Review: PAVING THE NEW ROAD by Sulari Gentill

It is 1933 and Australian politician Eric Campbell is touring Europe with the aim of making alliances with prominent fascists. He is especially keen to meet with Adolf Hitler. Campbell’s opponents in Australia dispatched a man to Germany to thwart Campbell’s plans but that man has died and, rather desperately, they turn to playboy Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair to take over the subversive campaign. Sinclair has tangled with Campbell in the past, in an adventure depicted in the first book of this series, A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN, and needs little persuading to take on the dangerous role of spy. It will not be a surprise to fans of the series that Rowly’s friends, fellow artists Edna and Clyde and poet Milton, decide to accompany him. In addition to trying to prevent Campbell from meeting Hitler or otherwise succeeding in strengthening his links to European fascism the group from Sydney feel compelled to look into the death of the man who preceded Rowly as the one with responsibility for foiling Campbell’s plans.

I imagine any author would be wary of setting a tale that is light in tone against the backdrop of one of the darkest times in world history but Gentill has met the challenge with great success. There is the usual fun, decadence and near-death adventures that readers of the series  have come to expect, starting with quick (only 14 days!) flight to Europe thanks to Australian aviation hero Charles Kingsford Smith but the tough issues are not ignored. The increasingly extreme behaviour of the Nazis is depicted sensitively and with intelligence, while taking the opportunity to remind readers that there were real heroes who stood up to the Nazis in amazing ways. Some of these are the creation of Gentill’s imagination and some, like journalist Nancy Wake (who became a British Agent during WWII) are real-life characters making cameo appearances in Gentill’s fictional world.

it is this ability to combine real and imaginary people seamlessly and credibly into her stories that make Gentill’s books stand out from the pack for me and I think PAVING THE NEW ROAD might be the most successful of the series in this regard. From the seemingly minor (but completely engaging) presence of designer Hugo Boss, competing with another tailor who befriends Rowly and the gang for contracts to make the various Nazi uniforms, to the more substantial roles played by Wake and the girlfriend of a prominent Nazi Party member the real figures help make the story a very believable one. One of the things I love about Sulari Gentill’s writing is that she never takes the easy route and so rather than stuffing the book with bad guys we’ve all met before she chose to include some truly startling lesser known figures. The inclusion, for example, of the British woman who stalked Adolf Hitler in the belief they were destined to be together, was inspired.

The mystery here becomes a relatively minor part of the plot which might offend the die-hard crime fiction fans but there is so much else going on I think only really churlish readers would complain. There’s one of the world’s first long-haul passenger flights, a book-burning at which Rowly and the gang put their lives in real danger, several encounters with sinister members of the Nazi Party and the book-long attempt to prevent Eric Campbell (another real life figure) from successfully brining extreme fascism home to Australia. As always there are light moments too, such as the purchasing of a series of expensive experimental art works which are sent home to the ultra-conservative funders of the spying mission (Rowly and company pose as art dealers to explain their presence in Germany) and some grand parties for the group to attend. And in the end the mystery that started the book is resolved with a clever surprise.

I’m not normally a big fan of blurbs which combine two random authors to describe what a book’s content might be like but the ‘Evelyn Waugh meets Agatha Christie‘ tag adorning this book’s front cover is pretty accurate, at least giving readers a sense of the kinds of characters and storyline they might encounter within the pages. PAVING THE NEW ROAD is a superb example of the historical crime genre, with wonderful characters, a truly suspenseful story and an enveloping sense of time and place. It is highly recommended.

PAVING THE NEW ROAD is released officially tomorrow (1 August) in Australia and should be available from your local independent bookstore. It is also available in eBook format from Amazon and the iBook store (though I suspect that this availability does not extend to non-Australian readers)

I’ve reviewed the three earlier books in this series A FEW RIGHT THINKING MENA DECLINE IN PROPHETS and MILES OFF COURSE.

We also subjected Sulari to our baker’s dozen questions during Australian authors month last year.

This is the ninth book I have read for the Australian Women Writers reading challenge.

My rating: 4.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website:
Publisher: Pantera Press [2012]
ISBN: 9781921997075
Length: 405 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: provided by the publisher for review
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The tingly excitement of a new book

Even though things have been quiet here at Fair Dinkum HQ in recent weeks (one of us is travelling the globe and the other is moving house) Australian crime fiction seems to be booming so expect reviews and news to pick up again soon.

