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Book Review: The Folly of French Kissing by Carla McKay

The folly of french kissingI was intrigued to find this book in the crime section of a bookshop last week; the cover looked anything but crime-like and hinted of 18-30s chick lit. The blurb on the back was promising, however. Judith Hay, the innocent victim of a scandal at the school at which she teaches, leaves her job and decides to try her luck living in the Languedoc. The village she settles in has quite a large British expat population, which causes friction with the locals, but it’s cheap and the weather is sunny and hot. Judith settles in and learns more about her fellow Britons – in fact, more than she’d like to know.

There’s no murder (quel dommage!) but you do hope that someone will clock the brutish and abusive Lance Campion or the bullish Bill Bailey on the head. That person could be the mild-manned bookseller Gerard, who has an alter ego in his head called Ged who metes out punishment to people to mistreat books (the paragraph in the novel describing Ged is one of life’s joys). But no, this is not about murder. It’s about secrets, nasty secrets, and Judith finds herself unwittingly in the middle of them. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

This book has an engaging and well-drawn cast of characters. It has intertwining plot lines, some of them touching very serious topics, and a true sense of place. Carla McKay writes authentically about the region as she has lived there herself. You can feel the summer heat, see the buildings in the village clearly through her eyes. There is a tendency to cliche with regard to the French, however. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed it except for a couple of things.

The time warp. One character, Jean, is trying to find her daughter who is in her mid-twenties. However, the daughter left school in 1984 apparently. As the book was published in, and apparently set in, 2012, this would make the daughter pushing 40 rather than 25. Her mother searches for her on Friends Revisited and Facebook, so we know that this is a 21st century book.

This editing anomaly leads me to the second, and more irritating, problem: Bad proofing. Honestly, there is no reason why a book should be published with so many errors. Commas placed where they ought not to be and missing where they should be. Quotation marks left out. The odd grammatical and spelling error.

Carla McKay is a journalist and as a professional writer should have ensured that proofing was carried out properly. I’m very tempted to read it again this time with a pen and a bottle of tipp-ex so it’s the pleasure to read it deserves to be.

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Book review: Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood (Phryne Fisher series)

Unnatural HabitsSummer 1929 in Melbourne: hot, grimy and uncomfortable, and glamorous sleuth The Hon Phryne Fisher feels the heat in more ways than one when the action gets going in this, her 19th full-length mystery by Kerry Greenwood.

Phryne and her friend Dr Elizabeth MacMillian rescue naive reporter Polly Kettle from thugs in Little Lonsdale Street.  They learn that Polly’s ambition is to be an investigative journalist; she is on the trail of missing girls. Specifically, pretty blonde girls and among them three young unwed pregnant women who may have escaped the confines of a dire and harsh convent laundry for something considerably worse. It’s bad enough that their families have disowned them for being damaged goods.

Then Polly herself goes missing and it’s time for Phryne to step in.  Her investigations take her through the seedy and low elements of Melbourne; she meets the brothel owner for whom ‘the Paris end of Collins Street’ just might have been named, the manager of a discreet club for homosexuals, the lesbian owners of a successful communally-run fruit farm, and enters the dark, rigid world of a convent where compassion doesn’t exist. Phryne moves easily through brothels and clubs (and I do love the insight into the clandestine homosexual world of the 20s that weaves through this series), but what she sees at the convent leaves her shaken and angry, and an angry Phryne is the spirit of vengeance brought to life, as villains have found in the past.

The more Phryne delves into the disappearances, the more there is to unravel. Is Polly with the three unwed mothers? And are they with the other young women reported missing? And who is responsible for performing vasectomies on unsuspecting (but deserving) men?

In order to meet the mastermind behind the disappearing girls, Phryne has to become a blonde herself. Whether blondes have more fun is debatable but they certainly get into tight situations, as Phryne discovers. It’s lucky this particular blonde has a knife up her sleeve…

As always, Kerry Greenwood’s research is meticulous. Phryne Fisher may be extremely wealthy and enjoy a superb lifestyle, but her travels in Unnatural Habits take you to heartbreaking places, to slums, to children wearing flour sacks for clothing, to a nursing home for unwed mothers which is barely fit for cockroaches, to places where rights for women workers don’t exist, to a convent where young women are beaten for daring to speak. We are constantly reminded in this book that the good old days weren’t good for everyone.

Balancing the action is the interaction in Phryne’s home, where new resident Tinker is having trouble living in a house full of women. His character develops well throughout this book as he and the household learn to get on with each other.

Phryne has taken to calling Ruth, Jane and Tinker ‘minions’ in this book (and sometimes that includes Dot too). I found the term a little overused, but do suspect that Phryne uses it with warmth and irony.

