial killer who murdered eight strangers between 1958 and 1963, and committed a number of other violent crimes. The story starts with the man’s committal hearing; Drewe is present as a junior crime reporter, watching with terribly mixed feelings. One of the people he killed was a friend of Drewe’s and one of the murder weapons belonged to another friend. Drewe has met and spoken with the man a number of times. At several points in the book Drewe adds sections in which he imagines what the man might have been thinking and doing at various stages of his life. Not till quite a long way through the story, with all the suspense-building skill of a good novelist, does he eventually reveal who the murderer is.

Like many coming of age stories, this one can be seen as a loss of innocence, by both Drewe himself and by Perth as a result of the murders. The book’s title is clearly a metaphor on a number of levels. Near the end, he ponders the usefulness of shark nets –nets set up to keep sharks away from beaches and swimmers. The distance – mostly desert – between Perth and the eastern states, from which all things bad emanate, is its own protecting shark net. Perth beaches don’t have shark nets; the shark was in any case inside the society, killing at will. And in his own life, Drewe thinks that there are sharks cruising just below the surface of everyday things, just as there are in the sea he loves. Yet the book concludes on an optimistic note, as Drewe leaves Perth for a job on the eastern sea board, passing, if you like, to the other side of the shark net which may protect, but also stultifies.

In his author’s note, Drewe says ‘this is a both a book of memory and my portrait of a place and time. Memory may falter and portraiture is a highly subjective endeavour, but I have tried to tell a truthful story.’ I guess this pre-empts my usual gripe that no one can possibly remember so much of their childhood, including conversations, in such detail. The novelist doesn’t have to. It’s a case of creative remembering that adheres as best it can to the truth. But I did note what is left out, even if I didn’t really miss it. Some of his experiences ring true to my upbringing in another small provincial state capital at much the same time – bearing in mind the gender differences of course. But one huge dissimilarity is that the first question anyone in Adelaide asked then of anyone else was what school they went to. There isn’t any reference at all to Drewe’s life at school, or his intellectual life. Obviously he must have read more than the comics he admits to. But school? He’d never have got away without mentioning it in Adelaide.

You can read more about Robert Drewe and his work here. He doesn’t seem to have a web page, but here’s a long article about him – which fills in some of those school details. Perhaps he thought he’d sound like he was blowing his own trumpet if he put them in. The article was published at the time his second memoir, Montebello appeared in 2012.

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End of the Night Girl was published in 2011, as part of the prize attached to an Adelaide Festival Award for a Best Unpublished Manuscript. Apparently it had been turned down by a number of other publishers before this. I find this hard to understand; I think it is a very good book.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how well written it is. I just wanted to keep reading. It made me wonder yet again what makes some writing seem so entirely appropriate to the story it is telling. Is it the right word in the right place? Do the images the writer uses evoke the feeling or the place in a particularly striking way? Or is it because of the story itself touches something specific to the reader’s experience or imagination? Whatever it is – a combination of these perhaps? – I would have thought the book worth publishing just for the power of the writing. Some readers might not like some of the language – I don’t much like the C word myself – but Matthews has a great ear for dialogue, and for language appropriate to character. She captures how people do think and feel.

So what of the plot? Molly is a waitress in an Adelaide restaurant. She has dropped out of university, had a number of boyfriends, drinks too much after work, and is drifting, directionless. Much of the story is made up of small incidents to do with her work and her family, and finally her decision to take on a bit more responsibility. Molly has a sharp tongue and is given to feckless behaviour, but is an interesting and engaging character. Yet if the book consisted only of the daily round of her life – however sensitively portrayed – it might leave the reader saying so what? Is that all there is to it?

But Molly is haunted by the Holocaust. And she writes down bits of a story about a young woman, a Polish Jew, that come, seemingly unbidden, into her head. ‘I’ve been writing this stuff for a couple of years,’ she says, ‘just little scribbles on spare bits of paper.’ The fragments that she has written, set perhaps unnecessarily in a different font, are interspersed throughout the book. They are not in strict chronological order, but start in the 1930s. They tell – or at least indicate – the story of Gienia a village girl, from the death of her father to an arranged marriage in Warsaw then all too soon to the Nazi death camps. The back cover of the book talks of ‘a murdered Polish Jew’, and Molly does write of Gienia’s death. I thought at first that there was sufficient ambiguity in Molly’s account to suggest that she has allowed Gienia to survive. But I guess that whoever wrote the notes for the back cover knows better than I do. Matthews has certainly shown Gienia suffering deeply, and perhaps more unexpectedly, shown her battling for survival against other Jews in the camps.

