Review: THE SOLDIER’S CURSE by Meg Keneally and Tom Keneally

thesoldierscursekeneallyAlthough I am an ardent fan of Tom Keneally’s writing – and the man himself who is rightfully one of our national living treasures – I admit to wariness when approaching his latest book which he has written in collaboration with his oldest daughter Meg. Due to a combination of bad history teachers and my working for several years in an archives where the only researchers I met were on never-ending quests for convicts in their family trees there are few subjects more likely to send me to sleep than Australia’s convict era. I ought to have had more faith: THE SOLDIER’S CURSE successfully weaves literary, historical and crime fiction together in a very engaging package.

The story’s action takes place in the penal settlement of Port Macquarie in 1825 which, at the time, was some days sailing north of Sydney and was about as remote as it got in a country that was already a bloody long way from anywhere else. A suitable site then for the prisoner’s prison; the place where those criminals who had been transported to Australia and had subsequently transgressed for a second time were confined. The authors have done a superb job of depicting this time and place, eschewing some of the more familiar (and wearying) convict lore such as our collective desire to believe that the only people transported here were those who’d stolen stale bread to feed their starving families. Instead most people display a mixture of good and bad traits but generally try to do the ‘right’ thing, even if their definitions of the word differ. The isolation of the place itself and the fact so much of it is unexplored and unknown is also brought vividly to life and the settlement’s interactions with the Birpai, the Aboriginal group native to the area, are sensitively incorporated.

Hugh Monsarrat is one of the prisoners though his circumstances are not as dire as they might have been. Due to his penmanship and writing skills Monsarrat works as the clerk to Major Shelborne who runs the settlement and has some leeway in how he spends his time if not the full freedom he yearns for. His characterisation is a fascinating one as we learn that what has been his undoing is, at heart, his ego and his unwillingness to accept the limitations his world tried to impose on him. Even being transported to the ends of the earth doesn’t engender in him the capacity to be as prudent as his situation demands. It’s a wholly realistic depiction and doesn’t gloss over the fact that Hugh is a criminal by his society’s definition and he really has no one to blame but himself for his predicament.

Hugh becomes a kind of amateur sleuth when the Major’s wife falls gravely ill before dying and his friend and confidante Hannah Mulrooney, the Shelborne’s housekeeper, comes under suspicion. As is sometimes the way with historical crime fiction the mysterious elements of the story do take a back seat. There is certainly a crime but there’s not a lengthy suspense over who committed it so I suppose I ought not recommend this to die-hard whodunit purists. Though I think most others would enjoy the way this story doesn’t end when the culprit has been revealed which gives the authors time to explore what happens to the criminal after they have carried out their plan. There mixture of pride and fear and regret the culprit displays seems very credible and I found it totally compelling. I may even have shed a tear or two for the killer which is something of a feat given it was a truly heinous crime.

I’m always fascinated by joint writing projects so was interested to hear (via this Radio National interview) that the Keneallys had originally planned to write alternating chapters based on Tom Keneally’s initial outline but that they ended up with Meg doing the initial drafting with lots of input from her father. It certainly doesn’t feel in any way disjointed, as perhaps it might have done if the original plan was followed. Although she has been a journalist I don’t think Meg Keneally has written fiction before so it’s difficult to know how much of the story’s voice is hers, whereas it does seem like Tom Keneally’s voice is present. Some of the themes common to his other work, including the role of Catholicism in Australian society (Keneally trained to be a Catholic priest though left the seminary before being ordained) and the tensions between classes or social stratas, are certainly present.

Apparently there is at least one more book featuring Hugh Monsarrat and Hannah Mulrooney coming our way and I must say I can’t wait. Engaging characters, fascinating period details and the thoughtful exploration of sociopolitical themes is more than enough to have me coming back for more.

