Review - The Port Fairy Murders, Robert Gott

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The Port Fairy Murders
Joe Sable
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Book Synopsis

The Port Fairy Murders is the sequel to The Holiday Murders, an historical crime novel set in 1943 in the newly formed Homicide department of Victoria Police. The Holiday Murders explored the little-known fascist groups that festered in Australia both before and during the war, particularly an organisation called Australia First. The Port Fairy Murders continues with this exploration but looks, as well, at the bitter divide between Catholics and Protestants. This divide was especially raw in small rural communities. The Homicide team, which includes Detective Joe Sable and Constable Helen Lord, is trying to track down a man named George Starling. Starling is a dangerous loose end from the investigation in The Holiday Murders. At the same time they are called to investigate a double murder in Port Fairy. It seems straightforward — they have a signed confession — but it soon becomes apparent that nothing is straightforward about the incident.

The novel examines the tensions that simmer in a small town, riven by class and religious divides, and under economic stress from the shrinking of its fishing industry, and the exploitation of fishermen by Melbourne’s markets. It also examines the tensions within the Homicide Department.

Book Review

World War Two has become a happy hunting ground for Australian crime writers. Authors like Geoff McGeachin and Peter Twhoig both bagged Ned Kelly Awards for crime novels set in the period. Robert Gott has set all of his crime novels in and around World War Two. His most recent series started with The Holiday Murders, which explored the rise of Nationalism during the War. The Holiday Murders introduced inspector Titus Lambert and his offsiders - a female detective, Helen Lord, and a Jewish detective, Joe Sable. While the killer is caught at the end of that book, his offsider, George Starling, escapes and Joe, in particular is left injured by their encounter.

When The Port Fairy Murders opens, Starling is still at large and has made death threats against Joe. The most engaging part of the novel involves the threat posed by Starling in his attempts to take revenge on Joe both directly and through his colleagues. But the novel has another strand, almost a completely separate story of domestic tensions in Port Fairy, a Victorian coastal town which lead, eventually, to a double murder which Joe and Helen are sent to investigate.

Gott effectively paints a picture of what both Melbourne and country Victoria were like during the War. The attitudes of people to women coming into the workforce, the privations caused by food rationing and the ability of some to avoid them, the entrenched prejudice and racism. But the book spends a little too long on this picture. A good proportion of the narrative is spent with the community in Port Fairy and this serves to dilute the tension of the events in Melbourne and set up what is at best a tepid mystery which only kicks into gear in the final hundred pages.

The characters of Helen Lord, trying to find her way in a man's world, and Joe Sable, who is discovering what it means to be Jewish and his connection to events in Europe, are interesting. But these characters have little to do in this book. Their investigations in Port Fairy only come late in the piece and don't go very far and seem to serve as a plot device that takes them out of their working comfort zone of the city.

The character of George Starling, and the ongoing threat that he poses, and the lives of Helen Lord and Joe Sable are by far the strongest parts of The Port Fairy Murders. The Port Fairy sections, while interesting from a social and historical perspective, do not provide characters or plot that are as engaging. The murders of the title come late in the piece and the procedural aspects of the criminal investigation in Port Fairy seem fairly perfunctory. This book may serve as a bridge between the first instalment and an inevitable third outing for Lord and Sable but it does not stand well on its own.

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