This review was originally published at Reactions to Reading in July 2010
It is the early 1930’s and Australia, like the rest of the world, is in the grip of the Depression. As often happens in such times the political scene has become tense with a newly emerging socialism at odds with the established conservatism. Striding both worlds is Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, the youngest son of a wealthy landowning family he knows great privilege but he chooses to mix with, even share his house with, artists, left wing types and even members of the Communist Party. When his uncle is savagely beaten and killed the Police seem alarmingly disinterested in finding the culprit so Rowly and his friends embark on their own investigation.
This was a delightful book to read. I’ll admit right up front that the mystery component was a bit on the light side but because it played out against a fascinating and well-drawn backdrop of social and political events it kept my attention from the outset. Australia is not noted for its political unrest but Gentill has done a tremendous job of taking just enough real people and events from one of the few genuinely tense times in our political history and surrounding them with interesting fictional characters and intriguing situations. Rowly and his friends, some of whom are members of the Communist Party which is rising in popularity among the working class, find themselves up against the New Guard, a right-wing group that rose up (albeit briefly) in response to the perceived threat of the spread of Communism and the slightly more real threat from the brand of socialism expounded by the local Premier at the time, Jack Lang. The increasingly bizarre plots to ‘save’ the country are credibly depicted and do indeed demonstrate how easy it is for people who believe a little too fervently to move from doing good works to dangerous ones in the blink of an eye.
The characters too are nicely drawn. There was potential for them all to be a bit stereotyped and one-dimensional but they’re all nicely rounded out. Rowly is an accomplished artist, secretly in love with one of his house guests but she is pursuing her own artistic dreams. While he wants to be his own man he still does have respect for his family name and though he argues with his older brother Wilfred, now head of the family, he doesn’t deliberately set out to upset him. And though Rowly and his friends lived a life of luxury amidst the harshness of the Depression their lives aren’t without sadness, such as having to deal with the fact that Rowly’s mother believes him to be his other brother who died in the war and she constantly refers to him by his dead brother’s name and only ever talks to him about events from his brother’s life rather than his own.
The book is rounded out by a gentle humour and some imaginative interpretations of what might have happened behind the scenes at some well known moments in our history. I was easily and quickly lost in the story and keen to find out how it would all unfold. I read the whole thing in a couple of sittings and would recommend it to those who don’t mind their mysteries taking a back seat to great settings, interesting historical details and warm, lively characters. It’s a delicious treat of a book.
My rating: 3.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Pantera Press 
Length: 349 pages
Format: Trade Paperback