Today I received a copy of PAVING THE NEW ROAD, the fourth book in the Rowland Sinclair series which is set in the 1930’s. I know this is becoming one of my very favourite series because I broke out in a giant, spontaneous grin when I unwrapped the package which had arrived unexpectedly on my doorstep this morning. I immediately started remembering what the characters were doing when I left them and became quite desperate to know what this book would hold for them all. If the book is only half as good as its predecessors it will be a genuine treat, one I look forward to curling up with in my new house. Here’s a bit of a teaser…

This novel is a step up for both Sulari and her characters. She not only takes them international but injects them into one of the most trying and terrifying periods of modern history, 1930’s Germany. With Charles Kingsford Smith as their pilot, Rowland and his entourage of artists and Lefties fly to Germany and are quickly caught up with those at the centre of German Nazism…Sulari deals with this shocking era in history with respect, capturing the mood in Germany, and at the same time bringing it home to an innocent pre-War Australia.

I can’t wait to dive in.

The book’s release date is 1 August so expect a review around then. While you’re waiting you might like to check out my reviews of the previous 3 books in this series


Review: A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN, Sulari Gentill

  • first published Pantera Press 2010
  • ISBN 978-0-9807418-1-0
  • 349 pages
  • Source: my local library
  • #1 in the Rowland Sinclair series

Synopsis (Pantera Press)

In Australia’s 1930s, the Sinclair name is respectable and influential, yet the youngest son Rowland – an artist – has a talent for scandal.
Even with the unemployed lining the streets, Rowland lives in a sheltered world… of wealth, culture & impeccable tailoring with the family fortune indulging his artistic passions & friends… a poet, a painter & a brazen sculptress.
Mounting political tensions fuelled by the Great Depression take Australia to the brink of revolution. Rowland Sinclair is indifferent to the politics… until a brutal murder exposes an extraordinary & treasonous conspiracy.

My take

As the 21st century rolls on, and events that made us in the 19th and 20th get further away, Australians are in desperate need of good story tellers whose fictions are firmly embedded in an authentically drawn past. Last year Geoff McGeachin did it for me with THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL set in an Australia recovering from World War II, and now comes Sulari Gentill’s series featuring artist and gentleman Rowland Sinclair, set in the period leading up to that war.

A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN is #1 in the series, and now there are two more for me to track down, A DECLINE IN PROPHETS, and MILES OFF COURSE.

Gentill does a wonderful job of embedding her fictional protagonist Rowland Sinclair into authentic historical detail: Australia in the Great Depression; the Premier of New South Wales seeking to distract the people by building a great bridge across Sydney Harbour; and widely disparate political groups who want to roll time back to the 19th century, or to adopt Communism, or to install Fascism.

Coming from a wealthy landed family Rowly Sinclair is caught in a cleft stick between the old values and his friends who have joined the Reds. And then his uncle Rowland Sinclair is murdered and Rowly’s quest to find the culprits takes him into the third group.

This was an excellent read: well constructed plot, vividly drawn characters, and reminders of the historical events that occupied Australia’s “premier state” in the early 1930s.

My rating: 5.0

Other sites to check:

Review: MILES OFF COURSE by Sulari Gentill

MILES OFF COURSE is the third book in a series set in 1930’s Australia featuring Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, painter and reluctant amateur sleuth. Rowly is the youngest son of a wealthy pastoralist family which allows him to fund a reasonably lavish lifestyle for himself and his less well-off friends Edna (a sculptress), Milt (a poet and Communist) and Clyde (a painter like Rowly but of landscapes rather than the portraits Rowly prefers). Rowly is once again in danger as he is the subject of an unsuccessful kidnap attempt in Sydney before his brother Wilfred asks him to head into the NSW high country to look for their head stockman Harry Simpson who, it has been reported, has walked off the job. But the Sinclair brothers have known Harry since they were young boys and neither believes he would just walk away, even though everyone repeats it’s what ‘they’ (Aboriginal people) do.

What’s not to like about this delightful book? The historical setting offers the perfect mixture of interesting details of day-to-day life and real life people in minor roles for an added air of authenticity. For example a very famous name from Australian literature makes a pseudonymous appearance which is just credible enough to make you wonder if it’s based on fact and at least one real political figure and an artist make cameo appearances too. These tantalising titbits are scattered throughout a tale that sees Rowly and his friends in all manner of scenarios from a fancy society party to some rough and ready bush camping as they try to discover what happened to the Sinclair’s stockman. The mystery is satisfyingly complex, offering a new twist whenever the solution seems clear cut, and the ultimate resolution came as a surprise to me.