AWW2016Given it was written by a male/female pair I’m counting this as half a book towards my obligations for reading and reviewing books for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge, bringing my total so far to 11.5. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: Random House [2016]
ISBN: 9780857989369
Length: 369 pages
Format: paperback


13PointPlanForAPerfectMurderI don’t know if he had a 13-Point plan for it but David Owen’s latest novel to feature Tasmanian Detective Inspector Franz “Pufferfish” Heineken is just about the perfect murder mystery. From its deliciously out-of-the-ordinary cover (taken from a gorgeous art work by a Tasmanian artist) to its last linguistically playful sentence the book is a pure delight.

It is the seventh instalment of the series which spans 22 years and it sees the wily DI, known as almost universally as Pufferfish (due to his tendency for being generally prickly, occasionally toxic and sometimes exploding when severely provoked), confronted with a fascinating array of crimes. Aside from ensuring there is always something going on I found the mixture of matters requiring the attention of Owen and his team a good reminder that not all police work is about the hunt for crazed killers. Here, one of Pufferfish’s offsiders gets the team involved in the investigation of the theft of a school boy’s stamp album (the boy is a student of Faye’s old teacher and the alleged thief belongs to a family well known to police) and this unlikely thread provides a great deal of the book’s drama and humour. Two members of a different family that the police are also well-acquainted with claim that their husband/father has been the subject of an attempted murder (at the very least) and that they themselves are now under threat. Meanwhile, the case that grabs the whole island’s attention involves the grizzly murder of a well-connected visiting polo player. Owen has done a great job of pacing all three stories across the length of the novel and keeping the reader guessing about what inter-connections might be at play and when a story is really, truly over.

The book is told from the first-person perspective of Pufferfish himself. This is a narrative point-of-view I often find awkward but when done well, as it is here, it can provide a great perspective. We really see the world through Pufferfish’s occasionally jaded eyes, such as when the book opens and we find him on a course

In a room without a view, I’m one of 35 captives being tortured, a faceless cop…It’s agony. At the Police Training College we’re enduring a Professional Development course, the nasal drone of the lecturer soporific over a mid-distance lawnmower on this stuffy late summer afternoon.

As PD goes, this one is being delivered by a fellow with tortoiseshell specs on drop-down string is grindingly dull, except for encouraging that edgy sensation of trying not to nod off in a highly controlled environment.

Me and my miserably entrapped colleagues are here to learn about the constant need to improve the public image of policing.

Pufferfish is not always as downbeat as this might make him appear (not that anyone who’s ever sat through one of those Development courses would blame him for his despair) and is at heart a decent cop trying to get at the truth. That he’s not as enamoured with rules, senior management and wealthy types who attempt to wield power unduly as his bosses would like makes him all the more endearing to me.

The novel also offers a great sense of its place; bringing to life the isolation of island living, the ways that nature – with its beauty and its harshness – affect the state and incorporating real world elements very naturally. For example, the five-year old MONA, Australia’s largest (and just about only) privately funded museum, is the backdrop for a great scene and this is indicative of the kind of local colour the book is full of.

At some point I should stop being surprised that it is often people not born and raised here, like David Owen (who is from the Netherlands originally) and Peter Temple, who draw the best pictures of Australia in their writing. I like that Owen’s version of Australia is both light-hearted and serious when necessary, that his characters can laugh at themselves and stand up for the little guy when it matters and that beauty and ugliness co-exist if not harmoniously then inevitably. 13-POINT PLAN FOR A PERFECT MURDER is funny, fast and has a fiendishly good plot. You should read it immediately.

Publisher: Fullers Bookshop [2016]
ISBN: 9780994561107
Length: 297 pages
Format: paperback

The 2016 Australian Crime Writing Award Winners Are…

Although your humble correspondents have been woefully inattentive, this year’s Davitt and Ned Kelly Awards for Australian Crime Writing have been awarded this weekend as part of Melbourne Writer’s Festival celebrations. It seems we’ve both got some reading to do given the very few of these titles we’ve gotten around to (so far).

