Brisbane, 1943. A provincial Australian city has turned almost overnight into the main Allied staging post for the war in the Pacific. The social, sexual, and racial tensions stirred up by the arrival of tens of thousands of US troops provoke all kinds of mayhem, and Brisbane’s once quiet streets are suddenly looking pretty mean. Enter P.I. Jack Munro, a World War I veteran and ex-cop with a nose for trouble and a stubborn dedication to exposing the truth, however inconvenient it might be for those in charge.
Two novellas, connected by PI Jack Munro, COORPAROO BLUES and THE IRISH FANDANGO are an interesting historical hard-boiled combination of PI, mean streets, fallen women, drinking and the whole nine yards.
The first story, COORPAROO BLUES, introduces Jack, war veteran, ex-cop, nose for trouble, attractor of a simply staggering number of women, PI that you turn to when things are going to get nasty.
The second story, set a few months later, sees the US troop angle switched for political refugees and Communists around every corner, and a suicide that isn't.
So we're not exactly talking scenarios and a counter-hero of a type that we've not seen before. Albeit that Munro comes with a hefty dose of Australian colloquial language (so much so that they've included a glossary at the back of the book for those less used to the way that the common language can divide). He's also walking the seamier side of Brisbane at a period in history that not a lot of dark and noir current day fiction addresses. And it's done very well - the setting feels authentic, right down to the sense of heat and grime that comes with a Brisbane summer. We're also talking, mercifully a couple of intricate plots that were clever and well formed and resolved in two such short novellas.
The thing with this sort of crime fiction is always that there's a sense that attitudes of the time must be clear cut, all women are either whores or saints, all men gangsters or heroes. Even though Munro is a fair bit more nuanced than like hero's of the type, he is, a good bloke to have on your side in a tight spot and a man seemingly irresistible to any female within range. Definitely one for fans of noir, particularly as it's been a long time since Australia's mean streets have been explored in this way.
UNITED STATES OF AIR - J.M. Porup
Food Enforcement Agent Jason Frolick believes in America. He believes in eating air. He struggles to get the food monkey off his back. As part of the Global War on Fat, his job is to put food terrorists in Fat Camp.
When a pizza dealer gets whacked in the park across the street from the Thin House, the Prophet Jones himself asks Frolick to investigate. For the first time ever, Frolick solves a murder—but what he finds out shakes his faith.
Will he ever be able to eat air again?
The War on Drugs.
The War on Terror.
The War on Fat.
So we're talking satire, with as much subtlety as a politician on the election campaign. Which is not my favourite sort of satire I've got to admit. So THE UNITED STATES OF AIR and I struggled to come to an understanding from the beginning.
You can see the point it's trying to make - the willingness of people to believe any old garbage spouted at them from "on high" - whether the "on high" is religious, political, some combination of both or just some bat-shit crazy loony from down the street.
I can also remember Breatharians (or whatever they call themselves) actually going to the extreme of dying because they didn't believe they needed to eat (or something ... when we're talking that bat-shit crazy I tend to be looking for an exit rather than closely playing attention).
From that standpoint, the lack of subtlety probably makes some sense - there's no point in standing up to a battalion armed with an icepick and an attitude after all.... but at some point the exaggerations got so over the top and the humour attempting to choke me to death if I didn't agree got to me ... and not only did I find myself not agreeing, I couldn't for the life of me work out why I was bothering.
Which was a pity as the climax has some important points to make, but I'd worked so hard to get there, it took me a while to recognise the skewering that the consequences of blind adherence will get you.
It's decidedly possible that this was simply the wrong book for me. Maybe if you're a strong believer in the power of the icepick then you will get it in spades, but for me, THE UNITED STATES OF AIR laid the lampooning on so thick the poor little message at it's core drowned.
THE ROBBERS - Paul Anderson
The Victoria Police Armed Robbery Squad has long been considered the hardest and most feared group of Victorian detectives. They operate without fear or favour.
Award winning police reporter Paul Anderson obviously spent a lot of time around the Victorian Armed Robbery Squad during some pivotal investigations in this state as there's much of the plot in THE ROBBERS which rings loud, persistent and very musical bells.
