If 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.