This 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!