There is therefore a parallel when journalist Ian Malone is assigned as a police reporter, his first involvement with the "the Robbers" as he wants to write a feature about the feared, and not always admired Squad. Malone is along for the ride as "the Robbers" slowly fall from favour with the more controlled, corporate, considered style of policing overtaking the Victorian Service.
There is also the parallels that can be drawn between the villains in this book and many of the "names" from some of the worst of the Melbourne Underworld wars and associated cases, some of which have been the most high-profile crimes in recent Victorian history. These aspects are the most chilling parts of this book taking the opportunity to look behind the headlines and court cases at the sorts of people that many of this criminals could be / maybe actually are.
Along the way Anderson takes the opportunity to cast a light into some very dark corners of all sides of the equation. There's not a lot of aspects that miss out, from the criminals that front-line police have to find a way of dealing with, past policing behaviour including physical violence, and the posturing that goes on at the top.
Given Anderson's background you would be well within your rights to expect that this is well written, and extremely realistic. Warts and all storytelling without the niceties of not offending readership or the individuals so easily recognisable for that matter. This is, after all fiction, even though it's obviously based very firmly in true life events and a part of the great strength of the book is the searing, unapologetic realism of the whole thing.
It's interesting to see the proliferation of books based on true life events recently appearing, although it's probably not so surprising. There was something so over the top, so seemingly fictional about the cases they are casting a light on, in very real examples of truth definitely being stranger than fiction. The great thing about THE ROBBERS is that it's actually making a fictionalised version that's actually publishable.
THE RICHMOND CONSPIRACY - Andrew Grimes
Victor Radcliffe, vice-chairman of the Praetorian Guard, a shadowy group of army vetrans, lies murdered in a deserted warehouse. His wound suggests a killer trained by the state. It is Melbourne, 1933, and the men who marched to the sound of the guns are refugees in their own land.
As the infamous Bodyline series grips the nation, Detective Inspector James Maclaine, also a veteran, must bring a killer to justice. But the old certainties have vanished along with the battalions of the dead.
Some things remain in this nation's psyche for a very long time. The Bodyline series was something my grandfather was still hot under the collar about when I was a girl (gives you a feeling for how the New Zealanders feel when you mention underarm bowling...). THE RICHMOND CONSPIRACY sits within it's timeframe beautifully, giving the reader a real feel for the way that Melbourne and it's inhabitants worked in 1933. The references to Bodyline (and the way that news about the state of the match being played out in a whole different part of the country had to be sought out), the way that returned soldiers were struggling to fit back into a society that didn't quite understand them, the way that some were working and some weren't. The way that loyalties from the days in the trenches continued into civilian life.
At the centre of the story, aside from the search for a murderer, DI James Maclaine is an extremely good new entrant in the police lines of Australian Crime Fiction. A returned serviceman himself, he has a steady job with the police, but an unsteady home life. Caused partially by his long working hours as a policeman, but also because of mistakes at home, and his ongoing nightmares from the war, his homelife is obviously destined for change from the start of the novel. His obvious love for his son shines through, as does his increasing bafflement on the subject of his wife. His loyalty, however, to his sidekick and fellow returned soldier, Devlin is touching and very human.
THE RICHMOND CONSPIRACY is a good balancing act between character development and plot advancement. The death of Victor Radcliffe remains the focus of the book, whilst the reader is given a subtle history and social studies lesson along the way. If you'd have asked me a while ago whether I liked historical crime fiction I'd have said not so much, but with the increasing number of these books set here, I'm finding I'm developing quite a taste for them. Hopefully THE RICHMOND CONSPIRACY is the start of another new series to follow.
THE MIDNIGHT PROMISE - Zane Lovitt
John Dorn is a private investigator. Just like his father used to be. It says private inquiry agent' in John's yellow pages ad because that's what his old man called himself, back before his business folded, his wife left him and he drank himself to death. But John's not going to end up like his father. He doesn't have a wife, or much business. He doesn't really drink, either. Not yet.