There is a constant tension between the stories of Molly’s and Gienia’s lives. On one level, they are totally different. Molly’s urban hedonism contrasts with Gienia’s peasant upbringing. When Gienia is starving, Molly is throwing away uneaten food. Gienia tries to hold onto her family, Molly pushes hers away. Gienia has a fierce determination to live while Molly just drifts. But while Gienia’s story has its own outcome already to a large degree predetermined by our – and Molly’s – knowledge of the Holocaust, it also reflects Molly’s own circumstances. Through what she writes about Gienia’s life, Molly is examining her own. ‘I don’t know why I find this life so hard, when it should be so easy,’ she thinks. ‘Standing before the cliff-face of the Holocaust the wild fear I feel sometimes makes perfect sense.’ ‘I build horrors, to make mine trivial, and send her into hell.’ And ‘There is no equivalence, a little voice hisses, but not wanting to listen, I let my thundering heartbeat drown it out.’

So is there an equivalence, and if not, what point is Matthews making? I’m just not sure. Maybe it’s a case of ‘read it again’, or maybe Matthews isn’t clear enough. What worries me is Gienia’s death. Why show all that suffering, all that determination to survive, only to kill her off? If there isn’t a link, an ‘equivalence’, between the two stories, then Molly’s story is diminished. If there is – and surely this is the case – then what is it in Molly’s story that is equivalent to Gienia’s death? We’ve known of that death from near the beginning of the book (to say nothing of the back cover). Sometimes Molly seems scarcely able to control the story she has created; she fears ‘the flurry of words will bury me alive’. But she has chosen that outcome for Dienia; quite early in the story, she says that Dienia’s death ‘has become a constant in my life, something I can depend on when all else falls away.’ Perhaps the point of equivalence is that by the end, Molly no longer needs her? I feel this would be perverse, though I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps I’m just being sentimental about wanting her to survive. Or maybe just too literal; there are ‘non-realist’ elements in the book. I’d love to know what other people think.

You can read a little more about Amy Matthews here (strangely she doesn’t seem to have a web page), and here is an interview with her. She worked for a time as a waitress, so really knows what Molly’s life was like. And just out of interest, here’s another opinion of the book which doesn’t differ all that much from mine. But I was interested to see that it cites a critic from a major Australian newspaper who thought that Molly’s and Gienia’s stories could be considered separately. I think that’s missing the point.

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The Raven’s Eye (2013) is the twelfth in Maitland’s series featuring Detectives Brock and Kolla – now risen through the ranks to Chief Inspector and Inspector. It is a textbook British police procedural – despite the fact that Maitland, a retired professor of architecture, now lives in Australia. Unlike most of the earlier books, architecture doesn’t play a part in this one, except, perhaps, by way of an analogy.

The story begins with the death of a young woman on a canal boat. It appears to be the result of an accident, but to Inspector Kathy Kolla, there was ‘something troubling about this death, something that didn’t smell quite right.’ But why are senior police so unwilling to pursue it further? The action then shifts to another, much more high profile case: Jack Bragg, a vicious criminal, is bent on revenge against his ex-wife and former business associates.  Kathy has a crucial role in the plans to capture him, but what is it that neither she nor Brock is being told?

Readers of crime stories know that where there are two cases, however disparate, in one book, they are likely to be in some way connected. You could argue that this is artificial; in real police work, very few crimes of such different natures would ever be connected. But the genre has certain conventions, and this is one of them. While each case has its own trajectory, establishing the connection between them is central to the plot. ‘What the hell,’ wonders Brock, ‘did those things have to do with one another?’ Maitland uses failures in personal and organisational communication to build tension – what are Brock and Kolla not being told? Will this lead to disaster? And they don’t always communicate properly with each other – just tell him where you’re going, I wanted to shout. Maitland is a very competent writer, so the connections are cleverly woven, and if at the end I did think this is a bit over the top, well, it’s no more so than in most police procedurals.