I always enjoy Phryne Fisher’s adventures and this one was no exception; there are multiple mysteries within this book. The attention to detail with Phryne’s clothing and everyday living in the era is spot on, the laconic language of Bert, Cec and the policemen evokes the way my grandfather used to speak. Unnatural Habits is elegant, well-plotted (and in Phryne’s case well-dressed) escapism at its best, but also reminds me how far we have come with women’s rights, indeed human rights, since 1929.

I feel guilty for devouring this book as hungrily as I did. Given the love and effort gone into writing it I should have savoured it slowly and honourably, but I couldn’t put it down. Finished it at midnight last night. Now, sated, I will re-read it at some point while waiting for Phryne’s next adventure.

(By the way, did anyone else notice the editing error in the first half of p268 of the paperback edition?)

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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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Review: Bloodline by Felix Francis – this one’s an ‘also ran’

Bloodline by Felix FranicsFormer schoolteacher Felix Francis has taken over the “Dick Francis” franchise following his father’s death two years ago and released his first book in the series last year. I’m thinking that now perhaps it’s best to let Dick go and simply let Felix write as Felix. The words “A DICK FRANCIS NOVEL” adorn the cover of this year’s release, Bloodline, but the only thing that ties this novel to the dozens of Dick Francis novels in the past is that it’s a crime set in the world of horse racing.

Yes, we do learn about the world of broadcasting and race calling, and it’s well-done, too, a natural part of the tale rather than a lecture as is usual with Dick Francis novels. Full points to Felix for that.

But something is missing. I think it’s the writing style. Anyone can set a murder mystery in the world of racing – John Francome is an example – but if you’re hoping to appease Dick Francis fans, you need to truly ape the Francis style. People ‘sketch a goodbye’ in the world of Dick Francis; there are key phrases such as that which crop up in book after book, like old friends. Sentences, particularly in the action-packed bits, are short. Felix’s style is quite different to his parents’ and those old friends are nowhere to be seen.

Racecaller Mark Shillingford’s sister Clare apparently commits suicide, but Mark believes there is more to her death and that she was pushed. In investigating her death he enters into a world of blackmail and race fixing.

Mark appears to have relationships with women without knowing much about what they do outside the confines of the bedroom. After five years he is surprised to discover his ex-lover Sarah has a sister.  And while his new lover knows what he does for a living – he’s a broadcaster and race caller – he’s in the sack with her twice before he asks her about her own career.

I found Mark as a hero rather one-dimensional and unimpressive. Yes, he grieves for his dead twin sister and for someone else who dies during the course of the action (no spoilers). But by the end of the book I hadn’t warmed to him in a way I’d warmed to some of the Francis heroes of the past.

Like all Francis heroes Mark has a lousy relationship with his father, which is consistent. Any dedicated Francis fan would expect it.  So that at least is true to form.

I didn’t guess the murderer – in fact until three quarters of the way through the book I had suspected somebody else, so that at least was satisfying.  But oh boy, did I get sick of the phrase ‘zombie eyes’ in the last couple of chapters.

In the Francis field of thrillers, this one is an ‘also ran’ to use a racing term.  I’m not surprised it was only released as a trade paperback here in Australia and not a hardback; I suspect sales of Felix Francis books will not be in the same league as Dick Francis books unless Felix is marketed as himself rather than as part of the DF package. Taken on face value this book is a good enough mystery, but it doesn’t have the classic hallmarks of a Dick Francis novel from the DF heydays of the 60s and 70s. Available now, should you wish to draw your own conclusions, in all bookshops or online.

 

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Review: The Cartographer by Peter Twohig. Fast, furious and funny.

The CartographerModern Australian society saddens me. Kids aren’t allowed climb trees any more in case they fall and injure themselves. You can get arrested for letting your eight year old walk, alone, 200 metres to the newsagent to pick up the Sunday papers or buy himself some sweets. Gone are the joys of being a primary school kid and riding your bike, alone, to school. Is my generation one of the last where kids had freedom and the great outdoors in which to let their imaginations run wild?

A chapter or two into first-time novelist Peter Twohig’s The Cartographer and I was filled with joy. The hero, a kid whose first name we never learn, is a right little ratbag with a vivid imagination and a penchant for getting into rough and often dark places. Literally dark. This kid likes drains. Bless him.

It’s Melbourne in 1959.  Our young hero is eleven, and still burdened with the guilt of his twin Tom dying the year before in an accident with monkey bars at a local playground. Our hero couldn’t lift up the bars to save his brother’s life, and part of the kid’s character is twisted up in his brother’s character as well. He thinks and acts for both of them, despite Tom no longer being around.

