It is 1933 and Australian politician Eric Campbell is touring Europe with the aim of making alliances with prominent fascists. He is especially keen to meet with Adolf Hitler. Campbell’s opponents in Australia dispatched a man to Germany to thwart Campbell’s plans but that man has died and, rather desperately, they turn to playboy Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair to take over the subversive campaign. Sinclair has tangled with Campbell in the past, in an adventure depicted in the first book of this series, A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN, and needs little persuading to take on the dangerous role of spy. It will not be a surprise to fans of the series that Rowly’s friends, fellow artists Edna and Clyde and poet Milton, decide to accompany him. In addition to trying to prevent Campbell from meeting Hitler or otherwise succeeding in strengthening his links to European fascism the group from Sydney feel compelled to look into the death of the man who preceded Rowly as the one with responsibility for foiling Campbell’s plans.
I imagine any author would be wary of setting a tale that is light in tone against the backdrop of one of the darkest times in world history but Gentill has met the challenge with great success. There is the usual fun, decadence and near-death adventures that readers of the series have come to expect, starting with quick (only 14 days!) flight to Europe thanks to Australian aviation hero Charles Kingsford Smith but the tough issues are not ignored. The increasingly extreme behaviour of the Nazis is depicted sensitively and with intelligence, while taking the opportunity to remind readers that there were real heroes who stood up to the Nazis in amazing ways. Some of these are the creation of Gentill’s imagination and some, like journalist Nancy Wake (who became a British Agent during WWII) are real-life characters making cameo appearances in Gentill’s fictional world.
it is this ability to combine real and imaginary people seamlessly and credibly into her stories that make Gentill’s books stand out from the pack for me and I think PAVING THE NEW ROAD might be the most successful of the series in this regard. From the seemingly minor (but completely engaging) presence of designer Hugo Boss, competing with another tailor who befriends Rowly and the gang for contracts to make the various Nazi uniforms, to the more substantial roles played by Wake and the girlfriend of a prominent Nazi Party member the real figures help make the story a very believable one. One of the things I love about Sulari Gentill’s writing is that she never takes the easy route and so rather than stuffing the book with bad guys we’ve all met before she chose to include some truly startling lesser known figures. The inclusion, for example, of the British woman who stalked Adolf Hitler in the belief they were destined to be together, was inspired.
The mystery here becomes a relatively minor part of the plot which might offend the die-hard crime fiction fans but there is so much else going on I think only really churlish readers would complain. There’s one of the world’s first long-haul passenger flights, a book-burning at which Rowly and the gang put their lives in real danger, several encounters with sinister members of the Nazi Party and the book-long attempt to prevent Eric Campbell (another real life figure) from successfully brining extreme fascism home to Australia. As always there are light moments too, such as the purchasing of a series of expensive experimental art works which are sent home to the ultra-conservative funders of the spying mission (Rowly and company pose as art dealers to explain their presence in Germany) and some grand parties for the group to attend. And in the end the mystery that started the book is resolved with a clever surprise.
I’m not normally a big fan of blurbs which combine two random authors to describe what a book’s content might be like but the ‘Evelyn Waugh meets Agatha Christie‘ tag adorning this book’s front cover is pretty accurate, at least giving readers a sense of the kinds of characters and storyline they might encounter within the pages. PAVING THE NEW ROAD is a superb example of the historical crime genre, with wonderful characters, a truly suspenseful story and an enveloping sense of time and place. It is highly recommended.
PAVING THE NEW ROAD is released officially tomorrow (1 August) in Australia and should be available from your local independent bookstore. It is also available in eBook format from Amazon and the iBook store (though I suspect that this availability does not extend to non-Australian readers)
We also subjected Sulari to our baker’s dozen questions during Australian authors month last year.
This is the ninth book I have read for the Australian Women Writers reading challenge.
My rating: 4.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website: http://www.sularigentill.com/
Publisher: Pantera Press 
Length: 405 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: provided by the publisher for review
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