Furthermore, the connections relate not just to events, but to a major theme of the book – technology and the nature of police work.

It seems that as well as dealing with a crime or crimes, most police procedurals flesh out the story with reference to material not directly related to the crime itself. Often it’s details from the detectives’ private lives: they are loners, with shattered family relationships, eating badly and listening to a lot of jazz. In this book, Maitland doesn’t spend much time on private lives. His ‘extra’ element here is the police force itself, and how it copes with restricted resources. And it’s an interesting study. The path he suggests policing is taking is in direction of stringent control of spending and greater reliance on technology. Chief Inspector Brock is uneasy about this. He feels that police on the ground – not police bureaucrats – have the best sense of what’s necessary. ‘More computers?’ he thinks. ‘Nothing to compare with a smart detective with a smart eye.’ Is he, as his boss suggests, being ‘stubborn and intransigent’, not being ‘a team player’?

But technology is pervasive. Bragg is tracked not by informers or whispers on the grapevine, but using technology to collate ‘information from social networking sites, financial transactions, IP network logs, satellite navigation equipment and mobile phone traffic’. Kathy makes extensive use of the internet and aerial photography. Clearly the police must make effective use of the available technology. But the question asked in this book is how far should they go? What is the boundary between public safety and abuse of civil liberties? This is surely a very relevant question for today. One of the senior police officers has an architectural drawing on her wall of the Panopticon, a prison dreamed up by Jeremy Betham in the late eighteenth century, in which a single watchman observes all inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly. Is creation of a modern Panopticon a legitimate aim for modern police surveillance? Maitland seems to be acknowledging that technology is vital, but that there are boundaries that shouldn’t be overstepped.

I’ve previously reviewed Maitland’s Chelsea Mansions (2011); you can read the post here. I had reservations about the end of that one, and thought some of his earlier books were better. This one is a fast-paced and engaging read, and the ending, if not perfect, does work better. I see that Maitland has now published Crucifixion Creek (2014), the first of what promises to be a series of three books set in Australia, featuring Sydney homicide detective Harry Belltree. I’m looking forward to it. You can read more about Maitland and his work here.

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It took me a while to get into this book, but when I did I found it packed a real punch. On one level that is a terrible pun, because as you can tell from the title, it’s about domestic violence. On another level, the casual violence of that metaphor is entirely appropriate to a subject too often hidden or ignored – even language condones brutality.  It is nearly twenty years since Doyle wrote this book, and I fear that little has improved for victims of such violence. But hopefully change is at least being discussed. There’s currently a petition doing the rounds against letting the repeat domestic violence offender and millionaire boxer, Floyd Mayweather, into the country; so far, he hasn’t been given a visa. The Australian of the Year for 2015, Rosie Batty, is a campaigner against domestic violence. The new Victorian Labor government has announced that a Royal Commission on Family Violence will begin in February, though the Federal Liberal government is still refusing to establish a national enquiry. I am grateful that my book club chose to consider this book at this time.

Paula Spencer lives in Dublin with three of her four children. John Paul, the eldest boy, is doing drugs in a squat somewhere. Paula begins telling her story at the point, a year ago, when the police came to her door to tell her that her husband Charlo was dead. Although she had thrown him out a year before that, she is still married to him. The story then goes back to Paula’s childhood, her meeting with Charlo, their marriage and her subsequent tendency to walk into doors. It is not told chronologically, but as a reflection on her life, told as the memories arise. And memory is unreliable and selective. ‘It’s all a mess – there’s no order or sequence,’ she says.  ‘Listen,’ says her sister, ‘I’ll tell my version and then you can tell your pack of lies.’  Paula wants to find happy memories where there aren’t many, to rework her past to show there were good times. But she can’t. ‘That’s the thing about my memories. I can’t pick and choose them. I can’t pretend. There were no good times.’ The reader is forced to conclude she’s largely right.

