Tag Archives: 1930s

Book review: Paving the New Road by Sulari Gentill

Paving the New Road by Sulari GentillIf politics in New South Wales were bonkers in 1933, they had nothing on Europe – as Rowland Sinclair, upper class but bohemian artist and unwitting sleuth – finds out in the fourth book in this series.

Against his better judgement – and to save his brother from undertaking this potentially dangerous mission – Rowland agrees to travel to Germany to spy on Colonel Eric Campbell of the New Guard, who is visiting Germany with the potential intent of bringing European Fascism to Australia. He’s also been asked to find out whether fellow Australian Peter Bothwell’s death in Germany was really of natural causes or something more sinister; after all, Bothwell was his successor in putting a spanner into the works of Campbell’s plans. It galls Rowland to think that his trip is funded by the right-thinking men he despises and that he is essentially working for the Old Guard, but he despises Campbell even more.

His friends sculptress Edna Higgins, poet Milton Isaacs and fellow artist Clyde Watson Jones insist on accompanying him, all of them armed with passports which give them new identities as art dealers on a buying trip – and some of the deliberately unsuitable pieces they buy along the way are simply hysterical; what the conservative Riverina Movement will make of them when they unpack the crate had me giggling like a fool.

Like the other books in this series, fictional characters mix with real people. This premise can be dangerous if done badly or sloppily researched, but Sulari as always has researched her real people and their behaviour very carefully.  Rowland and his friends are flown to London by Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (‘call me Smithy”); during their fourteen day journey they meet with the languid Somerset Maugham in Singapore.

In Germany, they meet and befriend a lonely and slightly mysterious girl called Eva, who is lovelorn over her “Herr Wolf”, a man who doesn’t have time to see her. Rowland presumes he’s a married man and Eva won’t tell, but you can guess who Eva is from the outset. Near the end of the book her surname is revealed to be Braun.

Journalist-cum-spy Nancy Wake assists Rowland in his quest. And there’s Unity Mitford, jumping out of the pages with more than a hint of madness and a nickname for everyone. As a commitred Mitford-phile myself, I think Sulari has nailed her well. Unity plays a key role in one particular event by playing a Mitfordesque practical joke on Campbell himself.

Edna is flattered by the attentions of tailor Alois Richter (who is VERY scathing about the abilities of one Hugo Boss, a tailor who has the contract to make uniforms for the SS, another giggling moment for me) who kindly lets the Australians stay in his lakeside house. A very girly comment here: Edna gets to wear some superb frocks!

But Germany, in the year or so since Rowland last visited, is changing. The Brownshirts are menacing and bullying. Fascism is rising faster than the sun. Books considered un-German or inflammatory (in the literal sense!) are being burned, the SA have taken to bullying even children, let alone the Jews; you can almost palpably feel the underlying hysteria of a people being  pulled along in the wake of a charismatic megalomaniacal leader.  (Who, by the way, doesn’t appear in the book himself.)  It’s a dangerous place to be, even if you’re apparently an art dealer. As always Rowland is mixing with dangerous people; he is captured by the SA, tortured, and comes as close to dying as he’s ever likely too.

And it’s not just the SA who wants him dead. There’s also somebody he trusted with whom he fights for survival. Injured, marred for life and presumed dead, Rowland needs to get out of Germany. If his loyalty to his brother Wil is key to him being in Germany in the first place, it’s another brother’s loyalty towards his own brother which can get him out.

The experience leaves Rowland, formerly insouciant and flippant about politics, interested in international politics; I wonder now where this series, and Rowland, will go. He and his friends have grown up a lot in this novel. Nazi Germany is a long way from laid-back Australia, and the contrast has had a sobering effect on them.

I do love the quotes which Sulari chooses to accompany each chapter. They’re from Australian newspapers and include this gem from the Courier Mail in 1933: “Even the kindergarten schools in Germany come under the influence of the Hitler regime. In a picture, received by air mail, young children – scarcely more than babies – are shown given the Nazi salute as they march past their school master.” Yikes! Makes you more thankful than ever for democratic government.

I read this book as an e-book using Kindle reader on my iPad; I have another of Sulari’s books as an e-book and confess that I do prefer reading them as paper books. However, I was in such a hurry to get my hands on this one I downloaded rather than drove to the bookshop.

Sulari Gentill has written about one of history’s troubled times with a beautiful mix of history, research and imagination. Fast-paced and authentic, this one’s a winner, whichever format you read it in.