I don’t know how many people of Rowly’s class would really have mixed as comfortably with people from all walks of life as he does, but Gentill has developed him into a very believable and sympathetic character. He’s a good friend and dutiful family member even when he and his brother are at odds. In fact the relationship between the two brothers is a highlight of the novel as it mixes an innate brotherly love with a disconnect between two people who have vastly different goals in life. The clashes between them are credible and add some nice character depth to the novel. There’s no doubt that Rowly’s ability to operate at all levels of society helps add variety to the stories and scope to the tales of adventure but it never feels as forced or unrealistic as it might if these events were taking place in a country less blasé about issues of class.

The four friends provide an interesting twist to the standard character sets of crime fiction and it’s terrific to see good old-fashioned friendship being depicted in fiction for adults. In MILES OFF COURSE the character of Clyde plays a larger role than in past novels as the gang head into the part of the country where he grew up and where everyone knows him. The scene where they visit Clyde’s family home, a working-class place which is a far cry from the wealthy surroundings that Rowly is used to, had an authentic feel with Clyde’s mum being slightly awkward in the presence of Rowly but still well in charge of her domain.

Reading this book reminded me of the family movies that used to air on the Sunday nights of my childhood when the whole household would sit down to watch because they offered something for everyone to enjoy. In MILES OFF COURSE there’s a bit of politics, a bit of romance, a whodunit and some narrowly escaped near-death experiences for the hero and his friends. Along the way there are plenty of laughs, some nuggets of historical information that will make you look smart when you drop them into conversation at your next dinner party and there’s even a lovable dog. It is an intelligent, amusing, happiness-inducing book that sits proudly at the lighter end of the crime fiction spectrum. Highly recommended.

MILES OFF COURSE is released officially tomorrow (30 January) in Australia and should be available from your local independent bookstore or you could try online stores Booktopia or Boomerang. I have not seen the book in electronic format though the earlier two volumes are available for kindle so this one may be eventually too.

If you’d like to win a copy of this excellent book why not enter our giveaway?

I’ve reviewed the two earlier books in this series A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN and A DECLINE IN PROPHETS.

We also subjected Sulari to our baker’s dozen questions during Australian authors month last year.

I’m counting this as my second contribution towards the Australian Women Writers reading challenge for this year.

My rating: 4.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website:
Publisher: Pantera Press [2012]
ISBN: 9780987068521
Length: 352 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: provided by the publisher for review
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The most impressive Australian crime fiction in 2011

It’s list making time of year so here at Fair Dinkum HQ we’ve each made a list of the five Australian crime fiction titles that impressed us most this year. Not all are 2011 publications and some have yet to be released beyond our shores but this mixture of new titles by favourite authors and outstanding debuts is a cracker of a collection if I do say so myself.

Kerrie speaking here…

I’ve only read 16 Australian titles this year, and am already formulating New Years Eve resolutions that I will do better in 2012. Nevertheless the problem in picking my top reads is that so many of them were so good and it was difficult to draw a cut off line. Not all of the titles were 2011 publications either.

So here are my top 5.

My top pick was THE WRECKAGE by Michael
Robotham, published in 2011, in which our old friend Vincent Ruiz teams up with a new character, investigative journalist Luca Terracini. THE WRECKAGE is a contemporary thriller set against the background of both the world financial crisis and the attempts to build Iraq in the face of both greed and terrorism. It reflects both Robotham’s meticulous research, and his ability to create great fictional characters. He describes the main characters in a way that makes you really care about what happens to them.

I really can’t choose between the other four, so the order in which they appear is not preferential.

In Katherine Howell‘s COLD JUSTICE, published in 2010, paramedic Georgie Riley and Detective Ella Marconi are travelling similar paths, returning to work after traumatic incidents that resulted in hospitalisation and being off work for some months.  Katherine Howell has used a formula similar to the one she used successfully in both THE DARKEST HOUR, and her debut novel FRANTIC: parallel plots that advance in tandem, each generating their own sense of suspense. The link between the two plots is Detective Ella Marconi. Again the paramedic characters are new, while Marconi provides the common thread from one novel to the next.

WHISPERING DEATH, published in 2011, affirms that Garry Disher is a master storyteller, a tight and consummate plotter, a writer who could sit on any international podium along with richer and more famous crime fiction writers. This is #6 in Disher’s Hal Challis series, firmly bedded in the 21st century, and reflecting on the problems of maintaining a strong police force, chasing rapists, armed robbers, and home invaders, in the face of diminishing funding and stretched resources.