Paula doesn’t say so, but looking at her life, the reader can’t help but see the ways in which she is doomed to domestic violence. From a young age, girls are either ‘sluts or tight bitches’. Her confidence in herself as being any good at anything is undermined by her terrible secondary schooling; getting boys attracted to her is her only way of gaining status. She comes to believe that she is ‘a dirty slut in some way that I didn’t understand and couldn’t control’ – though at the same time, she’s proud of her sexual encounters. Her parents offer her nothing by way of support or advice – indeed it seems likely her father hit her mother, though she pushes this thought away. All her hope for the future rests with Charlo, the man she has fallen in love with and married. At first things go well, and he seems to love her equally, but soon enough – when she is pregnant with their first child – her starts hitting her. She blames herself; it is all her fault. She still loves him. ‘There was nothing wrong. He’d be fine. He’d get a job and everything would go back to normal.’  And he continues to hit her for seventeen years. ‘He beat me brainless and I felt guilty. He left me without money and I was guilty …The kids … went wild, they went hungry and it was my fault.’ No one offered her help. No wonder she becomes an alcoholic.  ‘That was my life. Getting hit, waiting to get hit, recovering; forgetting.’ But she is a survivor. One day she finds the strength to throw him out.

Doyle is a great story teller, in a style Terry Eagleton has characterised as ‘laconic Dublin-Northside realism’. He has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and tells quite a bit of the story through conversation. He eases the reader into the narrative; there are hints of what is to come, but Paula begins by recalling the more ordinary details of her life – though as I’ve said, they are in retrospect what prepares the way what happens later. Her memories become more and more explicit until violence erupts on two fronts; Charlo is shot by the police and Paula describes his treatment of her. This makes for traumatic reading. Does Doyle overdo it? I don’t think so. Furthermore, the double nature of domestic violence – the love/fear relationship, the dependence built up on the perpetrator by the victim now sound commonplace, but must have been much less understood twenty years ago, in Ireland of all places. The way the book is written doesn’t give a voice to Charlo; we only know that he comes from a brutal and dysfunctional family. (The Spencer family first appeared in the RTÉ/BBC miniseries Family in 1994.) But I don’t miss insights into his motivation.

One of the boldest things about this book is the way Doyle writes from a woman’s perspective. He is no stranger to taking on the voices of others; his Booker Prize winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) tells the story from the perspective of a ten year old boy. He has also honed his dialogue skills though writing a number of plays, and the screenplays for the films of several of his books.  This book has also been turned into an opera. In 2006, Paula Spencer, a sequel to this one, was published, picking up Paula’s life ten years on from the death of her husband.  I do hope, without much foundation, that things have improved for her.

You can read more about Roddy Doyle and his work here.

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Subtitled A true Australian love story of the 1920s, told mostly through letters (2014), this modest book is Nancy Sarre’s tribute to her parents, Cherry and Horace, and to the families of her mother and father. Letters between the young couple and other family members tell mostly of personal circumstances but also touch on some of the broader social issues shaping Australia at the time.

The book starts dramatically with a letter recounting the death of Cherry’s mother in childbirth in 1893. ‘”Behold thy house is left unto thee desolate” is a quotation which might be applied with awful truthful literalness to one today,’ writes William, the bereaved husband. Cherry was their second child, and it was William’s second marriage, his first wife having died leaving one child (two others having died in infancy). We follow the story partly through letters, and partly through Sarre’s commentary. William married again quite quickly – hardly surprising since he had two babies to deal with – and fathered five more children. They lived in Coolah, as small town in central NSW, where William worked as a saddle and boot maker, among other things. Sarre suggests that the family was a happy one, but the prospects in Coolah must have been limited, and when she was 17, Cherry left to work in Sydney, living there with an aunt. She worked at first at David Jones, but in her twenties, trained as a nurse, and worked at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She said she expected to be an ‘old maid’.