While exploring a house with a wild, jungle garden, the kid watches a murder take place. Now most kids these days would be scarred for life and sent straight to counselling, but our little hero’s imagination and curiosity view the deed with an almost scientific dispassion; his quick wit and quick actions save his own life when the murderer discovers the kid is watching the whole scene unfold.

And that’s where the action really starts. A little later when the kid sees another murder take place I was thinking it was all a bit too much and a bit too far-fetched; chases through drains and tunnels, through the back streets of Melbourne’s seedier suburbs, the kid outthinking and outrunning the baddies. I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the action and violence and wished the kid would spend a week living like a normal child his age, you know, sitting at home with a comic book and taking pot shots at tin cans with an air rifle.  But then I kept reading, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Imagining himself as a super hero – The Cartographer, who uses his journeys to build a map of Melbourne which is subterranean as well as on top of the ground – the kid eludes the murderer.  His map grows as does the danger he is in. Around him a web is slowly closing though; the kid is at the centre of something bigger than himself, through no fault of his own.

There are some superb laugh out loud bits in this book which relieve the tension. And tense it is; beautifully crafted cliffhangers keep you turning the page when you really meant to stop five chapters ago.

There is also authenticity, in the trams, the tv shows, the movies, the sweets and lollies, the very life of late 50s Australia. There’s a larrikin sense of freedom in this book and in its young hero. The kid’s family – his mother, estranged father, grandfather – are people you’ll know if you’re an Aussie of a certain age. Everyone has met people like them in their youth.

There is also harshness typical of the kid’s generation; in the murders, in the matter of fact way the kid talks about the deaths he has seen and the death of his first dog, the breakup of his parent’s marriage.

And there’s darkness; physical darkness in the drains but I think echoed in the kid’s head as he copes with murders, crooked cops, and being truly himself.

In the end, after rollicking chase after rollicking chase, after little snippets of information fed delicately to make a complete picture, I adored this book and the ‘voice’ of its hero. You can buy it at all good bookstores or find out more about it here at The Cartographer website. There are also a number of scary questions on the official website for book clubs, which make me feel completely dumb for enjoying this book as I did; as an action-packed coming of age comedy drama about a kid with a dead twin and a brilliant imagination.

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Fabulous Phryne – Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood – a review

Cocaine BluesWith the ABC tv series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries bringing a Hispano-Suiza load of class to the telly this year, ten of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series of books have been re-released with covers that tie in to the tv episodes. It may sell more of them – and Essie Davis is perfect, truly perfect, Phryne to the life – but Beth Norling’s original artwork is a delight, so I’m sticking to the original cover art here.

The tv show has been a big success for Aunty, but as any reader of the Phryne books knows, you can’t cram one of the books into 57 minutes. For anyone who has viewed the tv show and hasn’t read the books, discovering them will open up a treasure trove of pleasure. I’ve been enjoying them since 1990 and now have my husband hooked on them too.

So we’ll start at the beginning, Cocaine Blues, in which Phryne arrives in Melbourne in 1928. She’s a Melbourne girl from birth but the War which removed many of the males from her family tree saw her impoverished father and family elevated to the nobility and a big house in England when Phryne was twelve. She’s a woman who can mix with the nobs and the nobodies; she’s lived in both circles.

Phryne agrees to travel to Australia at the request of a friend of her father’s, worried about his daughter Lydia who has had mysterious bouts of illness. Could Phryne find out more? Is Lydia in danger? Bored with London society and chinless wonders, the trip seemed like a good idea and would put 12,000 between Phryne and her family  (and the chinless wonders).

It doesn’t take long for Phryne to make the acquaintance of red-ragger taxi drivers Bert and Cec, and persuade troubled young woman Dot Williams not to knife her errant boyfriend. (Incidentally, Dot is Dot Bryant in this novel… she mysteriously becomes Dot Williams in later novels. Oops.)

In her first adventure Phryne helps Bert and Cec track down an illegal abortionist, has an affair with a delectable young Russian dancer, breaks a cocaine ring and in doing so discovers Lydia isn’t the innocent woman she appeared to be. Phryne, at one point, fears for her life. It’s a long way from polite dinner parties in London. From the decadent Windsor Hotel to seedy back alleys, Phryne triumphs with panache and silk underwear.

Phryne is rich. She can afford the finest and if you think you’ll find that off-putting, think of something else. Her wealth gives her the freedom and power to investigate and also to help others.

This book is divine escapism. The light wit throughout nods politely to Dorothy Sayers, queen of golden age crime, and Kerry Greenwood has researched her chosen year very well.  All the Phryne books are carefully researched, and you can rest assured that the gorgeous clothes Phryne wears are very much 1928 and that the Melbourne described is the Melbourne that was.