Set in post-war Australia, this time post World War Two, with a policeman returning to work in a world that will never be the same, THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL by Geoffrey McGeachin, published in 2011, reminded me a lot of the Charles Todd series. Like Ian Rutledge in that series Charlie Berlin was in the police force before the war. Although the police force was an exempt trade he volunteered for service and was posted to the RAF in Britain. He took off on 30 missions over Germany, but, in his words, landed only 29 of them and ended up in a P.O.W. camp. For me, Geoff McGeachin has hit on a winner with this new series and I hope we see more of Charlie Berlin. It appealed to me on several fronts – historical, crime fiction, Australia.

My final choice is FINAL CUT by debut West Australian author Alan Carter, also published in 2011.  What makes this novel remarkable is the way the author ambitiously forwards two plot strands in tandem. It took a bit of getting used to at first. There is little to tell the reader that you’ve changed from one plot to another, just a change of characters. Often, but not always, the plots are basically at the same point, like the interviewing of a suspect.

But there’s much more than that to keep the reader involved. There are prior links between some of the characters which are gradually teased out for us. There are genuine murder mysteries with lots of attendant red herrings. There’s a good feel for the climate in Western Australia, both physical and economic. And there is some excellent characterisation.

And now it’s Bernadette’s turn

So far I’ve managed to read 35 books by Australian crime writers this year. I’m about half way through another one which is enjoyable but I already know it’s not quite good enough to nudge any of these off the list so I don’t feel too concerned about finalising the list a few days before the end of the year.

Y.A. Erskine’s debut novel THE BROTHERHOOD absolutely blew me away. Partly this is because I had no expectations when I opened the front cover (I knew nothing about the book other than it was written by an Aussie woman) but mostly it’s because it’s bloody brilliant. A Tasmanian policeman is shot while on duty and the events of the day are recounted from different points of view – his rookie partner, the Police Commissioner, his estranged wife, the culprit etc – who each get a single chapter from which a whole picture of the leadup to and ramifications of the shooting emerges. I loved everything about this book – the structure, the flawed but believable people, the way the story kept surprising me, the themes that Erskine explored. This book is vying with one other title for the very top spot on my favourite books of the year (Aussie or otherwise) and my only complaint is that is hasn’t gotten the wide attention it so richly deserves.

Like Kerrie I’m not going to list the rest in order of preference, they’re all worth your attention.

Kathryn Fox‘s DEATH MASK was one of the first books I read this year and it ended up being the book I voted for in the reader’s choice category of this year’s Davitt Awards. It starts out simply enough with a young woman testing positive for a sexually transmitted disease that she cannot understand how she contracted given her sexual history and so she assumes there has been some mistake at the clinic. The story’s dark turn reveals the betrayal that led to her contracting the disease which in turn prompts the protagonist of the series, Dr Anya Crichton, to study the psychology of male sporting teams. It’s a topical storyline but tackled intelligently and without the moralising, quick-fix answers that mainstream media devotes to the subject and it reminded me that the best crime fiction always examines some aspect of our society or collective behaviour in addition to telling a jolly good yarn.

Australian-born, Scotland-living Helen Fitzgerald‘s THE DONOR tackles the simple but hideous premise of what a single father is to do when his twin daughters both develop a genetically inherited kidney disease. Perhaps a life of crime wouldn’t be everyone’s choice but hapless Will Marion seems somewhat short of options to save the daughters he loves. The book is both darkly funny and almost unbearably sad but not remotely maudlin which is, I think, a remarkable achievement. The father in this story is a wonderful creation: the type of person you want to slap for being so inept one minute but the next moment you want to wrap him in a giant bear hug for trying so hard.

Sulari Gentill‘s A DECLINE IN PROPHETS is the second novel set in 1930’s Australia to feature world-wandering dilettante Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and I adored it. Rowly and his friends start the book on board a cruise liner where a grim murder occurs and by the time all the players are in Australia things look very rocky for poor Rowly who unwilling caught up in an odd spiritual movement and may end up being considered an unsuitable role model for the young members of his conservative family. Whenever I talk about this book or its predecessor (something I do as often as I can) I break out in a wide grin as there is something quite joyous about the amusing, life-embracing characters that inhabit Gentill’s world, which is full of sumptuous details of the period. But there is sadness in Rowly’s life too and it’s this juxtaposition with his fun-loving ways that provides the spark of something special to the book. I am lucky enough to have an advanced copy of the third book in the series awaiting my perusal in early January and I am already grinning at the prospect. This book also wins my award for best cover of the year.

