Robert Gott is a writer of educational texts and a series of comic farce historical mysteries featuring an actor-turned-detective Will Power. With THE HOLIDAY MURDERS he reveals a darker vein to his personality, offering a not all together flattering picture of war-time Melbourne and an intriguing cast of characters, several of whom I am very glad to have only met virtually
Set over the Christmas to New Year holiday period at the end of 1943 the book opens with police being called to a crime scene. Xavier Quinn has been brutally tortured and murdered by, on first appearances, his father John who subsequently committed suicide. However it is soon clear that both men were murdered though a motive for the gruesome crime is not immediately obvious. Mary Quinn, Xavier’s sister, is an actress in radio dramas and has discovered the bodies on coming home from work with her friend Sheila. She can’t seem to provide the police with any leads as to who might have committed the awful crime though she does admit that the family was not close. She describes Xavier as a religious zealot of unsound mind who didn’t really communicate with anyone while she and her father were at odds over her choice to work as an actress. The police wonder if there might be some religious motive to the crimes but then discover some reading material that suggests a political motive. This in turn leads to the involvement of the military’s Intelligence boffins and leads the investigation into the path of Australia’s very own (and very real) Nazi-sympathising fascists.
It’s difficult to know where to start with the list of things I loved about this book but I think the characters (just) edge out everything else as my favourite element of the novel. Titus Lambert is the Inspector in charge of Victoria’s newly established Homicide squad though with manpower shortages the squad is not teeming with numbers. He is an unorthodox fictional detective in several ways, most notably due to his very happy marriage. Indeed his wife, Maude, is really an extra member of his squad as he discusses all his cases with her and, on occasion, even shows her evidence. This could have come across as hokey but Gott does a great job of making the relationship seem very realistic, to the point that I did wonder if it isn’t a jolly good idea to have married police detectives. Rather than having a host of awful memories and images turning him into the usual angst-ridden, alcoholic mess Lambert is able to share his burden and also gain a fresh, intelligent perspective on the cases he confronts. It seems eminently sensible.
The Homicide squad is rounded out by freshly trained Sergeant Joe Sable who is keen but lacks confidence and some of the skills he needs and Constable Helen Lord who seems more suited to the role but as a woman is ineligible to rise any further in the ranks. She is, not unreasonably, a little bitter about this and sometimes her frustration affects her work. Joe is Jewish, though without a very religious upbringing, and is struggling to come to terms with the news that has started to come out of Europe regarding the Nazis’ treatment of the Jewish people. His feelings of guilt and impotence over this lead him to jump at the chance to assist the Intelligence people with the infiltration of a local group suspected of having National Socialist sympathisers and this work, in turn, tests his loyalties to Lambert and the Homicide team.
Early on we meet the menacing brute responsible for the murders but, rarely, this doesn’t lessen the tension and suspense of the novel for readers. Partly this is because we’re worrying who will be the next victim and partly because this isn’t one of those books in which you know the police will triumph over the bad guys. The depiction of the band of hate-filled bigots for whom violence comes as naturally as breathing is all the more chilling because Gott not only makes you believe in these particular fictional people but also that they have real life counterparts, even today. But not all the bigots are Romper Stomper style thugs; the book forces readers to reflect more generally on the many insidious small ways that bigotry was, and is still, allowed to flourish in the wider community.
In addition to all of this the novel has an authentic historical feel, with loads of references to real world people and events and a million little details that make you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time, and a thoroughly gripping plot. Every time I thought I had worked out how things would resolve another element or twist came to light and the resolution, which I stayed up long past my bed time to get to, was a stunner. I’m hopeful this is the first of a series of novels featuring these characters and I highly recommend it.
Here’s a link to a fascinating interview Robert Gott and his publisher did with Michael Cathcart on Radio National last year which discusses the process by which this novel, which started out as the fourth Will Power book, came to life. At the time of this interview the novel wasn’t finished, it even had a different title.
Publisher: Scribe 
Length: 309 pages
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