Australian author Shane Maloney wields the pen like no other writer imaginable, stripping each social veneer away in such a terribly effective fashion that we cringe as we recognize the creatures dwelling beneath. The Murray Whelan novels, of which NICE TRY is number three, are bitingly funny in the best and worst of ways. They pick, poke and eviscerate, yet manage to champion how we handled the past that has somehow thus carried us to our present. Maloney sets his novels in the past, but only just, so that our memories are at least a little foggy about the finite details of the political decisions of that day gone yet we still manage to largely recall the main events.
NICE TRY ages Murray to a point where he is less the avenging hero and even more so now a man doing the best he can in a bad situation, keeping a loose hand on the tiller when it comes to morality decisions. Effective results are what he specializes at, and it is not as though the world has been changed by what he sometimes has needed to do. It is impossible not to enjoy these novels for the incisive and laugh out loud hilarious monologues of Murray, and while the crime plot of NICE TRY has been more carefully constructed than has those of the series priors, whodunit is still not the question of the day. Enjoy the sharp mind of Shane Maloney.
HEAD SHOT - Jarad Henry
The blurb on HEAD SHOT says Jarad Henry has worked in the legal criminal justice system for the past ten years. It shows. There is a credibility to HEAD SHOT that implies that Henry knows how things work. He has met the people and walked the streets. Anyone who has been following the saga of the Melbourne gangland killings and the success of the Purana taskforce in securing convictions in relation to the killings, will find more than a few parallels in HEAD SHOT. I don’t know exactly what Henry’s job has been the past few years, but I suspect there could be a true crime book there that might prove even more fascinating than HEAD SHOT.
Henry has a second novel BLOOD SUNSET due for publication in May, 2008 and I, for one, can’t wait.
SHOOTING STAR - Peter Temple
Anne Carson: fifteen, beautiful, wayward. Abducted.
The rich Carsons have closed ranks and summoned Frank Calder, subject to strict instructions. This is not the first kidnapping in the Carson family and hard lessons have been learned.
But are the two events connected? And is greed the motivation? Revenge? Or could it be something else? To find out, Frank Calder must go beyond his brief.
And his every step into the darkness may end a girl's life.
Frank Calder is a bit of a maverick. Ex-cop / ex-soldier - current day "mediator". He's the sort of bloke that gets called in to sticky situations where unusual solutions are required. He's worked for the Carsons before. When a crazed gunman took store staff hostage, Frank wandered into the situation to save the hostages. Which he did. Quietly, efficiently and unusually.
So when Anne disappears on the way home from school and a ransom demand is received by the family, the Carsons again turn to Frank. He wants them to call in the police, but they did that once before and one of their own very nearly died. This time they want to do exactly what the kidnappers ask and once they have Anne back, they'll deal with the kidnappers themselves. Frank finds himself having to wade around in the families dirty French soap smelling laundry to get to the bottom of a possible motive.
SHOOTING STAR is classic Peter Temple. The prose is sparse, the central character is a bit of a maverick with a heart, he has connections, he uses them. The Carson families skeletons are all a bit on the unsurprising side - large, very wealthy families seem to have these little peculiarities, but the methods of uncovering them are fast, tight, and often quite funny.
All of the characterisations are interesting - Calder himself, his offsider Orlovsky, the Carson patriarch Pat, his sons, their sons, the wives, the granddaughters - the hired help. And throughout the story there are those standout little passages that you can expect from Temple - the observational points. Orlovsky as an immigrant in his own country, Calder as a man who only smokes when bad things are about to happen, Pat Carson and his whiskey bottle - all that money and that compound.
Wonderfully paced, with a good resolution, SHOOTING STAR is already a classic of Australian Crime fiction.
HEAD SHOT - Jarad Henry
There are days when the fact that I'm often so far behind with local authors that I could kick myself, and today is definitely one of those days.
HEAD SHOT is the debut novel for Jarad Henry, with Blood Sunset - his second book to be published by Allen & Unwin in 2008.