The language is the language of Australia in the 20s – you won’t find people saying “OK”, for example. Bert and Cec in particular use the vernacular of the time, e.g. ‘bonzer’.

The mystery itself, while a good one, almost plays second fiddle to Phryne herself, to Melbourne in 1928, to characters like Bert and Cec and Dr MacMillan.

If you have enjoyed watching Phryne on television, give yourself a real treat and read the books – starting from the beginning. You’ll have another 20-odd to look forward to!

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Thrill City by Leigh Redhead: Review

Thrill CitySimone Kirsch. There’s a name to conjure with. It will come as no surprise to learn that she is an ex-stripper turned private investigator. What else could she be with a name like that? Simone is the ballsy, bolshy and very funny creation of Aussie writer Leigh Redhead, and Thrill City is the fourth in the Simone Kirsch series.

In this case I haven’t started reading a series at the beginning. I am almost ashamed to say I picked up this book for a fiver when my local bookshop had a surplus sale on. Sad for author Redhead, as a fiver won’t earn her much in the way of royalties and her author photo shows she has a cat to feed, but good for me as I was hooked from page one and will be buying and reading the other books now .

Thrill City is a roller coaster of a book. The action doesn’t stop; it’s almost too fast-paced as Simone gets into strife and out of it again in her search to find missing client writer Nick.  It’s a Girl’s Own Thriller, with laugh out loud moments (particularly from Chloe, Simone’s best friend, moaning about the state of her very pregnant body and how she’ll cope with sex afterwards).

For all the almost unbelievable action Simone is a believable and likeable heroine. She’s fallible, far from perfect. So far from perfect her relationship with copper Sean is in tatters by the end of the book.

Leigh Redhead’s Melbourne is gritty and real. I’m a Sydneysider and love visiting Melbourne; I have family there. As I read this book I kept squawking, “Ooh! I know that place!” with delight. I may be a little more wary wandering around St Kilda after dark now though.

This is a great book to take on holiday. It’s pure escapism. Lying on the beach in a place that’s too blissful and perfect for words? Drag yourself back to a bikies’ den in Broken Hill. Longhaul flight and the movies are boring? Be on the run with Simone, dodging bullets.

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know, I’m glad I’ve discovered Simone Kirsch.

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Hysteria at the Wisteria – when lawn bowls is simply murder

Hysteria at the WisteriaWhat could be more innocent than a lady lawn bowler in her uniform? Heroine Lucy Law ponders the question in Hysteria at the Wisteria by Ellen Mary Wilton, published by Short Stop Press.

When a body is found on the top green of the Wisteria Bowling Club, it becomes clear one of these pleasant women is a murderer. Lucy’s own life is at risk as she delves into their lives to solve the crime ahead of the police.

This is Ellen Mary Wilton’s first novel – she has published a memoir of her childhood in Egypt at an Islamic boarding school, Daughters of Allah.

The mystery is well thought-out, and I didn’t guess the murderer so kudos to Ellen!

Ellen’s 40-something heroine Lucy is well-drawn: she is likeable but also enviable, being married to a rich lawyer and able to spend her days bowling and painting. Given that the Wisteria club is set in harbour side Sydney, she’s a plausible heroine; the club to which Ellen belongs in real life is in a very wealthy area. Ellen’s writing style is engaging. However, proof-reading could have been better. There were several punctuation errors which irked me as I read. Honestly, there is no excuse for poor proofing and editing.

Ellen’s novel draws on what she knows very well: the world of lawn bowls. Ellen’s a keen bowler at the Club where my Mum bowled until recently. Mum has retired from lawn bowls – a rare thing as most lady bowlers bowl until they truly drop! So I confess to knowing Ellen and meeting her several times. That hasn’t influenced my review of her book though.

Hysteria is as much about friendship and the bonds that form at bowls as it is about murder. I laughed out loud several times throughout the book at Ellen’s depiction of life at a bowls club. The agonising decision at a committee meeting about paper cups versus cups and saucers for morning tea at a special competition day is so true to life; my Mum was on the bowls committee for years if not decades and can attest to the politics which impact on such decisions.

Within lawn bowls strong friendships form. Bowls can rule your life, but it’s a very social monarch. For widows and retirees their fellow bowlers become an extended family. As with any family, there are the people you don’t get on with – in fact those that almost anyone doesn’t get on with, and there are some giggly moments throughout the book there too with grumpy Freda endearing herself to nobody.

This is a gentle mystery and a welcome addition to Australian crime fiction. If you think you’ll be bored by reading a novel whose main characters aren’t in their first flush of youth, think again.

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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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