A blogger I visit regularly recently posted their musings on a particular aspect of the attraction of old-fashioned detective novels which they summed up as a sort of ‘agreed artificiality’. Or, in more depth defined as
“…that quality of creating a particular type of world in which both the reader and the author are in collusion on certain ground rules which make the reading experience more enjoyable by distancing them from the reality of what would otherwise be a harrowing read.”
Although I’m not a huge reader of the golden-age detective novels being discussed in that post, I was nodding my head in agreement with the sentiments expressed and could not help but think that is exactly how I feel about the Rowland Sinclair series even though it’s closer to an artificial adventure novel than a detective one. Written today, the books are set in the 1930’s and depict the experiences of an idealistic group of young Australians who embrace the fortunes life has dealt them and display lashings of honour and backbone whenever their luck turns sour. For me the series offers a safe, sometimes slightly surreal place from which to explore such dark subjects as murder, the rise of fascism and how much of a pain older brothers can be even when you love them to bits.
In the eighth instalment of the series it is 1934 and Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, son of a wealthy pastoralist family whose fortunes have not been dented by the Great Depression, heads to the Melbourne International Motor Show with his friends Clyde and Milton to pick up a new car. All agree the Chrysler Airflow is a suitably beautiful replacement for the beloved Mercedes he lost in events depicted in this novel’s predecessor. While in Melbourne Rowly is approached to assist the local Movement Against War and Fascism; a cause he is very supportive of since he and his friends visited Germany and saw first-hand what the Nazis were up to (see 2012’s PAVING THE NEW ROAD). He agrees to assist the movement by trying to ensure that prominent European peace activist Egon Kisch makes it to Melbourne in time to speak at a planned peace rally. Before he can make that happen he heads to Canberra where his friend Milton is to be engaged in a bit of stealthy activism on behalf of the Communist Party. On the way there the lads encounter a dead body which they worry might be the fourth member of their group, the sculptress Rowly loves silently, and when they reach the nation’s new capital someone is murdered. Mayhem, of course, ensues.
Given that a good chunk of the action here takes place in Canberra, a city that only exists because of politics, A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE is a bit more political than some of the other books in the series. I really enjoyed the way this shines a light on some aspects of our history that are rarely the subject of popular culture (honestly you could be forgiven for thinking the only things of importance Australians have ever done is play sport and go to war) (and yes that order is deliberate). Gentill just gets better and better at weaving historical fact into her stories and the part of the book in which Rowly and Clyde meet up with Kisch is just one example of this. I won’t spoil the details for you but knowing the story of Kisch’s visit to Australia pretty well (thanks to a high school history teacher who nearly got herself fired for teaching Catholic kids about a Communist in a positive light) I can attest to the fabulous way solid facts have been strung together with imaginative but entirely plausible madcap fun.
As always though it is the characters that are the highlight of the book. In this outing Clyde Watson-Jones, the landscape painter in Rowly’s group of adventuring artists, takes more of a central role and I enjoyed getting to know him in more depth. He has always been the group member least comfortable with living off Rowly’s wealth so he takes any opportunity to offer something meaningful in return such as looking after Rowly’s various vehicles. But here he has matured to the point that he is able to poke gentle fun at his friend about the difference in their respective social status, such as when the pair are forced to take tourist class berths on a ship rather than the first class suites that Sinclairs are more used to. But at heart the book shows how these differences – of class or religion or politics – are not important when it comes to standing up for one’s friends and doing the right thing. It’s not unreasonable, especially with the lens of the current political climate, to think that might be the most artificial element of all the book’s fictions – the notion that our similarities are more important than our differences – but if so it’s an artifice I’m happy to buy into for a while.
Unlike his two friends Rowly is not a member of the Communist Party (despite what his older brother and others may believe when they call him Red Rowly) but he is sympathetic to some of the issues the Party supports, especially their opposition to the rise of fascism. His total belief in the worrying behaviour of the Nazis has come between Rowly and his older, far more conservative, brother Wilfred and the pair’s strained relationship is wonderfully drawn. Gentill teases out the nuances of what’s going on between the two so that the reader is able to really feel for both men who are, at heart, good people each believing he is in the right. The peaks and troughs of this relationship are depicted without the sibling bond being broken irretrievably.
Even though I have blathered on for far too long I’ve only scratched the surface of A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE. There’s a marriage proposal, two broken leg accidents, an international air race and a potentially murderous politician amidst this tale of excitement, friendship, humour and being honourable even when you’re scared. Read it, you won’t regret it.
A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE is officially released in Australia on 1 October (though I spied copies in my local bookshop earlier this week)
I have reviewed this book’s predecessors:
- A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN
- A DECLINE IN PROPHETS
- MILES OFF COURSE
- PAVING THE NEW ROAD
- GENTLEMEN FORMERLY DRESSED
- A MURDER UNMENTIONED
- GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE
If you prefer audio books instalments 1-4 and 7 of this series are available already, wonderfully narrated by Rupert Degas and books 5 and 8 are due for release early next month (at least they are on the listings Audible makes available to me in Australia).
This is the 12th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Pantera Press
Length: 384 pages
Source of review copy: provided by the publisher