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On course, actually. Miles off Course by Sulari Gentill

Miles off Course by Sulari GentillThe third Rowland Sinclair novel by Sulari Gentill sees high adventure in the high country of southern NSW, an area the author knows well.

It’s 1933 and artist Rowland is enjoying a Blue Mountains break with friends Clyde, Milton and Edna when he learns that his family’s trusted employee Harry Simpson has vanished. Harry’s been kidnapped, and Rowland finds himself in danger as he heads to the bush in search of Harry.

It seems that Harry’s kidnapping is part of a bigger plot and once again NSW politics – as crazy then as it’s ever been or is – is part of it. One way or another, Rowland’s in trouble up to his neck and finds himself captive with Harry deep in the bush… miles from anywhere, miles off course.

This is a rollicking read, galloping along with the pace of a stock horse on the top of a hill. As with her two earlier books Sulari Gentill has researched the era thoroughly, from clothing and food and mannerisms to the seething boiling pot of politics and the delicate subject of treason. A visit to Clyde’s family in rural NSW, for example, is beautifully drawn; the working-class cottage and the slight awkwardness with which rich Rowland is received by the family is a delight and full of attention to detail.

Sly grogger Kate Leigh makes an appearance as does author Miles Franklin – I do love the way Sulari introduces real characters into her books. Even better is the beginning and end with conversations between Norman Lindsay and his wife; I laughed out loud.

And Rowly makes his feelings for Edna very clear, without realising he’s doing it. You’ll have to read the book to find out the how, why and when for this moment!

I picked the villain quite early; the oily little bugger just didn’t seem right, but I didn’t pick the WHY. The unravelling at the plot near the end was thus very satisfying and much bigger than I expected. I was sorry to finish the book and it certainly deserves a re-reading by me sometime soon, when I can savour it and read it more slowly rather than avidly gobbling it.

In the meantime, Sulari Gentill is working on the fourth book in the series which takes Rowly, Milton, Clyde and Edna to Munich in 1933. I foresee some spectacular action!

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A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill – Book Review

A Decline in ProphetsThis is the second book featuring Rowland Sinclair – an artist with bohemian tendencies born into a wealthy pastoral Australian family. Rowland has an unerring eye for finding trouble – or is it that trouble finds him? At the conclusion of the first book he and his friends fellow artist Clyde Watson Jones, seductive sculptress Edna Higgins and poet Milton Isaacs were setting sail on the Aquitania for Europe and North America, as Sydney in 1932 was a rather unhealthy place for Rowland to stay. He’d upset too many prominent – and criminal – people.

Once again Rowland finds himself embroiled in murders – two, this time aboard the luxurious ship – and his own life and that of Edna’s is put in danger on their return to Australia. Even worse, his very proper brother and other members of the Sinclair family are about to descend on his relaxed Woollahra mansion and Rowland has to juggle family issues and demands, be the feature of unwelcome newspaper headlines, dodge bullets and overall avoid ending up on a slab in the mortuary.

What I love about Sulari Gentill‘s books is her mix of fact and fiction: the books are very well researched, events and moods of the time and well-known people of the era woven in with the fictional Sinclairs. For example, Rowland and his friends spend New Year’s Eve with Norman Lindsay and his model wife Rose at a deliciously debauched party at Lindsay’s house in the Blue Mountains. To my delight, Edna is escorted through New York nightlife by an up-and-coming British actor called Archie Leach (lucky girl!) after meeting him at a party hosted by moving pictures star Marion Davies. Sydney underworld figures Phil “The Jew” Jeffs, Frank “The Little Gunman” Green and prostitute Nellie Campbell also have encounters with Rowland. (These names will be familiar to viewers of the Nine Network’s Underbelly:Razor series, but for a more realistic, grittier take on Sydney’s wild times of the 20s and 30s I suggest reading Larry Writer’s Razor, the superb true crime book on which the series was based.)

Gentill’s books have a nod to Agatha Christie’s golden age fiction in more ways than one. As well as having a very readable, engaging style there’s wry humour in them. In New York, Rowland takes his friends to meet fellow artist Daniel Cartwright, who only ever paints his own self-portrait. I can’t help but share a laugh-out-loud moment here:

“Rowly,” Clyde’s voice was low and touched with disbelief. “These paintings…  they’re all of him… Cartwright… all self-portraits.”

Rowland nodded. “Yes, Danny only paints himself.”

“What? Always?” Milton whispered, incredulous.

“Never knows him to paint anything else. I must say,” Rowland motioned towards the latest portrait, “he’s getting quite good at it.’

