I don’t know if was via an early reading that jarred with my younger self’s sensibilities or due to some misunderstanding on my part of information gleaned from unknown sources but I somehow had developed the impression that Jon Cleary’s Scobie Malone novels were not for me. The character, I thought, was some kind of laddish yob and the books of a type that would make me cringe. Only this month’s reading challenge from Past Offences to review a book written in 1987 could prompt me, reluctantly, to track down a copy of the fourth novel in the series. I was truly astonished then to find myself utterly engaged by a protagonist of depth and character in a novel of intelligence and humour that observes its chosen slice of Australian society and culture with a keen eye and sharp wit. Who knew?
Although published in 1987 DRAGONS AT THE PARTY is set in Sydney in late January of the following year during the series of ceremonies and events which would kick off the country’s bicentennial celebrations. Rather awkwardly Australia has been coerced into taking in some high profile refugees in the form of President Abdul Timori of the (fictitious) Pacific island of Palucca and his entourage. His Generals having staged a successful coup, Timori is now a President in exile and due to some questionable behaviour in his home country has only managed to secure a temporary home in Australia due to his wife’s connections to the country’s Prime Minister. When one of his aides is killed by a sniper’s bullet it is assumed the President was the real target so Harry ‘Scobie’ Malone, an Inspector with the NSW Police, is assigned to investigate the attack while the Federal Police take on the role of protecting the former President from further assassination attempts. The thing that struck me first about the book, bearing in mind I was reading it begrudgingly, was how quickly it won me over. I was only a few pages in when I started chuckling at its sharp dialogue and witty observations about people and politics. On page 8 for example our leading man is introduced in a paragraph that describes him physically in some detail and ends with
He suffered fools, because there were so many of them, but not gladly.
That was my first chuckle. It was quickly followed by another when Timori’s background was provided
His election as President for life was no more than a formality, like high tea, monogamy and other European importations, and was looked upon as just as much a giggle.
I could go on at some length quoting the many lines carefully and successfully crafted to delight, but either you get the point now or you don’t share the love of language and sense of humour and no amount of repetition will make you do so. I also, and again surprisingly, enjoyed meeting Scobie Malone (I didn’t learn the nature of his nickname but only one person ever calls him by his real name). He is a happily married sober chap who loves his kids, works well with his colleagues and even gets along with his boss. Despite having so little in common with most of his fictional counterparts he is still engaging and able to retain the reader’s interest and attention (lest it not be glaringly obvious my subtext here is an increasingly desperate personal plea that not every detective in crime fiction has to be a permanently morose alcoholic who has to work alone because being around him would induce suicidal thoughts in even the cheeriest of souls). He is a hard worker and scrupulously honest, something of a rarity in both fictional crime stories and the comparable real world police force he was ostensibly part of, but he doesn’t have a holier-than-thou attitude that would make him unlikable. I particularly liked the way Clary depicts Malone and his fellow officers struggling to deal with the more emotional parts of their work because blokes, especially Aussie blokes, aren’t known for their overt displays of sensitivity. When dealing with a young Aboriginal activist who becomes embroiled in the investigation we see an insight into Malone’s character
…His stubbornness, his total distrust of the police jacketed him in an attitude that would eventually bring him to disaster. For a moment Malone felt sorry for him, but it lasted only a moment: pity, they had told him years ago, should never be part of a policeman’s equipment. They had been wrong, of course, but he had learned to use it sparingly.
I moved To Sydney to take up my first full time job after graduating University almost exactly at the time this book was set (to be specific, about ten days before the weekend during which events unfold) so that period is etched more strongly into my memory than many other periods of my life and Cleary seems to me to have done a superb job of depicting both the small details and bigger picture. The carnival atmosphere of the city as people jumbled together to celebrate the bicentennial is well drawn and although it is a relatively minor component of the story the inclusion of disenfranchised Aboriginal people is unerringly accurate as evidenced when the assassin observes about a young activist
…It was difficult to be militant in a country that ignored you.
Equally believable are the high level political shenanigans that form the backdrop to Malone’s investigation. The state’s first independent body examining public sector corruption would be established one year later and a Royal Commission into entrenched police corruption would follow a a couple of years after that so it doesn’t take a genius to realise that Cleary’s depictions of back room deals and other grubby behaviour were at the very least plausible if not based on things he knew to be true. Finally I suppose I should make mention of the story which, although thoroughly enjoyable in its own right, has taken a back seat to other elements of the novel for me. We learn early on that an international assassin is responsible for the attempt on Timori’s life but the investigating team must still catch the man and attempt to find out who is financing his work so there is much suspense to be had even without the more dramatic chase passages which really ratchet up the tension. I’m generally happy enough to read a book about which I have no expectations but these days rarely bother to even start a book I don’t think I will like. Life is too short after all. But reading DRAGONS AT THE PARTY has reminded me that I should not base my expectations on misguided notions picked up from…heaven only knows where. My only criticism of the book is some clunky exposition that can only have been added for the benefit of international readers (no adult Australian needs to be told that Perth is the capital of Western Australia or what the ABC is for example) but that I suspect that is more due to publisher pressures than the author’s own wishes. I’ll be making up for my personal neglect of this author in the not too distant future.