Davitt Awards (Saturday 27 August) Sisters in Crime Australia

ResurrectionBayViskicBest Adult novel
– Anne Buist, MEDEA’S CURSE (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Candice Fox, FALL
– Sulari Gentill, GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE
– Bronwyn Parry, STORM CLOUDS
– J. M. Peace, TIME TO RUN (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
Emma Viskic, RESURRECTION BAY (Bernadette’s review) Winner

FerrisRiskBest Young Adult Novel

– Kathryn Barker, IN THE SKIN OF A MONSTER
Fleur Ferris, RISK Winner
– Ellie Marney, EVERY MOVE
– Maureen McCarthy, STAY WITH ME

xfriday-barnes-under-suspicion.jpg.pagespeed.ic.1XSQMpfW6IBest Children’s Novel


WildManBest Non-Fiction

– Carol Baxter, BLACK WIDOW
– Cheryl Critchley and Helen McGrath, WHY DID THEY DO IT?
– Kate Kyriacou, THE STING
– Alecia Simmonds, WILD MAN Winner
– Sofija Stefanovic, YOU’RE JUST TO GOOD TO BE TRUE

ResurrectionBayViskicBest Debut

– Kathryn Barker, IN THE SKIN OF A MONSTER
– Anne Buist, MEDEA’S CURSE (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Caroline de Costa, DOUBLE MADNESS (Bernadette’s review)
– Fleur Ferris, RISK
– J. M. Green, GOOD MONEY (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– J. M. Peace, TIME TO RUN (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– Ann Turner, THE LOST SWIMMER (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
Emma Viskic, RESURRECTION BAY Winner (Bernadette’s review)

Emma Viskic also won the Reader’s Choice Award with RESURRECTION BAY (all members of Sisters in Crime Australia are allowed one vote for any of the books eligible for any of the categories). And for what may be the first time in history I am actually one of the in-crowd, having cast my own vote for this excellent novel.

Ned Kelly Awards (Sunday 28 August) Australian Crime Writers Association

ResurrectionBayViskicBest First Fiction

  • Tania Chandler – PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME HERE
  • J.M. Green – GOOD MONEY
  • Mark Holland – AMPLIFY
  • Gary Kemble – SKIN DEEP
  • Ian Ryan – FOUR DAYS
  • Emma Viskic – RESURRECTION BAY Winner (Bernadette’s review)

S.D. Harvey Award for Short Stories

  • Robbie Arnott – The Hall Chimp
  • Honey Brown – The Adjustment
  • Joshua Kemp – Sisters in Red
  • Roni O’Brien – Flesh Winner
  • Jemma Tyley-Miller – The Caretaker

certain_admissionsBest True Crime

  • Gideon Haigh – CERTAIN ADMISSIONS Winner
  • Kate Kyriacou – THE STING
  • Rebecca Poulson – KILLING LOVE
  • Mark Tedeschi – KIDNAPPED

BeforeItBreaksBest Fiction

  • Mark Dapin – R&R
  • Candice Fox – FALL
  • Barry Maitland – ASH ISLAND
  • Adrian McKinty – RAIN DOGS
  • Dave Warner – BEFORE IT BREAKS Winner
  • Emma Viskic – RESURRECTION BAY (Bernadette’s review)

The Australian Crime Writers Association also awarded a lifetime achievement award this year to Carmel Shute who is one of the founders and the longest-serving National Co-Convener of Sisters in Crime Australia and has spent a quarter of a century supporting and nurturing Australian women crime writers. Twitter tells me Carmel took an Enid Blyton novel on stage with her when accepting her award.

Fair Dinkum Crime congratulates all the winners and shortlisted authors and we look forward to catching up with some good reading.

Review: DEATH OF A LAKE by Arthur Upfield

DeathOfALakeUpfieldAudioFor the third time I’ve chosen an Arthur Upfield novel with which to participate in Crimes of the Century, this month requiring a novel originally published in 1954. Once again I chose to listen to a version narrated wonderfully by Peter Hosking (who’s won a narrator of the year award in his time and it’s not hard to hear why).

As with the previous two novels I’ve read it is Upfield’s depiction of the Australian setting that steals the show for me. This novel’s central place is a temporary inland lake: an area that has water for a year or three but which routinely dries up completely when the drought that is inevitable in Australia takes hold. Upfield’s lake is the fictional Lake Otway but it resembles real-life Lake Eyre which is, when it isn’t a dust bowl, is the largest lake in the country. We are introduced to it, and the novel, with these words

Lake Otway was dying. Where it had existed to dance before the sun and be courted by the ravishing moon there would be nothing but drab flats of iron hard clay and then the dead might rise to shout accusations shouted by the encircling sand dunes.