“Does it not strike you as odd?” Milton persisted.

“It’s bloody odd,” Rowland confirmed. “You should see his nudes.”

If the first novel in the series was centred around politics, this one is about religion. The Theosophist Society plays a major role with Rowland meeting its leader Annie Besant on the Aquitania, being interviewed as a suspect for one of its number’s murder on board the ship and being cast as the new prophet by an outcast member back in Sydney. In the blue corner, so to speak, is the bullish Catholic Bishop denouncing Rowland as evil and accusing him of putting his niece in the family way (and worse). Adding to the mix the Protestant-only Masonic Lodge was in its heyday in Sydney back then and prominent families such as the Sinclairs were, of course, members; something free-thinking Rowland would very much like to avoid but is dragged into by his brother Wilfred.

Back in the 1930s religion played a strong part in defining who you were. I remember my grandmother, who grew up in NSW country town Glen Innes, telling me that the Protestant kids didn’t talk to the Connie kids (the ones who went to the Catholic convent school) as a matter of course. They had been brought up that way. Entire towns could be divided with a Protestant and Catholic side of the main street! Religious bigotry was rife. So it’s no surprise that even within Rowland’s circle of friends religion is an issue that’s discussed – and plays a major part in the murders and solving them.

There are plenty of twists in this tale and the mystery is satisfyingly solved in a race against time. I was sorry to finish reading this book!

The only thing that irks me, just the tiniest, about this book is the constant referral to Edna as ‘the sculptress’. She’s described as ‘the sculptress’ every few pages (I was reading this as an e-book by the way due to my straitened storage circumstances). Maybe it’s to remind us what she does for a living as in this book she doesn’t work on any of her sculptures! Milton and Clyde aren’t regularly referred to as ‘the poet’ and ‘the artist’.

I’ve seen some cover art for Sulari’s next Rowland Sinclair novel and I’m wondering if a certain Gypsy Moth aeroplane will play a part in it. To find out why I think that, you’ll have to read this book!

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Musings on a Golden – or gilded – Age

Phryne Fisher image

Image from phrynefisher.com

I find myself delving into fiction written in the first half of the 20th century as a way to relax and switch off the 21st. Mobile phones, computers, and the overall constant urgency that our lives are full of these days gets to me after a bit. I need to escape. So the 1920s and 30s in particular beckon. Maybe it’s the clothing. Maybe it’s the rise of the flapper, with her bobbed hair and her strident feminism. Maybe it’s the music. The pace of life was certainly slower and I feel myself calm down in the company of Mapp and Lucia, Fanny Logan and her Radlett cousins, or Lord Peter Wimsey. Toss in some Agatha Christie and Scott Fitzgerald for good measure, early Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh… I am also the proud owner of three Girls’ Own Annuals from the 20s, complete with knitting patterns, recipes, very high-moralled articles (which I skim) and serial novels (which I devour).

I also enjoy reading recently-written novels set in the 1920s. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series is wonderful escapism, and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, while technically set in the early 1930s, is another I enjoy. Both of these are mystery series as I do love a good murder or two.

There’s a real difference in the tenor of novels actually written in the 20s and those modern books set in the 20s however. Times have changed and the political correctness we are inured to is very evident in modern novels. Vintage fiction can be sexist and racist, and while I condone neither in the big scheme of things, that’s the way things were back then. That’s the way people thought, and you have to accept that when you read these books. They are very much a product of their time.

Modern novels get around it; our heroine comes across a character being sexist or racist and pulls them up on it. How dare he call that man a Chink (or insert whatever racist term you like)? In the vintage books, this wouldn’t happen. Our heroine would probably refer to said victim in the same way, albeit possibly with a nicer tone in her voice. The humour can be waspish and brilliant, but any author who wrote such works today would be crucified by the mass media.

I suspect that modern novels set in earlier times wouldn’t get published unless a modicum or indeed large dollop of political correctness crept in there. Is this gilding the way people behaved almost a hundred years ago? Is it a slur on the authenticity of the period in which the book is set? And have we really become too po-faced in our acceptance of older fiction and the time and place it was written in? (Think of Enid Blyton’s Noddy, banned for years.)

Historical fiction tells us an enormous amount about the community and accepted behaviour and language of the time. That time existed and while we’ve moved on to a more complex age in just about every sense it’s that ring of authenticity, that behaviour and language which is audacious by today’s standards, that makes these books thought-provoking, compelling reading.

Oh yes, and it was the cocktail era. It’s been a long day. Time for a Sidecar.

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