sulari gentill, a murder unmentioned

There is something so completely delicious about Rowland Sinclair and his louche band of comrades, the rapscallion Australian heroes of Sulari Gentill’s 1930s-set series. I could eat them all up with a silver spoon: flamboyant poet Milton Isaacs, loyal landscape painter Clyde Watson Jones, frequently nude sculptress Edna Higgins, and Rowland Sinclair himself, rich, connected, tough, determined, and honourable in a political sense, if not always within the confines of early twentieth century upper-class society. They are as merry to join as your most entertaining group of friends, though (I assume) get imprisoned and accused of murder at a higher rate.

In this, Rowland’s sixth mystery, a secretive family subject is brought to light after the gun used in his father’s death some thirteen years earlier was found in a drained dam at the family’s country homestead in Yass. His friends had all been led to believe that the late Henry Sinclair had died in a much more respectable and quiet way, and Rowland’s own family has been disinclined to discuss the issue until now, when it seems apparent that the finger of blame is now pointing squarely at our hero himself. So Rowland and all his friends avail themselves of now-classic cars and now-frightening airplanes to arrive in New South Wales’ Southern Tablelands, clear Rowly’s name, and do their darnedest to offend everyone’s sensibilities, make Rowly’s stuffed-shirt brother Wilfred shout about respectability and save the day.

With cameo appearances from historical figures even I recognised—Bob Menzies in the Sinclair kitchen, Edna Walling in the garden, and Kate Leigh grinning lasciviously at Rowly in a jailhouse crowd—and a real sense of fun to the book alongside some quite genuine tension, this is historical crime for those in the know and those—like me—who can barely remember what happened last weekend, let alone what the proper etiquette and outfit would be for a spot of post-murder supper. My one criticism would be that there is an inappropriately randy character with the exact same name as my father (who admittedly would have been four years old at the time), but as long as you are not me or my sisters, you could probably overlook that rather alarming moment without thinking anxiously about calling your father with a stern tone.

 

A Murder Unmentioned is a November release. And you should buy it.

justine larbalestier, razorhurst

Today’s guest post is by the illegally excellent Liz Barr.

 
Diverse as the young adult category is, it contains surprisingly little crime fiction. Maybe its tendency towards realism keeps authors and publishers away from anything that smacks of Enid Blyton. Five Investigate a Grisly Murder. The Secret Seven Solve A Scando-Drama. (Note: I would absolutely read these.)

Filling the gap is Justine Larbalestier’s Razorhurst. It’s dedicated to Ruth Park and Kylie Tennant, whose novels depicted a Surry Hills now lost to gentrification, but its streetsmart dames and ominously respectable crime lords owe something to Raymond Chandler and the American hardboiled detective genre. Not that Chandler would portray a young prostitute with as much sympathy and affection as Larbalestier gives Dymphna Campbell, but then, there weren’t many stoic, tough talking, hard drinking, cynical but honest detectives in 1930s Sydney, either.

Oh, and hardboiled American detective novels didn’t have ghosts.

I was hesitant about the ghosts at first: Sydney in the razor gang era is already so fascinating — why clutter it up with the supernatural? By the book’s end, I was dissatisfied because I wanted more ghosts. I wanted the characters to confront the swarms that haunt Central Station. I wanted more of the beautiful murder victim who haunts her killer’s car. And I wanted a bit less of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s recently deceased boyfriend. (Actually, like the two heroines, I frequently wished he’d vanish forever, or at least shut up for a while.)

The novel takes place over a 24-hour period as the fragile peace between two crime lords is threatened. Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s best girl, but the ominous Mr Davidson has taken an interest in her. And Dymphna has an agenda of her own — although once Jimmy is murdered, her ambitions simplify: she wants to survive.

Accompanying Dymphna is Kelpie, a streetkid who can see and communicate with Sydney’s ghosts. Kelpie knows a lot about death, but once she’s out of Surry Hills, the world is a strange and unfamiliar place. Along the way, Dymphna and Kelpie pick up an ally in the form of Neal Darcy, an honest working class would-be author who can handle a typewriter or a fist fight with equal skill. But not everyone is going to survive the coming day.