LINE OF SIGHT by David Whish-Wilson is another superb debut, this time set in Perth in Western Australia. It is a fictionalised account of the real life murder of a local brothel owner in the 1970’s and focuses on the struggle by one good cop to uncover the truth about the crime which appears to have been perpetrated by his fellow officers. What impressed me most about this book was its perfect capturing of the time and place (it really does feel like another country which is not surprising as the state has flirted with secession more than once). The characters stand out too, especially the man who was charged with heading up a Royal Commission into the case and who slowly came to realise that he’d been set up to find nothing at all. It was a somewhat brutal but entirely credible characterisation and I have thought about Justice Partridge many times since finishing the book.

Did you read any Aussie crime fiction that impressed you in 2011? Do share.

Planning your Aussie Crime Fiction Reading for 2012

If you’re signing up to one (or both) of the Australian themed reading challenges for next year you might be looking for some brand new crime fiction to read. Here are some titles that I’m particularly looking forward to

Gary Corby‘s second Athenian mystery set in Ancient Greece has already been released in the US but is only being released in Australia on 3 January 2012. The blurb begins…“ATHENS, 460 B.C. Life’s tough for Nicolaos, the only investigating agent in ancient Athens. His girlfriend’s left him and his boss wants to fire him. But when an Athenian official is murdered, the brilliant statesman Pericles has no choice but to put Nico on the job. The case takes Nico, in the company of a beautiful slave girl, to the land of Ionia within the Persian Empire. The Persians will execute him on the spot if they think he’s a spy. Beyond that, there are just a few minor problems. He’s being chased by brigands who are only waiting for the right price before they kill him. Somehow he has to placate his girlfriend, who is very angry about that slave girl. He must win over Themistocles, the military genius who saved Greece during the Persian Wars, and then defected to the hated enemy. And to solve the crime, Nico must uncover a secret that could not only destroy Athens, but will force him to choose between love, and ambition, and his own life.”  I have just started listening to the audio version of this one (inexplicably available to me to legally purchase whereas the paperback is not available for two more weeks).

Sulari Gentill’s third Rowland Sinclair novel, MILES OFF COURSE, is due out on 30 January 2012 and the publisher’s blurb tells us this…“Opening early in 1933 in the superlative luxury of the Blue Mountains’ Hydro Majestic hotel, Miles off Course finds Rowland Sinclair and his companions ensconced in croquet and pre-dinner cocktails, that is, until the Harry Simpson, vanishes. An Indigenous stockman, Simpson has a hold over the Sinclair brothers that is both mysterious and unusual. The Hydro Majestic is rapidly abandoned for the High Country of NSW where Rowland searches for Simpson and becomes embroiled in a much darker conspiracy” A copy of this one arrived on the doorstep of Fair Dinkum HQ yesterday and I must admit to doing a happy dance (luckily for all concerned there is no video of this hideous sight). I was also chuffed to learn that the fourth book in this series will also be released in 2012. More happy dancing to come.

Peter Corris‘ 39th (I think) Cliff Hardy novel is called COMEBACK and will be released on 30 January 2012. The blurb says “Cliff Hardy has his licence back—but does he still have what it takes to cut it as a PI on the streets of Sydney? Cliff reckons the skills are still there, if a little rusty, and actor Bobby Forrest’s murder case looks promising. His investigations take him deep into the city’s underbelly through inner Sydney, the city’s west, the central coast and the Wollondilly Plains. Along the way, he encounters a range of suspects and motives that put his powers to the test; prostitutes and cops, corporate movers and shakers, a would-be golf guru and a media magnate’s kick-boxing assistant. Only Hardy’s experience, resilience and persistence bring him to a shock understanding of what it’s really all about.” I am determined to read this book even though I have never read any of the predecessors…I do find such a long series a very daunting prospect but I’ll just jump in and see how I go

Katherine Howell‘s fifth Ella Marconi novel is called SILENT FEAR and is due out in Australia on 1 Feb 2012. Here’s the publisher’s blurb “On a searing summer’s day paramedic Holly Garland rushes to an emergency to find a man collapsed with a bullet wound in the back of his head, CPR being performed by two bystanders, and her long-estranged brother Seth watching it all unfold. Seth claims to be the dying man’s best friend, but Holly knows better than to believe anything he says and fears that his re-appearance will reveal the bleak secrets of her past – secrets which both her fiance Fraser and her colleagues have no idea exist, and which if exposed could cause her to lose everything. Detective Ella Marconi suspects Seth too, but she’s also sure the dead man’s wife is lying, and the deceased’s boss seems just too helpful. But then a shocking double homicide related to the case makes Ella realise that her investigations are getting closer to the killer, but also increasing the risk of an even higher body count.”