The out-station crowned a low bluff on the southern shore and from it single telephone lines spanned 50 miles of virgin country to base on the great homestead where lived the boss of Porchester station which comprised eight hundred thousand acres and was populated by 60,000 sheep in the care of some 20 wage plugs…

Three years ago the lake was so full of water that it was possible to swim in. And even to drown in, as apparently happened to young stockman Ray Gillen. But now, as police Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte arrives on the scene in the guise of a horsebreaker, the lake is rapidly emptying and Bony soon realises he’s not the only person keen to see what the disappearance of the lake will reveal about the stockman’s death. Gillen was a lottery winner and almost everyone connected to the station seems to think they have some claim on the dead man’s money, wherever it might be.

I’ve thought before that the Upfield plots are the weakest elements of his novels but this one was strong, managing not to get bogged down in too much esoteric detail and maintaining a cracking pace with a load of twists as Bony – and readers – whittle down the greed-driven suspect pool. Whether it be the motley collection of fellow workers or the mother/daughter cook and housemaid team that look after the station everyone seems to have had both motive and opportunity to take advantage of the scenario. The culprit, when eventually unveiled, is among the coldest human beings you’ll encounter fictionally.

Although there is much to anchor this book to place – including a heat which literally has birds dropping from trees in death and the kind of mass rabbit skinning that I can’t imagine happening anywhere else – there is not a great deal to pinpoint the novel in time. Mention is made that Ray Gillen had fought in Korea and there are one or two other indicators that this is one of Upfield’s later novels but it does have a fairly timeless quality. At least it does if you ignore the casual bigotry that pervades all these stories (though here it is women rather than Aboriginal people who cop the brunt of the social stigmatising).

I don’t know that I’d recommend this as the best place to start discovering Arthur Upfield and/or Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte but the book is a solid entry to the series and continues to provide a unique voice in classic crime fiction.

Publisher: This edition Bolinda Audio 1954 [Original Edition, 1954]
Narrator: Peter Hosking
Length: 6 hours, 12 minutes
Format: audio book

Review: COMMON PEOPLE by A.E. Martin

CommonPeopleMartinThe full title of the this novel – at least the edition I read – is COMMON PEOPLE: MURDER IN SIDESHOW ALLEY which gives a little more of a flavour of what is to come. The book’s original American title – THE OUTSIDERS (1945) – also offers a good feel for its story’s subject matter Initially published as a serialised story in an Australian magazine in 1943, as a novel it was first released a year later and tells the story of a group of ‘freaks’…carnival and circus acts who do what they can to get by in a world that either pointedly ignores them or stares rudely. The central character is not really one of them but feels an affinity with these outsiders having grown up an orphan and never really fitting in with ‘normal’ people. Pelham – or Pel as he’s generally known – is what today we’d call an entrepreneur but who is described in the book as

…he was city – a lurker, a fellow who lived on his wits, with no trade, no profession, relying on his imagination for his bread and butter.

His central work in this story is the financing. promoting and running of a 10-week show displaying the world’s most successful starving man to the people of London. Business-wise things are going well but on the eve of his big show’s commencement an old friend of Pel’s is murdered. This horror happens in the flat underneath the one in which Pel and his sideshow act friends are celebrating so they all become potential suspects and at least one policeman is champing at the bit to arrest at least one of ‘the freaks’.

The character of Pel must surely be at least a little autobiographical given A.E. (Archibald Edward) Martin’s own potted history which includes several years on the European carnival circuit with Houdini as his mentor. He also worked as a journalist, magazine owner, travel agent and publicist for a variety of the kinds of acts we meet in the book before turning his hand to writing (both fiction and non fiction). This breadth of experience gives COMMON PEOPLE its authentic feel and the sense that the reader is being drawn into a different world rather than being asked to point and snigger at it which could so easily have happened. There’s no hint that the author is laughing at or exploiting these people which gives the reader permission to simply be fascinated in learning about this truly absorbing world.

