Tag Archives: writers

Book review: A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

A Few Right Thinking Men

Image nicked unashamedly from the author's site but I hope she doesn't mind

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!

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Reviews, Writers

Oh, Fanny! The bliss! Nancy Mitford’s back in print!

Yes, I’m a Mitford-phile. I adore Nancy Mitford’s witty novels, sharp, observant and each a superb time-capsule of their era.

I discovered Nancy’s two best-known novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, when I was in my late teens. My school library had a 1950s hardback version of The Pursuit of Love, but its cover art of a cartoon 1950s woman chasing a chap and holding a gigantic butterfly net put me off. I never even opened it, just put it back on the shelf. Fast forward a couple of years and Pan released a paperback copy of both books in an omnibus as a tie-in with the TV series. Now THAT caught my interest; its cover had stills from the series showing the actors in beautiful 1920s costumes. I bought it and was instantly hooked.

Don't Tell Alfred

My 1960 HB of Don't Tell Alfred

I have re-read my paperback copy on an annual basis since then, and have hunted around for Nancy’s other books, with mixed success.  It was with a howl of delight that scared the bloke taking money at the church fete that I pounced on a 1960 hardback of Don’t Tell Alfred several years ago, but after that the market dried up. Since eBay and Amazon appeared it’s been easier. Last year I bought a 1980s omnibus reprint of Pigeon Pie, Christmas Pudding and Highland Fling. This edition was called – as you might expect – Pudding and Pie.

But now, oh joy, six of Nancy’s books are being reprinted, including Wigs On the Green, which has been out of print since the 1930s. I bought Wigs on the Green and The Blessing (which I’d borrowed from the library years ago and yes, I gave it back) on eBay and they arrived yesterday. Needless to say I’ve already started reading, and can see why Wigs on the Green incensed Nancy’s younger sister Unity to the point where there was a severe rift between the two sisters. Nancy has written a massive tease on Fascism in Wigs on the Green. She refused to have the book re-issued after WWII; a tease it might be, but this was not a teasing subject any more.

As well as Nancy’s fiction I have her very readable bio of Louis XIV, The Sun King. This book has mixed reviews by the literati when it was published, but I enjoyed it. It’s well-researched and with Nancy’s touch it’s a very emotional bio.  Noblesse Oblige I found in a second-hand bookshop years ago. I have bios on Unity and the Mitford sisters in general.

What makes Nancy Mitford (and her sisters) so appealing? You might shake your head and say the family was just a rather mad bunch of wealthy upper-class Brits, so why all the fuss?

In the case of Nancy her writing sparkles. She never claimed to write classic or serious literature. In parts, particularly in her early novels, the writing is sloppy here and there. But she observed life in her circle and captured it superbly. Slang, clothing, everyday life for the upper crust in the 1930s is written about with rapier-sharp wit, particularly in Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. They are laugh-out-loud material, more than 60 years after they were published. Her characters are believable. Over the top but still believable, which is probably because the Radlett family was based on her own and some of their youthful exploits.

Nancy loved a tease. Nothing was sacred from her sense of humour, and the most perfect example of her teasing abilities is in Noblesse Oblige, the biggest tease of all her books. It made me realise, the first time I read it, our family was very non-U. My grandfather didn’t even say ‘serviette’; he called it a ‘serve-you-right’. Bless you, Nancy, for taking the mick out of the class system. Mind you I’ve called serviettes napkins ever since :-).

For me the books are addictive. I suspect I was born into the wrong era as I’m drawn to a lot of Golden Age fiction. (But like with any Good Old Days, they were only Good Old Days if you were wealthy!)

I do hope the reprints of Nancy’s book will draw new fans as well as delight old ones. In this age of tweeting, texting and instant gratification it would be good to think there are Gen Xers and Gen Yers who will become Mitford-philes too.

1 Comment

Filed under Writers