Are there any Aussie crime books you’re particularly looking forward to getting your hands on next year?

A difficult reader’s choice

As I mentioned back in May I am a member of  Sisters in Crime Australia and am therefore eligible to vote in the Reader’s Choice category in this year’s Davitt Awards. Never one to take voting duties lightly I was a little overwhelmed by the number of eligible titles. At that time I had read only 6 and a half of the eligible adult fiction titles so how could I possibly make an informed vote? Given I had no chance of reading all the eligible titles in the time available I decided not to fret too much, though did resolve to get my hands on as many of the books in the adult fiction category as I could given the limitations of book-buying budgets and waking hours in which to read.

I have now read 12 of the 25 eligible adult fiction books and to be honest almost all of them would be deserving winners. I have chosen my favourite (by the merest of margins) but I really wouldn’t mind if any of the others that I’ve liked was to win instead. However, my vote has gone to

DEATH MASK by Kathryn Fox: Although I thought the start a bit slow this book has one of the most creative storylines I’ve encountered in ages, focusing on sexual assaults committed by sporting stars. As with all the very best crime fiction it is about much more than the crimes it depicts; examining the psychology of team sports from all angles in a thought-provoking way that is far-removed from how we normally the subject addressed in the media. I thought it topical, non-sensationalist and utterly compelling.

Here are the others I’ve read (in alphabetical order):
  • A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN by Sulari Gentill: A delightful historical mystery set against a fascinating backdrop of social and political turmoil in Australia in the 1930’s. A young man of a wealthy background gets help from his left-wing friends to investigate the murder of his uncle and the book has a great setting, warm-lively characters and the historical setting is interesting (my rating 3.5)
  • COLD JUSTICE by Katherine Howell: The re-opening of the investigation into the death of a teenager 19-years earlier explores the idea of people’s pasts and how they might feel differently about events they witnessed or took part in with the benefit of age and distance. It is brilliantly plotted and full of compelling characters and is the best (to date) of a terrific series (my rating 4.5)
  • DEAD MAN’S CHEST by Kerry Greenwood An intelligent cosy mystery set in 1920’s Australia this book sees private detective Phryne Fisher and her household head to the seaside for a rest. Of course they encounter some mysteries to solve including the bizarre bandit threatening the long-haired ladies of Queenscliff and the sudden disappearance of a servant couple. It’s terrific to see  the latest book in a long running series receive the attention to detail and quality story telling that the first novels received (my rating 3.5)
  • KISS OF DEATH by P.D. Martin The fifth book in this series sees ex-pat Australian FBI Profiler Sophie Anderson helping Los Angeles police with an investigation into a murder that appears to have ritualistic elements that could be associated with a religious cult. This evidence, plus one of the psychic visions that Sophie sometimes has, leads her to look into the world of self-proclaimed vampires. I liked the procedural and investigative aspects of this book but did find the supernatural elements a bit over the top (my rating 3)
  • LET THE DEAD LIE by Malla Nunn: The second book of Nunn’s set in 1950’s South Africa follows the story of Emmanuel Cooper who, under the country’s increasingly draconian apartheid laws has recently been classified non-white and so is unable to work officially for the police anymore. However while undertaking some unofficial surveillance work for his old boss he finds a young boy’s body and is compelled to investigate the case. What I enjoyed most about this book is its depiction of the impact of his changed situation on Emmanuel Cooper which felt very realistic in addition to being heart-breaking (my rating 4)
  • MATTER OF TRUST by Sydney Bauer: Boston-based lawyer David Cavanagh goes home to New Jersey to defend an old friend who is accused of murder. The novel is decently paced but has a bit too much of a tv-script sensibility for me to find 100% engaging. I’d have liked a little more depth to the characters and their motivations (my rating 2.5)
  • NAKED CRUELTY by Colleen McCullough: This is the only one that I’ve read that I would be disappointed to see win as I just don’t think it’s a great example of the crime writing craft. Set in the US in 1969 and involving the investigation of numerous crimes including a series of brutal rapes I found it historically anachronistic and pretentious (my rating 2)
  • THE HALF-CHILD by Angela Savage: (my rating 4): In the mid-90’s Jayne Keeney is an Aussie living in Thailand and working as a private detective. She is asked to investigate the apparent suicide of a young Australian volunteer some months earlier and uncovers several nasty villains in the process. It’s a terrific novel with a great sense of its setting and a very thoughtful and nuanced plot (my rating 4)
  • THE OLD SCHOOL by P.M. Newton: The first (of what I hope is many) book to feature Detective Constable Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, the book is set in 1992 in western Sydney and involves an investigation into some bones found at a building site. Newton does many things well but, for me, it’s the time and place captured to perfection that I will long remember in this tale that tackles such big issues as the search for identity, the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people and the nature of police corruption. (my rating 4)
  • WATCH THE WORLD BURN by Leah Giarratano: A woman dies from apparent spontaneous combustion at an up scale Sydney restaurant and then other odd, possibly related, events start happening around the city. Detective Jill Jackson is meant to be studying for her Masters Degree but is drawn into the investigation for personal reasons. As always I loved the way Giarratano draws her characters in a very believable and thoughtful way and the story is one that takes several unexpected turns. (my rating 4)
  • VIOLENT EXPOSURE by Katherine Howell: Paramedics are called to a domestic disturbance at the suburban home of Suzanne and Connor Crawford one night only to have the couple explain the incident away as nothing more than a disagreement. The next evening Police and paramedics are again called to the address only this time Suzanne Crawford is dead and her husband is missing. This is a fast-paced book with credible, recognisable characters and a superbly complex plot. (my rating 4.5)
Davitt awards in the categories of best adult crime novel, best young fiction crime book and best true crime book by Australian women writers are chosen by a judging panel. The Reader’s Choice award, voted by members of Sisters in Crime, can go to any of the titles eligible for one of these three categories. All the award winners will be announced in October. For a full list of the eligible titles in all the categories you can see my earlier post on the awards.