The plot rocks along at a fair pace with Pel hooking up with a couple of more enlightened policemen than the one who sneers at and suspects all the carnival acts. Even so there are a couple of genuine suspects among the crowd and suspicions must be worked through before a satisfactory resolution comes to pass. All the while we are treated to the trials and tribulations of being a carnival act or the promoter of one which provides the story with a lot of warm humour.

My only disappointment in reading the book – given the author was born in my home town – is that there is very little Australian about it. Aside from one character claiming to be an Australian that is. But for someone not terribly fond of the circus I found myself completely absorbed in this tale and its characters and gripped by the classic whodunit suspense. I’m grateful (as ever) to the people at Wakefield Press who included this story in the series of forgotten Australian crime classics they released in the 80’s and 90’s.

Publisher: this edition Wakefield Press [1994]
ISBN: 9781862543034
Length: 212 pages
Format: paperback

2016 Davitt Awards Short(ish) Lists

SistersInCrimeLogoSisters in Crime Australia has announced the shortlists for this year’s Davitt Awards, celebrating the best in crime writing by Australian women. We’ve only read some titles from the Adult and Debut categories here at Fair Dinkum but we congratulate all the nominees and look forward to learning who wins all the awards on August 27.

Adult novels (6)
– Anne Buist, Medea’s Curse: Natalie King, Forensic Psychiatrist (Text Publishing) (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Candice Fox, Fall (Penguin Random House)
– Sulari Gentill, Give the Devil His Due (Pantera Press)
– Bronwyn Parry, Storm Clouds (Hachette Australia)
– J. M. Peace, Time to Run (Pan Macmillan Australia) (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (Echo Publishing) (Bernadette’s review)

I will admit to voting for one of the above titles in the Reader’s Choice category of the Davitt Awards (all members of Sisters in Crime are eligible to cast one vote in that category). It may or may not be one of the titles I’ve reviewed.

Young Adult Novels (4)
– Kathryn Barker, In the Skin of a Monster (Allen & Unwin)
– Fleur Ferris, Risk (Penguin Random House)
– Ellie Marney, Every Move (Allen & Unwin)
– Maureen McCarthy, Stay with Me (Allen & Unwin)

Children’s Novels (3)
– Susan Green, Verity Sparks and the Scarlet Hand (Walker Press)
– Catherine Jinks, Theophilus Grey and the Demon Thief (Allen & Unwin)
– R. A. Spratt, Friday Barnes 2: Under Suspicion (Penguin Random House)

Non-Fiction (6)
– Carol Baxter, Black Widow (Allen & Unwin)
– Cheryl Critchley and Helen McGrath, Why Did They Do It? (Pan Macmillan Australia)
– Kate Kyriacou, The Sting (Echo Publishing)
– Alecia Simmonds, Wildman (Affirm Press)
– Sue Smetherst, Behind Closed Doors (Simon & Schuster)
– Sofija Stefanovic, You’re Just Too Good to Be True (Penguin Random House)

Debut (9)
– Kathryn Barker, In the Skin of a Monster (Allen & Unwin)
– Anne Buist, Medea’s Curse: Natalie King, Forensic Psychiatrist (Text Publishing) (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Tania Chandler, Please Don’t Leave Me Here (Scribe)
– Caroline de Costa, Double Madness (Margaret River Press) (Bernadette’s review)
– Fleur Ferris, Risk (Penguin Random House)
– J. M. Green, Good Money (Scribe) (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– J. M. Peace, Time to Run (Pan Macmillan Australia) (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– Ann Turner, The Lost Swimmer (Simon & Schuster) (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (Echo Publishing) (Bernadette’s review)

Review: THE DRY by Jane Harper

TheDryHarperAudioJane Harper’s THE DRY is well named. The drought-ridden, stiflingly-hot town of Kiewarra and its surrounding farmland dominate the book. Remote. A small population; always someone you know nearby which can be a blessing and a curse. And the weather. Always the weather. Refusing, almost with intent, to give even a hint of relief from heat and dryness and failing to provide the sustenance needed for the farming everyone relies on for their livelihoods. Their lives.