HEAD SHOT is a police procedural that's written with enormous aplomb and deftness. The author has a background in the criminal justice system and that experience shows through, but doesn't overwhelm the reader. This is not a police procedure manual, but a great book about a young cop who makes a convenient patsy for the corrupt and flat out criminal.
Set in Melbourne, the story is placed realistically in and around that town, and reading it now, with the knowledge of not too long ago underworld behaviour - well it really works as a fictional story, but there's just a little edge there that seems very realistic.
McCauley is a good cop, just over obsessed with his job, and weighed down by the implications of the job and the accusations made against him. He finds himself partnered unexpectedly with a young female cop - Brit - Constable Cassie Withers who married an Australian, moved to Melbourne and joined the police force. Both characters have shattered personal lives behind them - but for different reasons, and both characters work well. Either arguing the point with each other, not trusting each other, or working together.
I'm serious when I say I'm kicking myself for taking so long to read this book.
CHERRY PIE - Leigh Redhead
CHERRY PIE is the third book in the Simone Kirsch series, which takes a slightly darker, more edgy direction than the first two.
Working to raise the cash for the gadgetry needed to start her own Private Investigator business, Simone is sidetracked by a desperate phone message from a childhood friend who subsequently disappears. Andi has only recently moved to Melbourne as well, she works as a restaurant as a waitress, and is studying journalism. Andi's already been in touch with Simone asking for her help with a major story that she thinks she's unearthed, but Simone unfortunately wasn't sure she had time - now she doesn't have much choice but to try to find Andi and that means trying to find out what this major story was.
Deep in the world of the celebrity chef, there are some hysterical scenes in super-trendy restaurant Jouissance where Andi worked, with Simone and Chloe her ever "helpful" sidekick with the large boobs and the outrageous mouth, whilst Simone tries to work out what it is that Andi was on the trail of. Simone is driven to Sydney eventually, firstly in hiding after some serious threats and after getting well in the road of an ongoing police investigation, but she then finds herself in an increasingly intense series of contacts with a big note developer and money man behind the restaurant.
There's still a strong sense of fun and hilarity - especially in Simone's trusty sidekick and stripping entrepreneur friend Chloe. But there's something a bit more in CHERRY PIE than just the sex industry, the charging around, the scraping through by the skin of her teeth and the ongoing romantic tensions. Simone's starting to strongly question what she's doing. She's starting to question why she puts so many of the people that she loves in jeopardy and she's starting to stretch some friendships. She's trying to stay faithful to the absent Sean - her lover from Rubdown, she's showing a level of "grown up" that's really very endearing.
Ultimately there's a bit of a twitch in the tail of CHERRY PIE - we're definitely moving from totally light, funny and riotous into something slightly edgier and harder. Both Peepshow and Rubdown were great books, CHERRY PIE is hinting at an even more interesting future.
RUBDOWN - Leigh Redhead
Simone Kirsch is a Stripper (exotic dancer) turned Private Investigator working the fringe of Melbourne constantly, it would seem, in and around the sex industry.
In RUBDOWN Simone and her new PI boss Tony are called in to look for the daughter of a well-known, respectable barrister. His daughter seems to have got caught up in drugs and the sex industry herself. When she commits suicide whilst Simone is supposedly watching her from outside the flat, things start to get a lot more complicated than Simone and Tony want. Simone's PI license is threatened and so is her life.
Leigh Redhead has created a great PI in the character of Simone. She's in the long tradition of female PI's with attitude, although there's a strong sense of humour and Australian-ness in Simone that makes her a great character to spend time with. Her rocky path to love seems to have stabilised a little in this book, although there's a twist (isn't there always). Given that both Simone (and Leigh) have spent time working in the striptease industry the surrounding characters from that world are sympathetic, if not slightly out there, for the average reader. As with Redhead's first book PEEPSHOW, the sex scenes in RUBDOWN are a lot more on the explicit side than some of the similar style books (Liz Evan's Grace Smith for example).
