Review: THE OLD SCHOOL by P.M. Newton

This review was originally published at Reactions to Reading in August 2010

It is 1992 and Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly is a relatively newly qualified Detective Constable in Sydney’s west. When two sets of bones are discovered in the foundations of a building being demolished Ned is drawn into the investigation both for professional and personal reasons. Determining who the people were and what happened to them unfolds within a wider context of social issues affecting the city both in the mid 1970′s, when the bodies were placed in the concrete foundations, and sixteen years later when they are discovered. The Aboriginal land rights movement, the treatment of soldiers returning from the Vietnam war, the absorption of different cultures into the sprawling city and the misappropriation of power by some within the police force are all woven into a complex but highly believable story.

Having lived on the fringes of the giant sprawl that is Sydney during the late 80’s and early 90’s the aspect of the book that stood out most strongly for me was that Newton has captured perfectly the things I loved about living there and the things that drove me away. The multitudes of cultures that rub along together, the endless traffic snarls, the dodgy politics, the chasm between haves and have-nots are all to be found in this novel. Anchoring the book to its time are major real life events including the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s (ICAC) inquiry into corruption in the NSW Police Force. I can honestly attest that, just as in this book, ICAC wasn’t an acronym in Sydney in 1992: it was a word that everyone knew the meaning of and everyone was talking about. Another significant event that is used to great impact in THE OLD SCHOOL is the speech given by our then Prime Minister (and written by one of Australia’s unsung political heroes) to launch the International Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Born in Australia to a Vietnamese mother and an Irish-Australian father she carries not much more than her name to acknowledge the Vietnamese part of her heritage. And even there she prefers the Australian nickname that was inevitable with a surname like Kelly and an unpronounceable first name starting with N. There are reasons for Ned’s decisions and these are teased out beautifully in the story to provide depth to her character. She is surrounded by other intriguing people too. Her loving sister, her prejudiced Aunt, a range of colleagues with their own foibles and personal demons. All of these people are imperfect and often unlikable but they are all highly credible and the kind of people you want to read more about.

This book has all the ingredients of the top notch crime fiction. There are believable, interesting characters, a story that keeps readers guessing, a strong sense of its time and place and something to say about the human condition. Would police be so open to corruption if they were all paid enough to live comfortably in one of the most expensive cities to live in the world? Can we learn anything from our collective past or are we doomed to repeat the worst abuses of our fellow man over and over again? There is a slight over-reliance on coincidence and perhaps a thread or two too many woven into the plot but overall this is a highly readable and impressive debut and I look forward to reading the next installment of this series.

My rating: 4/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Penguin [2010]
ISBN: 9780670074518
Length: 363 pages
Format: Trade Paperback

10 thoughts on “Review: THE OLD SCHOOL by P.M. Newton

  1. Sounds interesting, but does not seem to be available in UK on a cursory search. Will check it out further when I have a bit more time.


  2. Hi Maxine,

    Sadly, The Old School has yet to stray from Australian shores, however my publisher informs me that it is available via Kobo if you are an ebook type person

    If you prefer paper, the good news its that the B format (smaller cheaper lighter!) is out May 30.

    If you wanted to order a copy then the Indie Bookshop portal here would be able to help:

    The beauty of the web, we can discover books from everywhere now.


    P.M. (Pam) Newton


  3. This sounds like a great book, one that covers so many issues I think about, and a major reason I read global crime fiction — to learn about a country's culture, history, politics.

    And the protagonist sounds quite interesting as well.

    Only problem: It probably is not available in the U.S. and I'm not an ebook reader. I may have to change my Luddite ways.


  4. Book Depository says it's currently available, but they say there will be a paperback available on May 30. So I asked to be notified when it's in stock.

    So maybe within a month I can read this book.

    I cannot wait!


  5. Correction: It's late. Book Depository says The New School is currently unavailable, but a paperback is due May 30, so write down asking them to notify us when it's ready. So I did.


  6. Thanks, P J. I do have a Kindle so will look out for the e-form on UK amazon. I have made a policy decision not to use any other form of e-format as I have too many parallel streams of books to read flooding in as it is (purchases of print, from publishers, from EC to review, kindle, library, loans and from other bloggers passing on).


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