The story opens with an all-too imaginable scene of an apparent murder-suicide of a farming family in this inhospitable place. All dead except for baby Charlotte

First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet. Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scooter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm.

We are drawn into the story of this place via Aaron Falk. Kiewarra has dominated his life too. He was born there but left as a teenager. Forced out. Literally. After one of his friends had died. Officially she committed suicide but many locals think Aaron played a role in her death. Only something as dramatic as his best friend Luke Hadler’s funeral brings him back 20 years later, after he’s made a life for himself as a Federal police officer in Melbourne. Well that and a veiled threat. Still Aaron plans to be in and out of town pretty quickly but Luke’s parents have other ideas. They don’t believe their son killed his wife, their son and himself. They want Aaron to prove it. Need him to prove it.

A lot of crime novels rely on abnormalities to keep readers’ attention. Serial killers with macabre fantasies. Impossibly convoluted crimes. Implausibly brilliant and/or quirky detectives. THE DRY has none of that. Even that horrendous weather is par for the course in the driest continent on the planet. Yet even without gimmicks and quirks, the story is completely gripping. There is such a palpable sense of the hidden here. Some people’s secrets are innocuous – merely an attempt to wrestle some privacy from life in the fish bowl that small town living can be. Others are embarrassing. Others are truly awful. Criminal. Harper does a brilliant job of keeping us guessing about which is which right through the novel.

THE DRY is a very modern tale of Australian life that happens to have a crime or two in it. There’s no criminal mastermind at work. Just ordinary people reacting to what they experience. What they think they know. Aaron feeling unable to walk away, wanting to know the truth about his old friend Luke. Once and for all. Luke’s parents wanting to feel like they can look people they’ve known all their lives in the eye again. The local policeman wondering if the murder suicide is really staged or does he just want it to be something unusual. Random locals believing the version of that long ago death that has become folklore. Amidst the powerful backdrop of place these people’s stories could get swamped but Harper brings them all vividly and realistically to life and makes the reader desperate to know what has brought each of them to the point at which we’ve met them.

It would be more remarkable that this is a debut novel – because it is about as flawless as they come – except that Harper is a long-time journalist. So storytelling is clearly not new for her. Even so, whatever she produces next will have a lot to live up to. I for one can’t wait.

My experience of this truly excellent book was further enhanced via a fabulous narration of the audio version by local voice artist Steve Shanahan. His voice changes for different characters are perfect, his cadence and pacing are natural and he seems to be enjoying the story himself (this is not always the case). 

AWW2016This is the 11th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: This edition Wavesound Audio (original edition Pan Macmillan) [2012]
Narrator: Steve Shanahan
Length: 9 hours 37 minutes
Format: audio book

Review: THE BANK MANAGER by Roger Monk

TheBankManagerMonkFollowing the adventures depicted in this novel’s predecessor Detective Sergeant Brian Shaw is assigned to provide an on site detective presence for the Yorke Peninsula, north west of Adelaide. The year is 1950 and until this time all police detectives have been based in Adelaide which proves expensive and wastes time when investigations requiring their expertise happen outside the city. Brian Shaw, and his personally selected offsider Senior Constable Harry Fetter, are to act as a sort of pilot program for the notion of having detectives based in key locations all around South Australia. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking the two policemen ensured their program’s success via some kind of personal intervention when the normally uneventful (fictional) town of Midway sees high drama the same week that the Adelaide policemen arrive. The manager of one of the town’s two banks disappears one Tuesday afternoon, failing to return from his regularly scheduled visit to an outlying town to provide banking agency services. Frank Anderson is well liked and respected; a happily married man. His family, the town residents and the police are baffled to explain the reason for his disappearance let alone the manner.