The mystery in this book is a rollercoaster thriller, the plot is deftly handled and nicely twisted. Some of the outcomes are easy to see coming, but that doesn't matter - this is a book about Simone and how she copes with her world and the series is a great, entertaining romp.
THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB - Fergus Hume
This is hardly a new book, being originally self-published in 1886, but it is a really important book in the history of crime fiction. Firstly, it was the best selling crime novel of the nineteenth century - outstripping both Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins. It actually pre-dates Doyle's A Study in Scarlet by one year, and it was an overnight sensation when originally published, selling around 750,000 copies during Hume's lifetime, nearly half of those copies within the first six months of re-publication in London in 1887. By the end of 1886 a total of 20,000 copies had been printed in Melbourne alone - where the population was then less than half a million. Just about every literate adult in Melbourne therefore must have read the book.
The story itself revolves around the death of a, then, unknown man in a Hansom Cab late on a Melbourne night. The victim and an unknown man hail a hansom cab and ask to be taken to St Kilda. The unknown man changes his mind and walks away only to return a few moments later, deciding to take the same trip as the victim. Half-way through the journey the unknown man asks the cabbie to stop, gets out and heads back towards the city. By St Kilda Junction the cabbie, on trying to establish a final address to attend, discovers the dead body of the victim in the back of his cab.
The police investigation firstly must concentrate on trying to identify the victim, and ultimately results in the arrest and charging of a gentlemen who appears to have been a rival for the hand of the daughter of a wealthy local family. But in the tradition of all good crime fiction there is a twist and things are not what they immediately seem.
This is a good old fashioned detecting story - obviously there was no help from advanced forensics in 1886, and the size and nature of a colonial town adds layers and differences to the book from anything that would be written today. All in all, this is still a good book, a good solid story and a highly entertaining and engaging read.
THE JACK IRISH QUINELLA - Peter Temple
THE JACK IRISH QUINELLA brings together the first two (of the present four) books in Peter Temple's Jack Irish Series. Both books were originally published in 1996 and 1999 respectively.
Jack calls himself a suburban solicitor, although these days he mostly confines himself to the occasional lease or conveyance. Since the murder, by one of his clients, of his second wife, Jack has lost a lot of interest in being a lawyer. After a sustained bender over a number of years, he has kept his own one man practice, but sustains life and limb with a weird combination of looking for lost people and stitching up race bookies. He sustains soul and psyche learning how to be a fine cabinetmaker and longing for his beloved Fitzroy Football Club, since it was forcibly merged and moved to Brisbane. He looks for lost people, witnesses, people who owe other people money, whatever is required for the mysterious and eccentric Cyril. He stitches up bookies with Harry and Cam and a team of commissioners. He hangs around the Prince of Prussia with a group of the old true 'Roy Boys. He makes furniture with Charlie. He longs for love, sometimes he finds it, sometimes it seems to slip past him.
In Bad Debts, the first book in the JACK IRISH QUINELLA Jack is in no particular hurry to find out why an old client of his is desperately trying to get in touch. Danny was a client just after Jack's wife was killed and he's well aware that he probably didn't do the best by Danny, especially as he's got to go back and find out what the story of Danny's legal tribulations was. When Danny is shot dead by the Police in a car park while he was waiting for Jack (who hadn't even agreed to show up), Jack thinks he probably owes Danny a few well-placed questions. Sure the questions lead Jack to the very attractive journalist Linda, but they both soon find that Danny was involved with people who don't really care what it takes to keep out of the news and the courts.
In Black Tide, Des Connors is an old mate of Jack's father, Des was there the day that Jack's parents met. Des is a nice old bloke, saddled with a prodigal son who has now gone missing with $60,000.00 that Des lent him, leaving behind a mortgage on the house that Des has lived in all his whole married life. As Jack starts to look for Gary, lots of trees start shaking and all sorts of crooks, Government Ministers, corporate tycoons, government agents, and shady deals start to fall out, mostly on Jack's head.