As for which book will actually win the award I’ve no idea. I’m notoriously bad at predicting such things and am normally well out of step with the majority, whoever and wherever they may be. All I can say is good luck to all, including those I’ve not had a chance to read yet, and I feel very fortunate as a reader to have been presented with such a terrific range of crime writing by Australian women for my enjoyment and education in just one year!

Review: A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill

It’s 1932 and the luxury ocean liner RMS Aquitania is making its way to Australia, via New York, with Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his travelling companions on board. The group of four left Australia some months previously after the tumultuous events depicted in A Few Right Thinking Men and have been travelling, painting and generally enjoying the world as Rowly has recuperated from being shot. Their fellow passengers include an octogenarian political activist and former head of the Theosophist movement, several other members of the movement, a Catholic Bishop and a couple of priests. When there is a grim murder on board Rowly is at the centre of things, mostly because he’s a bit too polite for his own good. The boat stops in New York before making landfall in Australia but things go from bad to worse for Rowly and his friends and at one point it looks like  poor Rowly will hardly be considered a suitable godfather for his newest nephew.

I really ought not to have enjoyed this book. Its hero, Rowly Sinclair, is the kind of world-wandering dilettante living off inherited wealth instead of the product of his own toil that should offend my lefty sensibilities. But, in what might be evidence that my principles are only skin deep, I like Rowly very much and loved the book too. Rowly is generous to all and a good and true friend to his pals (none of whom share his wealthy background). He also tries hard to fulfil the duties and obligations his family expect of him (except when it comes to marrying the string of suitable women they throw at him). His life is tinged with sadness too as his own mother does not acknowledge his existence, behaving instead as if he is his older brother who died in the war a dozen years earlier. His friends, a sculptress with whom Rowly is in love, a painter whose background is the complete opposite of Rowly’s and a plagiarising poet with Communist sympathies, are nicely fleshed out too and the relationships between the various members of the group are a real highlight of this book. There is a real Australian feel to it too

Rowland Sinclair, Milton Isaacs and Clyde Watson Jones lined up at the foot of her bed, all leaning against the rail as they asked about her health. Annie Besant regarded them warmly. It was a particularly Australian habit, she observed – to lean. Australian men seem to lean whenever possible – against walls, posts, chairs. Her late husband would have considered it offensive, slovenly, but Annie found it somehow charming…Australians had the ability to relax in any company or circumstances – they would face Armageddon itself leaning casually on a fence. It put her at ease in their presence.

Another highlight of A Decline in Prophets is the way Gentill absorbs readers in the historical period using a combination of real characters and events (each chapter begins with a news clipping or other snippet to set the mood) and delicious facts and details scattered throughout what is a gripping mystery. It doesn’t hurt that this period, falling between two world wars which seem to me be saturated by historical fiction, is somewhat under-represented in the historical fiction space. I really enjoyed the depiction of a wide range of political and social groups (including the much-maligned Freemasons) as well as the more personal experiences that might have been unique to the time. Even a visit to Sydney’s Rockwood cemetery provides an interesting insight into the social norms of the day and the meeting of Rowly’s bohemian friends and his sister-in-law’s pious Scottish relatives is an opportunity for much observational wit.