As with THE BANK INSPECTOR  the book has an authentic historical feeling to it. Monk has depicted the pace and lifestyle typical of such places with affection, obviously using his own experiences as a country banker to draw on. There’s no big city sneering at country bumpkins here; if anything the slower pace and inter-connected nature of the town’s residents are highlighted as positive attributes of country living. The difficulties that Shaw and Fetter encounter in uncovering what has happened to Frank Anderson really highlight how policing has changed with the advent of technology. About all Brian Shaw can rely on is shoe leather, the town grapevine and his own wits.

Perhaps the pace at which the story unfolds would be a little slow for some readers but I enjoyed the way the book offered a real sense of the time it must have taken for such investigations to unfold. And there is a lot else to enjoy in the book as we meet all the town’s residents, several of whom attempt to ensnare Brian Shaw as an eligible bachelor for their unmarried daughters, and often provide humorous elements to proceedings.

I found the characterisations here stronger than in the first novel. Brian is more well fleshed out we seem to spend more time learning his inner thoughts. His sense of nervousness and excitement at being given such an opportunity is palpable, as is his excitement over a growing love interest (I’m not letting on whether it’s one of the town’s daughters or not). Among the other well-drawn characters my favourite is Miss Iris Wearing: the last surviving member of a wealthy family. She can be haughty, even rude, but reveals both softness and nerves of steel to Brian Shaw in some very engaging passages.

I can thoroughly recommend THE BANK MANAGER to fans of historical crime fiction, especially those who prefer plot and character to guns and blood. There are deaths in the book but minimal depictions of violence, even the kind that happens after death in the form of autopsies and the other grim realities more modern settings seem to demand these days.

Publisher: Horizon Publishing Group [2016]
ISBN: 9781922238573
Length: 335 pages
Format: paperback

Review: NOW YOU SEE ME by Jean Bedford

I was quite excited to see Australian author Jean Bedford’s name appearing on a new releases for 2016 list and promptly added the title to my library requests list. The copy they dutifully provided looked too dog-eared to be this year’s and I have since discovered that Endeavour Press – independent publisher of eBooks, many of which are out of print – have released a new edition of a book first published in 1997. My review is of the earlier edition.

NowYouSeeMeBedfordJean27780_fI apologise in advance if what follows sounds confused. Overall I liked the book – it is very readable, has a high pageturnyness score and tackles a difficult subject thoughtfully – but there are some elements that make me pretty darned uncomfortable. Though of course that is likely the point.

Action in NOW YOU SEE ME centres on a group of adults, most of whom were at University together some years ago. They are an incestuous little clique – having multiple coupling variations between them and seeming reluctant to welcome members’ partners or other newcomers into their circle. The fact that the reader easily believes any one of them could be a child murderer operating undetected in Sydney is an indication of how dysfunctional they all are. I know that in classic whodunits it is normal for an entire cast of characters to operate as the suspect pool but for some reason I find it easier to swallow that premise when applied to a collection of strangers invited to a country house for the weekend than a group of long-time friends and their partners. To be fair though this book does offer the notion that people with similar backgrounds tend to be drawn to each other as a reasonable explanation for such disturbed individuals all knowing each other.

We know one of the group is a killer because that person tells part of the story via a series of italicized chapters detailing their own childhood of extreme abuse and the actions they’ve undertaken as an adult. Regular readers of my ramblings will know I’m not a huge fan of this literary device but I have to acknowledge that most of my annoyance is due to overuse and it’s entirely probable that in 1997 italicized thoughts from inside the mind of a serial killer was some years away from becoming a tired cliché.

That said those passages are graphic. The violence is not, on consideration, gratuitous, but it is very, very graphic. Readers wary of this type of content should consider themselves warned: it is at the borderline of what I would normally read and I considered stopping a couple of times.