On page 2 of this book I kind of got the feeling that we'd be destined to get on very well....
"He's got more prior convictions than brain cells which means he won't get bail, so he's wallowing in the Metropolitan Remand Centre at Ravenhall, trying to find a lawyer who'll argue that society is to blame."
The sort of dry sense of humour that works for this reader at least.
Subtitled a detective's story in ten cases, this is the tale of the life and times of John Dorn. Private Inquiry Agent because that's what his father called himself, he's not quite the same as his father. Yet. He doesn't drink, lots. Yet. (His father drank himself to death). He doesn't have a wife to leave him (like his mother left his father), but he does have an ex-fiancee that he longs for. Where he does share his father's characteristics 100%, is that his business is heading in roughly the same direction... out the back door in a hurry.
Part of the reason for the lack of business success is undoubtedly that John Dorn's a decent bloke, who takes cases that nobody else would touch, that make very little money in the process, even though his friend, and very successful Defence Barrister throws him some help whenever he can.
Each of these 10 cases, 10 individual stories, follow a similar trail - backwards and forwards from the end to the past, from the current day to what got him here. Each of them is beautifully written, wonderfully evocative, dry and sad and funny all at the same time.
The jaded PI can be horribly clichéd, but in the hands of this author, there's something glorious about him. Possibly it's because Dorn himself, in a lovely twist, is acutely aware that he's a bit of a cliché. Perhaps it's because his jaded is what he's supposed to be (suffering for your art and all that). Of course he's also profoundly flawed, not in a dodgy way, but strangely as a form of self-preservation.
Whatever twists and turns, and leaps and bounds John Dorn takes, however, the book is deliciously readable and extremely well done.
THE LATIN CUSHION - Rosanne Dingli
Inspector Cloud Maslin investigates a murder in a prosperous leafy suburb, where the genteel sheen seems to have an underlayer of seedy distrust. The subtle stink of decadence and immorality is disturbing, when inhaled among beautiful antiques and family silver. What secrets are to be unearthed in Claremont?
Maslin takes on a new partner, Senior Sergeant Martina Williams. His fiancee leaves him for reasons he's known for some time. His peace of mind is rattled by a baffling case with a shattering conclusion.
This is a novella that I picked up from Amazon based on some comments I'd seen about the author's writing style, which turned out to be right. This is a great little novella that introduces a murder, an investigator and his sidekick, fleshes out his background and gives me some personality, sets up some potential suspects and solves the murder. All in novella format. Well written with extremely believable dialogue and a very nice sense of pace. Short, but not foreshortened, with a nice little twist at the end that, despite the post-events reveal style used, made a lot of sense and worked well as a solution. My only quibble is stupidity on my part... Cloud... for a bloke. Couldn't get it out of my mind that he'd have been given such a hard time as a kid with a name like that, he should have been a lot more bitter and twisted than he was... I know. I know.
MURDER ON DISPLAY - Reece Pocock
As soon as the Flynn brothers lifted their Glocks, Dan was in trouble. Silence descended like a cloak of doom. No confusion crossed his mind... it was clear he would die in the next few seconds.
If there's one thing I'm a huge fan of it's dialogue that's realistic. Crisp, authentic and realistic. That and plots and the behaviour of characters that are consistent.
MURDER ON DISPLAY is obviously based sort of loosely (very loosely in some parts) around true events in the not-too-distant past in Adelaide. A number of different elements from a number of different true life cases appear to have sort of been melded together to create the story of an Adelaide cop, DS Dan Brennan.
Therein lies a lot of the problem with MURDER ON DISPLAY as I'm not 100% sure which story was the point of the book in the end. Was it the piles of bodies building up in the Adelaide Hills (? some sort of Truro / Snowtown combination perhaps), something about the homosexual sub-plot (? the Family murders), or the attack on Brennan in a restaurant that killed his wife (by that time I'd given up drawing the lines with real-life crimes)?
