The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender, Marele Day

In the first book of a four book series Claudia Valentine is a private investigator in Sydney, Australia, in the late 1980’s. She’s called upon by an old acquaintance to investigate the death of her brother, Mark Bannister, who supposedly died from a heart attack. Claudia soon discovers a number of unsettling facts including the fact Mark had heroin in his system when he died and was writing a book before his death but had kept the content secret from everyone he knew. Her investigation takes into the seamier side of life in the harbour city and she’s soon rubbing shoulders with some nasty characters including the shadowy Harry Lavendar of the title.

I was surprised to learn that in addition to the much loved female private eye series I have followed for years (Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone) there was an Australian-based series featuring a similar character. Despite being a fan of the genre for many years I’d never heard a peep this series which says something about my lack of investigative powers but says more about the paucity of publicity for Australian authors in their home country. On the basis that it is better to have discovered these late than never I thought I’d take a look.

The most noticeable thing about this book when judged by today’s standards is it’s length: 169 pages! Is it only 20 years ago that books didn’t have to be the size and weight of house bricks in order to be published? Amazingly within those few pages an entire story with a beginning, a middle and an end, manages to be told. And it’s a pretty good story too. The plot is logical and has the requisite twists, turns and surprises and Claudia’s investigation is depicted quite realistically. As is often the case with private eyes she uses a combination of friends in the right places and gut instinct to puzzle out whether or not Mark Bannister was murdered and who might have done such a thing and she gets into, and out of, some scrapes along the way. I was bemused by the fact that Claudia’s client never made an appearance after she initially hired Claudia (no worried phone calls were made nor any updates given) but that was the only ‘hole’ I noticed in the plot.

While the story was good, if fairly familiar for the genre, the writing of this book is in a separate class. I can’t think of a word to encapsulate it but it’s very, very good. It evokes a very strong sense of the location. I lived in Sydney at the time the book was set and I was transported back to that time and place by the words. At one point, Claudia is walking through the city noticing the changing nature of the landscape and she reflects

    I tried to picture what all this had looked like a few short years ago but couldn’t. Like everyone else, I would accept it once it was a fait accompli, vaguely aware that the signposts of the city’s history and my own were being effaced, as if someone had gone through my photo album and replaced the photos of me with those of another child, more modern, better dressed.

I always marvel when someone can sum up the depth of a feeling so eloquently and so perfectly and there is a lot more of this throughout the book.

It saddens me a little to think I’m not the only Aussie more familiar with US and UK authors than I am with my own country’s literary heritage but I’m rather chuffed to have discovered this author even if it is long after she stopped writing crime fiction (she has written general fiction since this series ended though). If you like private eyes with a lot of guts and a sense of humour you could do a lot worse than track down this book.

My rating 3.5/5, 

Publisher: Allen & Unwin [1988], ISBN 1 86448 772 0

There are three later books in the Claudia Valentine series: The Case of the Chinese Boxes, The Last Tango of Dolores Delgado and The Disappearances of Madalena Grimaldi

This review was originally published at Reactions to Reading on 21 Feb 2009

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