The author has gone to some pains to let us know her depictions of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children have been included in NOW YOU SEE ME for reasons other than to titillate. For example political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose 1970 essay On Violence is still an influential work on the subject, gets a deliberate mention and there are other signs that the passages are not merely aiming to shock or entertain. Rather, their aim is to reflect reality. A harsh reality no doubt but one which did – and still does – exist outside the pages of fiction for too many children and which society has for most of history swept under the proverbial carpet. I couldn’t help but ponder if Bedford might make different choices if writing the book today when there are some signs, such as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which has now been hearing evidence around the country for three years, that collectively we are more aware of these realities and are taking steps to prevent future occurrences. But perhaps she would still feel that the story needs these passages to provide readers with a real sense that child abuse takes many forms, is not always perpetrated by identifiable no-hopers and has lasting and unimaginable consequences for its victims. Personally I think the story could have had the same powerful narrative and thematic impact without so many detailed descriptions of abusive acts but accept this issue is a subjective one and that the author’s intentions are sound. And there’s no arguing: she does get her point across.

Although I baulked at accepting them as a collective suspect pool I thought the individual characterisations were very good. The emotional baggage that the core group are all carrying manifests itself in various ways, all of them realistic. The two that particularly stood out for me were the couple struggling to deal with the male member’s need to dress as a woman. Both go through a range of emotions including embarrassment, confusion, selfishness and despair and the reader is brought along with them, feeling equally sympathetic for both parties going through a difficult experience.

Noel Baker is the outsider: a journalist who becomes convinced that some of the deaths of vulnerable children which have occurred in Sydney in recent times are the responsibility of a single killer rather than the various parents and guardians who have been convicted of the crimes. She struggles to generate official interest in her theory but does make friends with a female police constable, who also happens to be the girlfriend of one of the core suspect pool, and they start looking at cases in which things might not be as they first appear. Noel is realistically portrayed. Stumbling about somewhat given that her theory is implausible and difficult to prove regardless of its veracity and when it becomes clear who the likely perpetrator is as she says to her boyfriend

I can’t think straight. It was like a game – working out the rules, angling for the moves. Then it stopped being a game, it was someone I knew, someone I cared for. It made me go to water.

This sensibility – that there is a chasm between intellectual exercise and reality – should exist in more crime novels but rarely seems to be acknowledged.

I even liked the ending of this novel though it won’t be for everyone. It’s too ambiguous for some but I thought it fitting. Unpleasant and anger-inducing but more believable than a resolution which tied everything up neatly would have been.

So I am glad to have read NOW YOU SEE ME though there were points when I thought I might not be. The graphic nature of its content, particularly the depictions of violence being inflicted upon children, will be too much for some but I did find it worth persevering through the difficult content. The book has a lot to say about the insidiousness of child abuse and its ever-lasting consequences and the complexities of investigating it and the impact of that activity on those tasked with doing it. It’s certainly not a book easily forgotten.

AWW2016This is the ninth book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: Random House [1997]
ISBN/ASIN: 0091832411
Length: 306 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE DRY, Jane Harper

  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 3534 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan Australia (May 31, 2016)
  • Publication Date: May 31, 2016
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01B40JHRQ

Synopsis  (Amazon)

WHO REALLY KILLED THE HADLER FAMILY?Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well …

When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is
loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.

And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds are reopened. For Falk
and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret … A secret Falk thought long-buried … A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface …

Winner of the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript

My Take

Drought in Australia takes its toll in many ways and many believe that Luke Hadler has just snapped under the pressure. When Aaron Falk comes to the town for the funerals, he intends to get away as quickly as possible. But Luke’s parents ask him to try to work out what triggered the murder/suicides, and then Falk meets a local policeman who is having a hard job accepting that Luke Hadler killed his family.

Aaron Falk and his father left the rural Victorian country town after the death of one of Aaron’s friends. The final verdict was that Ellie had actually committed suicide, filling her shoes and pockets with stones, and drowning herself in a local swimming hole. Aaron and his father were questioned in connection with her death and then hounded out of town by Ellie’s father. Now, twenty years on, the old rumours resurface and many townspeople treat Aaron with hostility and suspicion.

This is a really well constructed novel, with a number of credible red herrings, and then a final solution that really comes out of left field.

A good read.

My rating: 4.7

About the author:

Jane Harper has worked as a print journalist for thirteen years both in
Australia and the UK. She lives in Melbourne and writes for the Herald Sun, among other publications. Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, The Dry is her first novel with rights sold to over twenty territories.