She met Horace in 1926 when visiting a friend – a former fellow nurse – in Albury, a town on the NSW bank of the River Murray. Horace’s family were partners in a hardware store, where he worked. Cherry’s and Horace’s story is something of a classic romance: boy meets girl, there are obstacles, but these are eventually overcome. The obstacles are partly the good old tyranny of distance, and partly, it seems, hesitation on Cherry’s part.  Horace begins their correspondence correctly enough – ‘Dear Miss Cole’ – but moves quickly from ‘Your humble admirer’ to “My dear Cherry’ … ‘Your ardent swain’. Cherry isn’t comfortable with this. ‘Horace,’ she writes, ‘we don’t know each other, and we should not discuss, anything other than friendship, now.’ Horace bows to the inevitable. ‘I must possess my soul with patience, and be happy with the privilege of exchanging thoughts with you’. So over the next six months they write about work in the hospital, friends in common, the weather, gardening, birds, poetry and music. Horace plays the piano and the organ; he likes Schubert and reads Joseph Conrad and Robert Browning. Cherry likes the Messiah – though neither has much time for reading or listening. They write about friendship – ‘it depends a lot on the number of things two people have in common’ – but nothing more profound. Cherry even wonders whether she might join the Bush Church Aid Society – an evangelical organisation providing pastoral and spiritual services in the outback. ‘It is the work I’m most interested in,’ she writes – but such a project wouldn’t have included a role for Horace. Then just before Christmas, Cherry changes. Suddenly it’s ‘Horace dear’, and ‘my Dear one’. Horace is delighted, and in a couple of weeks they are engaged – though for the time being Cherry is still at the hospital. ‘It is a beautiful letter,’ she writes in response to one of Horace’s, ‘and you are very wonderful to love me so and to tell me so.’ Sarre, who unfortunately can’t say what brought about Cherry’s change of heart, writes that her parents’ love affair continued for the rest of their lives; she was his ‘sunshine from the North’.

Amidst the family concerns, there are some letters that shed an interesting light on wider concerns. There is, for example, a letter from Roy, Cherry’s brother, from a hospital in London to which he has been repatriated after being wounded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. ‘It cannot go on for long at the awful cost we suffered in the Somme. The Australian public will get an awful shock when the particulars & casualty lists are published in full’. But he goes on to praise his comrades: ‘we, as a whole, did our jobs without thought of the reckoning.’ Just out of the front line and undergoing a series of painful operations, his comments seem frank, and without any over-blown patriotism. Then there is Cherry’s endorsement of prohibition: ‘I have always been keen for prohibition,’ she writes. Poor Horace prevaricates: ‘There are arguments on both sides, of course’.  But he inevitably comes down on Cherry’s side …

The letters of Cherry, Horace and their families have a further historical importance in showing just how impossible it is to generalise about life in rural Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century. They are not the bush workers of the Australian legend – itinerant, unionised, disrespectful of authority. Nor are they the inhabitants of Don Watson’s The Bush (2014), who ‘battle to drive back nature and eke a living from the land.’ Cherry and Horace and their family were distinctly of the middle class of their country towns. Their letters show them as reflective, literate people who appreciated and participated in ‘high’ culture. They were beginning to engage with new technologies like wireless and motor cars. They loved the Australian bush, and noted with approval moves to preserve it. They moved freely between city and country – though increasingly the opportunities for work outside the home for women lay in the city, as shop assistant, nurse or teacher. I find it interesting that Cherry was thirty-three when she married; this challenges the idea that before World War II, marriage was the only acceptable role for women. They worked hard, and enjoyed the company of family and friends. They were certainly not rich, but could afford travel to visit relatives and for holidays. If public affairs or politics were important to them, they didn’t write about it.

Collections of letters like these are immensely valuable for teasing out such nuances in the social history of rural Australia. If you’d like to read more about country towns, try Struggle country: the rural ideal in twentieth century Australia, edited by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (2005). And here’s Professor Davison’s summary of the history of country life in Australia. If you like family letters, you could also try Growing Together. Letters Between Frederick John Cato and Frances Bethune, 1881 to 1884, edited by  Una B Porter.

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Holiday Reading

Here’s a couple of good reads for a hot summer afternoon. Both are crime fiction, from different countries and different subgenres, but with significant similarities.