Larbalestier vividly sketches 1930s Sydney, but if you’re remotely familiar with the era — or at least watched Underbelly: Razor (which was totally great, by the way — the historical figures might have been slimmed down and glammed up, but that topless prostitute fight actually happened) — there’s a lot of joy to be had in spotting the historical figures. Most appear under different names — Gloriana Nelson is a combination of vice queens Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine — but they’re recognisable nonetheless.

I was particularly delighted with Snowy, based on a factual black man with dyed platinum hair, who’s known, then and now, only by a racial slur. Whatever his real name was, there’s no trace of it in any surviving documents. Larbalestier gives her character a history, a family, an inoffensive nickname, and ultimately something very close to a happy ending.

I’m not sure how well Razorhurst works as a YA novel — I don’t think I’d have understood or enjoyed it when I was a teen — but as crime fiction, it’s an absolute ripper that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Arrested and charged with the trafficking of books. Charges dismissed after bribing the judge with some new releases. Small. Ginger. Enjoys history, cephalopods and tween media. lizbarr.wordpress.com

review: katherine howell, deserving death

Paramedics Carly Martens and Tessa Kimball are out working, hungover, bickering and frustrated with each other, when they get a call: attend to a collapsed woman in Sydenham. But the address sends shivers down Carly’s spine, and when they arrive, hearts racing, their worst fears are confirmed: their co-worker and friend, whose birthday they’d been out celebrating just the night before, is dead. She had been brutally assaulted, just like the paramedic who, weeks earlier, had died in the same circumstances.

Detective Ella Marconi takes the case, sensing a lot of tension in Carly and Tessa that spreads beyond them into the wider paramedic community. Carly and Ella have history together, unresolved when the solution to one crime meant the death of someone Carly had sworn to help. Still, Carly is invested in this case, wanting justice for her dead friend, and offers her help again, wanted or not. Both women have personal issues sitting heavily on their shoulders: Marconi is trying to sustain her relationship with a handsome doctor as the anniversary of his cousin’s death looms large; Carly is waiting to see if her girlfriend will be able to brave her family’s bigotry and disclose their relationship.

The investigation travels from paramedic offices to dancefloor creeps, and brings uneasy workplace relations to the fore; over the course of this tense book (“Just one more chapter,” I called to my partner as he went to bed, before I subsequently stayed up and finished the entire thing) there are more crimes simmering in the sometimes unhealthy cultures of Australia’s protective service officers.

While this book is good from a purely thrilling-read perspective, what highlighted it for me is the women; smart, capable, not willing to take crap or overlook situations in which other women are treated poorly. Carly doesn’t always make the best decisions in her attempts to help, but she always alerts someone about what she’s doing – standard fare in crime books is to do the opposite and get swiftly murdered – and I bought them completely as characters I believed in and wanted to succeed. Unexpectedly, I figured out the killer about halfway through the book, but conferring with (equally impressed) friends it seems they didn’t, and I’m an outlier, so I’ll just be proud and start applying for my detective badge immediately.

review: adrian deans, straight jacket

This summer, Adrian Deans’ Sydney teems with cicadas, desire and blood. Arguably, the worst part of the season is Morgen Tanjenz: rich, bored, and with just enough time on his hands to pursue his passion for Life Sculpture. With cash and connections and righteousness at his disposal, he takes it upon himself to very creatively disrupt the lives of those who draw his ire by such enormous criminal acts as talking too loud on a train or taking the job Morgen had coveted.

Acting with a little less subtlety is the Gorge Killer: a serial murderer who sends fingers in the mail. Detective Sergeant Peter Fowler—better known as Blacksnake—is on the hunt and about one bad coffee away from physically exploding with pent-up frustration.

When Morgen says, early on, “I felt my sense of justice becoming engorged—even tumescent, you might say”, it gives a good indication about how unnerving the whole book is. Still, it remains also enormous fun, with Morgen’s machinations utterly, horribly enjoyable in that kind of grim way that makes you worry a bit about your own sanity. He baits perfectly nice people for fun, poses as a Salvo and spends all the earnings on brothels and booze. He is attractive, clever and dreadful: all excellent ingredients for a protagonist. With a blitz of an ending and such originality throughout that you can never pick where it’s going to go next—except badly—Straight Jacket is a quality disturbing read.