Whilst I've got no problem at all with fictionalising facts, especially when it's pretty obvious that's what's going on, the problem is that you've got to tell a solid story along the way. Perhaps avoid some of the overblown crime fiction clichés doing the rounds like the unsupportive boss. But probably what didn't work for me most of all was some of the weird comments made by characters along the way - there seemed to be some sort of dissociative syndrome going on at points that just lost me completely and left me battling to maintain interest. Especially as problems with the dialogue and plot had already given me way too much to struggle with already.
THE MARMALADE FILES - Steve Lewis & Chris Uhlmann
An imaginative romp through the dark underbelly of politics by two veteran Canberra insiders.
When seasoned newshound Harry Dunkley is slipped a compromising photograph one frosty Canberra dawn he knows he′s onto something big. In pursuit of the scoop, Dunkley must negotiate the deadly corridors of power where the minority Toohey Government hangs by a thread - its stricken Foreign Minister on life support, her heart maintained by a single thought. Revenge.
One of the biggest problems with the blanding out of Australian Federal politics and society is that Political Satire seems to have disappeared around the back, probably mugged by some idiot with a bias obsession. Well that is until THE MARMALADE FILES where I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was to finally find something to laugh about coming out of Canberra. In an amused way, not that panicked titter that escapes when you realise that the idiot on the telly who just said what they said may actually be believed by someone out there...
As a political junkie I will admit to being somewhat predisposed to love THE MARMALADE FILES simply because of some of the opening cracks. It really didn't hurt that it's obviously fact wrapped up in fiction, with the names changed to protect the innocent (for the nanosecond it takes for you to replace the fictional name with the true life name). Well, it didn't hurt until there were aspects of the plot that got a bit too real, too feasible for comfort mind you. What with a dumped Prime Minister / Foreign Minister with a control fetish right down to refusing to die when everything physical had shut down.... A Defence Minister in bucket loads of trouble over his relationship with a Chinese Spy... And a Liberal Leader well entangled in a Finance Department plot to down the Prime Minister. There are other characters who are so magnificently real that you just know, somewhere deep in the bowels of Canberra Society, there are some press secretaries and intelligence analysts that aren't going to be buying Uhlmann and Lewis a drink anytime soon... then again, maybe it's a badge of honour to get a gig in a book like this. It should be. It's hilarious.
Whilst THE MARMALADE FILES is definitely more on the satire side than a straight-forward thriller, it sets a cracking pace. You have to wonder whether the authors have gotten themselves caught in the 24 hour media vortex and simply can't let go. Regardless of how or why, or what the book is, this was a fantastic read, although I think those who are less interested in politics as a spectator sport might not see the glorious wonder of some of the in-jokes and references. Now, whenever anything, no matter how normal or how odd, occurs in Canberra's political halls, all I'm going to be wondering is how these two are going to spin that into the next book.
ROTTEN GODS - Greg Barron
The near future. Climate change is causing havoc in coastal areas and the world is in economic and ecological crisis. World leaders gather at a billion-dollar conference centre in Dubai, determined to make the decisions necessary to bring society back from the brink.
There's something about the combination of a big threat thriller and fundamentalist based threats that makes me twitch badly. ROTTEN GODS is therefore a book that I stupidly put aside for a tad too long.
There is, however, something particularly compelling about the idea that a humanitarian man, a decent person, could be pushed to take extreme action in the face of international disregard for the economic and ecological meltdown happening everywhere around us. The idea that he would form an alliance with a group that seems to have similar concerns, although much more extreme methods, is also not that unlikely. The possibility of taking the leaders of most of the world government's hostage, and turn the security of their location against them wasn't that tricky to accept. In fact, there were some quite chilling, and rather discomforting aspects to much of the action in ROTTEN GODS.
But of course, it's a thriller, so there are some aspects that may not be quite so believable - in this case the way that lowly intelligence officer Marika Hartmann could head off on a disputed and somewhat unlikely pursuit in the middle of a major crisis, and then basically run her own show, on the ground in Somalia. The way that she managed to just not get blown away stretched credibility a few times, until, at some stage it really didn't matter how unlikely her situation was, you kind of ended up barracking a lot for her anyway.
