Review: DRAGONS AT THE PARTY by Jon Cleary

DragonsAtThePartyJonCle24005_fI 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.

Review: THE EASY SIN, Jon Cleary

  • book published in 2002
  • 19/20 in the Scobie Malone series
  • this edition published by Audible in 2009
  • narrator: Christian Rodska
  • Length 8 hours 53 mins

Synopsis (publisher)

The time has come for Officer Scobie Malone to leave the Homicide and Serial Offenders Unit of the Sydney police. His last investigation could be the most bizarre case ever to land upon a policeman’s desk.

Fantastic Fiction

From Australia’s ‘national literary institution’ (Sydney Morning Herald), the latest mystery featuring homicide detective and family man Scobie Malone

The time has come for Scobie Malone to leave the Homicide and Serial Offenders Unit of the Sydney police, and his last investigation could be the most bizarre case ever to cross his desk.
Called in when a housemaid is found dead in a dotcom millionaire’s penthouse, Scobie suspects he’s dealing with a kidnap that’s gone wrong.
In fact, it couldn’t have gone more wrong. The kidnappers thought they had grabbed the millionaire’s girlfriend — how were they supposed to know he liked slipping into her designer dresses when she wasn’t around?

The plot thickens further when it is revealed that the dotcom bubble has burst, leaving the erstwhile millionaire in debt to the Yakuza and Scobie on the trail of some old adversaries. Throw in the ex-wife, a mistress or two, and the mother of all outlaws, and you have a case that would confound the greatest detective and entertain the most discerning
of readers.

My Take

Christian Rodka’s brilliant narration added great pleasure to listening to this novel. There is quite a cast of characters and his voice portrayal made picking one from the other relatively easy.

I’ve been on a bit of a Jon Cleary kick in the last few months and have listened to

4.6, WINTER CHILL– set some time before THE EASY SIN and

4.7, DEGREES OF CONNECTION which was Jon Cleary’s last Scobie Malone novel, following on from THE EASY SIN.

There are passages in this novel which crack a smile, despite the seriousness of the story line: an abduction and a couple of murders thrown in for good measure; a gang that by any standards is incompetent, but at the same time amoral.  I thought some of the characters were overblown and parts of the plot definitely unrealistic. On the other hand the collapse of the dotcom bubble pointed to how ordinary Australians lost money in a world financial phenomenon.

And then for Scobie Malone fans, historically this was his last case at the head of Homicide and at the time they must have wondered what Jon Cleary was up to. With hindsight we know he was preparing to bow out of crime fiction.

My rating:  4.2

Review: DEGREES OF CONNECTION, Jon Cleary

  • book published in 2003 by Harper Collins
  • #20 in the Scobie Malone series (the last)
  • audio version narrated by Brian Hewlett, and published by Sundowner Productions in 2003
  • length: approx 8 hrs 30 mins
  • source: my local library

Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

Marilyn Hyx, loyal private secretary to Natalie Shipwood, the dynamo behind the Orlando Development Company, is found murdered in her home.
Is it simply coincidence that she had in her possession some very sensitive Orlando documents? This is a Scobie Malone mystery, set in the world of shady financial deals and desperate dreams.

My Take

A year or two has passed since the events covered in WINTER CHILL which I read last year.

It is now 2001 and Scobie Malone as been promoted from inspector to superintendent, while Russ Clements is now head of Homicide. Malone’s son, Tom, seems to have impregnated a girlfriend who is subsequently murdered and his daughter Maureen is an ABC journalist covering the Securities Commission investigation into Orlando. Both Scobie and Russ are having trouble in adjusting to their new roles and responsibilities.

If there is a focus in this novel it is greed and how Australia fared during the financial collapse of the early 21st century. There are references to the New York Twin Towers tragedy and the rise of terrorism as a global fear factor. There’s also a sub-theme of families, loyalties, and friendship.

We really enjoyed the Australian ambience and cricket lovers will enjoy the likening of interrogation techniques to changing the bowling.

Brian Hewlett does a brilliant job of the narration.