The only real problem I had with this reading experience is that I gobbled the book up too quickly and now have a long wait for the third instalment of the series. The combination of thoughtfully drawn characters, gentle but clever humour and the obvious love Gentill has for the story she wants to tell and the time period in which it is set made this a very satisfying read for me and one I would recommend widely.

I have already reviewed the first book in this series, A Few Right Thinking Men.

The book should be more widely available after the official publication date on 1 July 2011

my rating 4/5
Publisher Pantera Press [2011]
ISBN 9780980741896
Length 354 pages
Format trade paperback
Source a gift from the author

Currently Reading: A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill

I stumbled across Sulari Gentill’s first historical crime fiction novel in a bookshop almost a year ago. I was in a bit of a reading slump having recently finished a great book and finding nothing else to my taste. Happily I really enjoyed that book and have been looking forward to its sequel, A Decline in Prophets, very much. I’ve had it on my shelves for a little while now (thanks kindly to Sulari for sending me a copy) but library books and awards shortlists have occupied my reading time of late. However, the book’s publication date is 1 July and I simply must read it before everyone else (or almost everyone else).

I’ve read the first 30 or so pages this afternoon (when I should have been doing some work) and it has started well, already grabbing my attention and drawing me back to the 1930’s. The book opens with our hero, Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, on board the luxury ocean liner RMS Aquitania recovering from the injury he received during the harrowing events of the first book. For seven months he and his bohemian friends have been travelling the world in style, thanks to the Sinclair family fortune. On board they have met an eclectic bunch of passengers including some real historical figures such as Annie Besant who was political activist for several causes and at one time was President of the Theosophical Society. Naturally, this being a crime novel after all, there has been a rather unpleasant death on board the boat and Rowly is implicated. What next I wonder?

It looks like I’m set for another adventure which will bring to life some more little-known events in Australian history and combine my interests in things artistic and political. How delicious.



Review: A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

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

It is the early 1930’s and Australia, like the rest of the world, is in the grip of the Depression. As often happens in such times the political scene has become tense with a newly emerging socialism at odds with the established conservatism. Striding both worlds is Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, the youngest son of a wealthy landowning family he knows great privilege but he chooses to mix with, even share his house with, artists, left wing types and even members of the Communist Party. When his uncle is savagely beaten and killed the Police seem alarmingly disinterested in finding the culprit so Rowly and his friends embark on their own investigation.

This was a delightful book to read. I’ll admit right up front that the mystery component was a bit on the light side but because it played out against a fascinating and well-drawn backdrop of social and political events it kept my attention from the outset. Australia is not noted for its political unrest but Gentill has done a tremendous job of taking just enough real people and events from one of the few genuinely tense times in our political history and surrounding them with interesting fictional characters and intriguing situations. Rowly and his friends, some of whom are members of the Communist Party which is rising in popularity among the working class, find themselves up against the New Guard, a right-wing group that rose up (albeit briefly) in response to the perceived threat of the spread of Communism and the slightly more real threat from the brand of socialism expounded by the local Premier at the time, Jack Lang. The increasingly bizarre plots to ‘save’ the country are credibly depicted and do indeed demonstrate how easy it is for people who believe a little too fervently to move from doing good works to dangerous ones in the blink of an eye.

The characters too are nicely drawn. There was potential for them all to be a bit stereotyped and one-dimensional but they’re all nicely rounded out. Rowly is an accomplished artist, secretly in love with one of his house guests but she is pursuing her own artistic dreams. While he wants to be his own man he still does have respect for his family name and though he argues with his older brother Wilfred, now head of the family, he doesn’t deliberately set out to upset him. And though Rowly and his friends lived a life of luxury amidst the harshness of the Depression their lives aren’t without sadness, such as having to deal with the fact that Rowly’s mother believes him to be his other brother who died in the war and she constantly refers to him by his dead brother’s name and only ever talks to him about events from his brother’s life rather than his own.

The book is rounded out by a gentle humour and some imaginative interpretations of what might have happened behind the scenes at some well known moments in our history. I was easily and quickly lost in the story and keen to find out how it would all unfold. I read the whole thing in a couple of sittings and would recommend it to those who don’t mind their mysteries taking a back seat to great settings, interesting historical details and warm, lively characters. It’s a delicious treat of a book.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Pantera Press [2010]
ISBN: 9780980741810
Length: 349 pages
Format: Trade Paperback