There's a real bravery in the way that ROTTEN GODS unfolds - mostly because of the nature of the subject's that Barron's willing to tackle. There's a none too subtle political message at the core of this book that's going to get up some reader's noses, but really, what's wrong with a thriller that makes you uncomfortable or makes you think a bit. My only complaint is that possibly the book is a bit too long. There were also some plot-lines (such as the interference with tunnel digging) that just seemed to disappear in the run up to the conclusion, whilst other characters seemed to suddenly get chucked into the mix to be the hero of the day. A couple of these things did unbalance what was, in the main, a very thought-provoking and discomforting (in a good way) modern day thriller.
MAD MEN, BAD GIRLS AND THE GUERRILLA KNITTERS INSTITUTE - Maggie Groff
When a secretive American cult moves to the Gold Coast, freelance journalist Scout Davis's investigative antennae start quivering. She sets out to expose the cult's lunatic beliefs and bizarre practices, but when she learns the identity of a recent recruit, her quest becomes personal. And dangerous.
The cult isn't the only case on Scout's agenda. Someone is cutting up girls' underwear at an exclusive school and Scout agrees to look into it. And the sinister secret behind the vandalism is not nice. Not at all.
I am a bit of a sucker for a daft title, even though it frequently explodes in my face. Even then, it did come as somewhat of a surprise to be reading a knitting type book (no patterns ... there are limits). The reason I picked up MAD MEN, BAD GIRLS AND THE GUERRILLA KNITTERS INSTITUTE is pretty simple really - a bit of little light relief after a row of heavy, thought provoking books. Exercise distraction therapy... whatever. Regardless of why I picked this book up, have to say, was pleasantly surprised.
A particular surprise as even though the ground is pretty liberally covered with this sort of accidental detective (in this case though she's an investigative journalist), wrong place / right time, kooky sorts of female based characters, a good one is a rare jewel indeed. Humour being, as we all know, a very subjective and personal thing. For my taste, Scout Davis turned out to be a very enjoyable version thereof.
For a start there's nothing intentionally, or irritatingly daft about Scout. (Yes her mother had a thing about that book - sister's name is Harper...). There's no fem-jep, no lack of self-awareness, and a hefty dose of imperfect sexual exploits. She's a tad older than your average entrant, a little more realistic about life, did I mention not daft, and she's no idiot either.
It is, however, set in Byron Bay so of course it's about secretive American cults with bizarre practices and an online business selling daft irrelevancies to people who are easily parted from their hard-earned. This scenario provides Davis with the opportunity to team up with the mother of a woman who has disappeared into the cult who is, in her own right, a strong and really good character. In fact the book is filled with good, realistic, women. And a few good blokes as well. It's also got a good multi-threaded plot, as simultaneously, Davis has a little time up her sleeve to leap into the exclusive school that her sister teaches at to solve a bullying and property destruction puzzle, whilst also knitting up a Guerrilla Knitting / yarn bombing storm, and do something about her increasing sexual attraction to a local cop and friend of her frequently absent boyfriend.
MAD MEN, BAD GIRLS worked for me for a number of reasons. There's a good plot that's believable and realistic. Scout is a perfectly normal sort of a woman with conflicts and imperfections, as well as a good side, a silly side, and a few odd aches and pains to go with a woman who is not superhuman or all young and perky. The romantic plot of misbehaving while boyfriend is overseas is a classic example of the sort of not quite right behaviour that real people indulge in sometimes when they have their heads in their rear ends, and their hormone's out of control. It might not be palatable for a lot of readers, but it's perfectly believable and refreshing human / flawed / something to be daft about that's not obviously life-threatening and, well, stupid. She's even living with childhood onset diabetes and all of the palaver that goes along with that - reminds you what an intrusion it can be on life.
Obviously this is on the cosy side of silly, but it never lurches into parody or saccharine sweetness. Even the yarn-bombing stuff is funny / risky and just a bit edgy. I notice that the second book in the series GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS is out now as well and that's been added to the must read list. I honestly didn't think I'd enjoy this anywhere as much as I did. Goes to show, sometimes a daft title isn't a warning sign after all.