DEGREES OF CONNECTION demonstrates what a master writer Jon Cleary was. It won the 2004 Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel. It was not only Cleary’s last Scobie Malone title but also his last crime fiction.  He declared he was getting “stale” and that he nothing more to write about.

Jon Cleary, well known outside this genre as the writer of THE SUNDOWNERS, was the winner of the inaugural Lifetime Contribution Ned Kelly Award in 1996.

DEGREES OF CONNECTION was so enjoyable that I am very regretful that I have read only two in the series. They are very faithful to their Australian (New South Wales) setting, refer to contemporary events, and are characterised by their empathetic portrayal of Malone, Clements and their families.

My rating: 4.7

Review: WINTER CHILL, Jon Cleary

  • originally published 1995
  • audio book published by Chivers 2011
  • playing time 9 hours 40 mins
  • Narrator Christian Rodska
  • ISBN 978-1-4458-1306-6
  • source: my local library

Synopsis (Audible.com)

It is 3.30 a.m. The Sydney monorail performs its endless circuit like a
pale metal caterpillar – all for the benefit of one dead passenger.

Elsewhere in the city’s bleak midwinter, Darling Harbour buzzes to the
sound of 1,000 American lawyers attending an international conference.
And that means 1,000 opinions as to who killed their president. Two
bodies later, and the more Scobie Malone fillets the heart of the city’s
legal profession, the more he cuts into an intrigue of international
proportions….

My Take

#12 in Jon Cleary’s Scobie Malone series, CID police procedurals set in Sydney, that reflect current events such as the building of the Sydney Opera House and the holding of the Sydney Olympics.

Against the background of  an international conference for lawyers being held in Sydney, an American lawyer who turns out to have been born in Australia is killed. His body is discovered on the monorail and then the security guard who discovered the body is murdered.

There’s quite a bit of human interest in the story too. Scobie Malone has two teenage children and his wife discovers she has breast cancer. Scobie Malone is a principled detective who believes in thorough investigative techniques.

A good story made even better by the excellent narration of Christian Rodska.Quite an intricate plot.

My rating: 4.6

In 2004 Cleary (1917-2010) won a Ned Kelly Award for best novel for the last of the Scobie Malone books DEGREES OF CONNECTION. He also won an Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1975 for a non Malone novel PETER’S PENCE.

Jon Cleary was probably better known for the fact that he wrote THE SUNDOWNERS.

Wikipedia has a good listing of the Scobie Malone books with single sentence plot outlines.

    Cleary once stated that, “There’s more than a bit of me in Scobie. We both come from fighting Irish stock, we’re both from Erskineville, the wrong side of the tracks, and both of us slugged our way up.” Malone was a Catholic family man with rigid principles who mostly worked in Sydney, although his adventures occasionally took him overseas.
    Other regular characters in the series included:
  • Malone’s Dutch wife Lisa, who he first met working as Sir James Quentin’s secretary in The High Commissioner. She was based on Cleary’s wife Joy.
  • Malone’s partner Sergeant Russ Clements, who eventually became head of Homicide.
  • Inspector Leeds, Malone’s superior.
  • His father Con and mother Brigid (based on Cleary’s parents).
  • His children Tom and Maureen (based on Cleary’s grandchildren).

Scobie Malone (Fantastic Fiction)

1. The High Commissioner (1966)

2. Helga’s Web (1970)

3. Ransom (1973)

4. Dragons at the Party (1987)

5. Now and Then, Amen (1988)

6. Babylon South (1989)

7. Murder Song (1990)

8. Pride’s Harvest (1991)

9. Dark Summer (1991)

10. Bleak Spring (1993)

11. Autumn Maze (1994)

12. Winter Chill (1995)

13. A Different Turf (1996)

14. Endpeace (1997)

15. Five Ring Circus (1998)

16. Dilemma (1999)

17. The Bear Pit (2000)

18. Yesterday’s Shadow (2001)

19. The Easy Sin (2002)

20. Degrees of Connection (2005)

Sadly I have only one or two of this series, and that really is something I should correct.