THE JACK IRISH QUINELLA is a great starting point for those that haven't read the 4 books that make up this series. As with his later books, Temple has a knack for writing an Australian story. The people that hang around the pubs are the sort of people you (hopefully) still see sitting around old pubs in inner suburbs or out in the bush. The goings on at the racetrack have been going on for years, the characters are just the same as the ones that you rub up against in the ring or around the birdcage. And there's subtle justice in THE JACK IRISH QUINELLA – the bookies normally go home in the posh imported car, whilst the punter takes the train!
The major attraction of the entire series is Jack himself, and the people who surround him. There is a lovely ensemble cast of the vaguely dotty, slightly shady, mysterious, scheming, fanatical, flat out mad, cunning and deeply philosophical (in their own way). There's lovely touches of an almost old fashioned Australian way - football, horse racing, pubs, tradition and mateship. There's a bit of romance gained, romance lost and longing. There's some very unlikely, complicated crimes going on and if you stop for a second you have to wonder how a suburban solicitor can possibly get himself into these spots.
Whether or not the crime is realistic, whether the level of police corruption is feasible and the involvement of the stratospheres of corporate and politics is vaguely possible, you really don't care. You just want Jack to solve the problem, preform a few of those “more luck than planning” feats of daring; get the girl; drink the wine and solve the problems of the world. You even care that he finds himself a team to support. Now any writer that can interest this reader in things Australian Rules Football is a writer worthy of respect.
EL DORADO - Dorothy Porter
I'll be perfectly honest - I circled El Dorado in the Readings tent at the Melbourne Writers festival for days. It's a contemporary Australian crime fiction thriller. It was long-listed for the 2007 Ned's and I'd promised myself to read the entire list of nominees this year. So why was I circling?
Well El Dorado is a verse novel - poetry and I admit I'm never convinced about reading poetry. Sure I love listening to some bush poetry, and I love to listen to some I guess you'd call them performance poets - ask everyone about dragging me away from Lem Sissay's performances at last year's MWF - but reading an entire verse novel.... a crime verse novel. Errrrrrrrrrr
So I circled.
The opening verse is a ripper mind you:
The little girl's
is sticking stiffly
as if reaching
to grab an angel's foot.
Then I found this stanza on page 8 and I was heading for the cash register:
It's not often
Detective Sergeant Rodney Mason
but a man
with no imagination
and no sense of smell -
'the wife reckons
I never buy her flowers' -
is right at home
in the city morgue
El Dorado is fascinating. As a story it switches from dark comedy, to tragedy. The personal lives of the investigating team are laid bare, the raw grief of families who lose a child to a murderer, the panic and worry as it becomes increasingly obvious that not only do they not know who, they don't understand why. There's pace, there's a progression of the story and it's done in pared down, beautifully worded verse.
El Dorado is a great crime novel. It's compelling verse. All I can say is don't circle it like I did - grab a copy and try it - you'll probably find yourself mildly astounded.
PEEPSHOW - Leigh Redhead
Simone Kirsh (aka Vivien Leigh) has an interesting job history - ex prawn trawler hand and working as a stripper for starters. Simone is determined to change things though, so even as she's still working in peepshows and as a stripper she's finished her Private Investigator's Course; has her ID and she's working to get her best friend and fellow stripper Chloe out of a big lot of trouble. Francesco Parisi's been brutally killed and Simone find herself undercover at his table top dancing venue, The Red Room. She has to find out why the police think her friend Chloe killed Parisi and why his brother seems to be convinced that even if she didn't, Simone will work out who did because he is holding Chloe hostage. Now Simone can look after herself and despite having to deal with some seriously weird fellow strippers; corrupt cops and her own rather frantic attraction to rockabilly guitarists, she finds herself in some very sticky situations. Fans of series like Lauren Henderson's Sam Jones and even to some extent Liz Evan's Grace Smith books will find some similarities here. The story is a a big romp through the world of strippers, drugs and the Melbourne sex industry. There are some moments of high camp humour and some very steamy sex scenes. More sexually explicit than the comparison books and with frequent and detailed depictions of the drug scene, this was a good witty book which was very enjoyable.