I’ve mentioned before my love of Golden Age fiction or fiction set in that era, and was wandering around the excellent bookshop in the Qantas terminal getting ready to fly to Adelaide last Friday when I saw a paperback that intrigued me; the artwork on its cover was 1920/30s inspired, so I picked it up, scanned the back cover, realised it was a murder mystery set in Sydney in 1931 and thought: “Yay!! That’s my flight read!”
The book in question is A Few Right Thinking Men by Australian author Sulari Gentill.
It moves from the unlikely but somehow believable world of bohemian artists living in a posh Woollahra mansion to the country town of Yass in southern NSW. Now Yass I know quite well; my grandmother was born there, and I was intrigued at Sulari’s version of Yass in the early 1930s, where a rather disturbing, and disturbingly large, group of what we’d now call rednecks held a rebellious meeting against the NSW Labor government of the time.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, save for explaining a bit of confusion. In the preface to chapter one, Rowland Sinclair’s death is reported. Now… Rowland Sinclair is the hero so I was a bit bemused until his uncle with the same name came on the scene (and was nastily bumped off shortly afterward, hence the murder mystery).
Rowland the hero mixes with real-life characters from the time in an effort to solve the mystery of his uncle’s murder. Sulari’s research is thorough and rings of realism. The book is set in the Depression and moves between Rowland’s privileged and very moneyed world to that of the battlers with understanding, empathy and realism. My family – my grandparents and their two young daughters – moved from country NSW to Sydney when the Depression hit, and the entire family lived in one room in a Woollahra mansion which had been converted to flats. It was easy for me to reconcile stories I’d heard about Sydney at the time with Sulari’s book, and find an authenticity in it.
Some of the characters and actions seem larger than life; but then the book touches on real events and people here and there and as a reader you discover that Sydney – in fact NSW – was polarised at the time (what’s changed, you may ask. That’s another story!). Think of De Groot, riding through the crowd on his horse and slashing the ribbon on the Harbour Bridge at the official opening. He’s in the book, so is the New Guard and Old Guard, and assuming Sulari’s research is as thorough as it appears they were a right nasty bunch of right-wingers. Admittedly the threat of Communism was seen as being very real back then, and this book is as much about politics as it is about the bohemian world of the artist and his friends, the family antagonism as Rowland and his brother face off on either side of the political wall, and let’s not forget the murder. Premier Jack Lang was seen by many as flying a flag that was just a bit too red. 1930s Sydney was a rough, tough place; it needed rough, tough politics to survive at a time when money, food and jobs were scarce. Between Lang’s Labor and the New or Old Guard was truly between a rock and a hard place.
Sulari has chosen a wealthy man as the hero in the tradition of many Golden Age writers or modern writers setting their work in that period. The nearest modern and local comparison I can give you is Kerry Greenwood’s elegant and titled Phryne Fisher, the lovely 1920s Melbourne sleuth. Making your hero or heroine well-heeled allows them to move freely through society; it allows the author to set them in enviable surroundings, the type of place readers enjoy mentally escaping to. It’s more empathetic for us 21st century softies than having a hero stuck in the dinginess of a Darlinghurst two up, two down with a lean-to kitchen out the back, a permanent smell of cabbages and no money for the tram fare or no entree to posh places to nab a snobby villain. Like Phryne Fisher, Rowland Sinclair has a superb car at his disposal – escapism at its finest, in many senses of the term (particuarly Rowland’s!).
In many ways the real hero of the book is 1930s Sydney; Rowland’s character isn’t as developed as it could be – I don’t know him well yet, he’s not the close friend a hero can be at this stage – but I suspect more about his earlier life, and a stronger character development, will emerge as time goes on. While I empathised with Rowland during my 1930s romp around NSW I felt I didn’t get to ‘know’ him as well as I’ve got to know other lead characters. This book is the first in a series the author is planning. I’m looking forward to reading more and watching this intriguing series, and its lead characters, develop.
This book has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book 2011. I wish the author good luck – good crime in a well-researched vintage setting is a winner for me!