I picked up Michael Koryta’s A Welcome Grave (2009) because of the glowing endorsement by Michael Connelly on the cover. According to him, Koryta is ‘one of the best of the best’. I know endorsements don’t mean much, but I respect Connelly – here’s my review of one of his recent crime stories – and he’s right that Koryta is good. Despite the fact that he is only 32, there’s a lot Connelly can judge him on. This is his third book about private investigator Lincoln Perry – all of which were nominated for various awards – and there is one other in this series, plus six other books from a range of genres including crime, adventure and ghost stories. I’m breaking into his Lincoln Perry series – but it doesn’t matter, as the book is essentially self-contained.

Perry is a private detective operating in Cleveland Ohio. He was previously a cop, but was thrown out of the force for assaulting a prominent attorney who just happened to be having an affair with Perry’s fiancé Karen. Now that same attorney has been found murdered, and Karen wants Perry to find his estranged son. What could possibly go wrong? The story follows a structure reasonably common in crime stories where things get worse and worse for the hero as events beyond his (usually) control stack up against him until he eventually finds a way of fighting back. Koryta is slightly better at setting the conspiracy up than he is at producing a convincing resolution, but overall the story works well. I like the way he writes; Perry is a bit of a laid-back, wise-cracking Phillip Marlow sort of character. But he’s not quite the white knight that Marlow is; I like Perry’s admission at the end that he had made judgements and assumptions that he wanted to be true, and has to deal with the fact that they turned out to be wrong. I also like that Koryta’s preparation for writing private detective stories was to work as a private detective himself for a time.

The second book is The Tower (2009) by Michael Duffy, a police procedural set in Sydney. It is the first of two books featuring Senior Constable Detective Nicholas Troy. Duffy is no stranger to crime writing, having been a crime reporter (among other things, including publisher and contrarian broadcaster), and author of two ‘true crime’ books and a fictionalised representation of a Lebanese crime family in Sydney.

A young woman falls from a floor high up in the unfinished Tower building in Sydney. Is it suicide or murder? Detectives Troy and McIver are searching the unfinished top floors when the more senior of them, McIver is wounded by a gunman who flees the building. The Homicide section of the NSW police force is undermanned, and Troy has to take a leading role in the investigation. The case is complicated enough, but soon Troy finds he has to deal not only with police politics but with external power and influence. ‘Troy was not used to politics, had rarely felt its breath on his cheek. But he knew it was out there, waiting for him like everyone else.’ How well can he deal with it?

The narrative moves at a good pace, but at times I got quite confused about who was doing what to whom. Duffy says that when he writes a story, he doesn’t know how it’s going to end. Along the way in this one he introduces people smuggling, union corruption and dodgy business dealings as well as sex and drugs. Some of these are central to the plot, but others seem just there to confuse, as if the author wasn’t quite sure which bits he’d use. He says in an interview that he likes TV series such as The Wire, where ‘at first you feel a bit lost but it makes you pay attention. You have to become a detective and help solve the crime.’ So maybe he applies this to his work, and I’m just not paying enough attention. And it’s probably true that there is a deal of confusion in police work, as they strive to create a clear understanding of what actually happened. So I probably shouldn’t worry too much about loose ends. Troy is an interesting character, and I did enjoy the book – I’m just not entirely sure how it all fits together.

The differences between these books are obvious. Apart from the different settings, it is the difference between the private detective story, which seems to be the dominant detective subgenre in America, and the police procedural, which flourishes in the UK and Australia. (Connelly’s police detective Harry Bosch is an exception, but I’m not aware of very many others.) Private and police detectives work in different ways, their motivations are different, and very often the structure of the story has to be different to accommodate the private detective’s inability to arrest anyone. But these two books share a similarity I hadn’t expected. The heroes of both are not just baffled by events; they become the subject of a conspiracy. They become entangled because of the sort of people they are, and both writers have succeeded in creating heroes whose behaviour is a convincing response to their circumstances.

You can read more about Michael Koryta here, and Michael Duffy here.

PS I’m surprised by one thing in The Tower, and it’s that a Detective Constable would be given so much responsibility in a case. In most British TV police procedurals, constables seem very much the lower orders (though admittedly that isn’t true of Detective Constable Rachel Bailey in Scott and Bailey).  Maybe it’s different in Australia. Having been a crime reporter, Duffy would presumably get such details right.


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