Now pushing fifty, Murray Whelan is spinning his wheels in parliament - a toothless cog in Labor's stalled political machine.
I happily went out earlier this week and bought a copy of Sucked In and it took me roughly one day to finish it - and that was an unfair delay - I could have sat down and read it in one sitting. Needless to say the 6th book in the Murray Whelan series (for which we've all been waiting an absolute age), lives up to the expectations of the long wait!
Murray is older, slightly wiser and just that little bit more cunning. A member of the Upper House of the Victorian Parliament, he and a number of other "pollies" are "doing the rounds" in Country Victoria, when Murray's long time mentor and friend, Charlie Talbot, dies from a heart attack in the middle of the dining room of the Grand Hotel in Mildura.
It's an interesting coincidence that the day before Charlie's untimely demise, the remains of (allegedly) a long-lost union official are discovered in the mud of drought stressed Lake Nillahcootie. Merv Cutlett had gone overboard from a fishing boat during a trip to the Union "Shack" on the banks of the Lake many years before with Charlie and other union luminaries including (now) Senator Barry Quinlan.
All of this is of slight interest to Murray, up to his elbows in Labor Party machinations over pre-selection for Charlie's very safe seat in Federal Parliament. When a well-known local journalist starts to hear rumours about Merv's cause of death, and these rumours trickle through to the power brokers in the Labor Party, pre-selection battles now have to fight for attention with a bit of very overdue Union "housekeeping". All of this whilst Murray tries to teach Red how to drive, resurrect his slumbering love life, extract himself from a risky sex life, learn Greek and finagle himself into something resembling re-charged enthusiasm for the "Cause".
A slightly older Murray Whelan is something that causes pause for consideration - how long can he keep up these gymnastics - both mental and physical! But aside from that sneaking concern, SUCKED IN really delivers on a number of fronts. The "investigation" of the death weaves it's way in and out of the ongoing business of being a Politician in pre-Millennium Victoria, in a Labor Party struggling to hold a caucus meeting that would stretch the accommodations of a telephone booth. There's something really realistic about the way that things just roll along, balanced delicately on the edge of the precipice - with a lot of day to day darting around just trying to keep ahead. The political swipes are, as always, hilarious. That slightly jaundiced, True Believer view of the political system that Maloney specialises in has a particularly accuracy in SUCKED IN that you just can't help but roll around in laughter with. There are also more than just a few characters in SUCKED IN that you can pick out of the local crowd. But again, regardless of the "spot who that is" games that we locals can play, SUCKED IN is going to appeal to lots of readers, regardless of where they come from. A touch of humour, a touch of poignancy, a bloke who eventually sort of gets his man, and looks like he might just have a vague chance of getting the girl, and overall you've got one entertaining reading ride.
AMONGST THE DEAD - Robert Gott
Failed Shakesperean actor and would-be private investigator Will Power's unique detective skills are, once again, in demand. The Japanese army is rampaging through the islands of the South Pacific and Australia's front line of defence is a top-secret, crack division of men embedded deep in the tropical wilderness of northern Australia. But something is threatening their vital, covert mission: one of this elite corps is a murderer, preying on his comrades, one by one.
AMONGST THE DEAD is the third novel in Robert Gott's William Power series. William is an "aspirational" but failed Shakespearean actor, turned Private Investigator who finds himself in very unusual circumstances in the Top End of Australia during World War II in AMONGST THE DEAD.
William and his brother Brian are called upon by Australian Military Intelligence to find out the truth behind the suspicious deaths in a crack, very secret squad. William, of course, thinks, that they need him for his superior powers of detection, and because they are to be infiltrated into the squad as part of an entertainment troupe. The North Australia Observer Unit (or Nackaroo's) are a small group of soldiers and their Aboriginal assistants who patrol the Top End of the country, watching for any sign of the Japanese invasion from the Islands of the South Pacific into the Australian Mainland. Intelligence believes that the deaths of three Nackaroo's were highly suspicious, but the level of secrecy of the NAOU means that they cannot trust the investigation to just anybody, and when it comes to somebody stroking his ego, William will volunteer for just about anything.
William is not sure if it helps or complicates the investigation when they discover their third brother - Fulton - is a member of the suspect squad. The inclusion of the entertainment troupe is further complicated by the fact that William's Shakespearean recitation is not exactly the entertainment most appreciated by the troops and that doesn't help William's overall mood, somewhat strained already by the persistent rain, mould, heat, mud, long days walking through the Top End bush, encounters with Crocodiles, Dengue Fever, and murder.
AMONGST THE DEAD has a lovely comic twist with William Power undoubtedly being one of the most over-developed "theatrical" egos doing the rounds. He is, unfortunately, also a bit of a twit, which means that his concept of solving the deaths of the soldiers and two more deaths in the squad after he and Brian arrive, seems to involve a lot of blundering around, an awful lot of shooting his mouth off at the most inappropriate times and an enormous chunk of the investigation feeling well sorry for himself. He also, alas, can't see the woods for the trees, and when he is ultimately accused of killing the two men who died after he arrived, rather than see the wood for what it is, he's too busy feeling righteously indignant followed by madly accusing everyone else around him, to really see what's going on.
Of course, the point of AMONGST THE DEAD is that William doesn't really solve anything - he's the method by which other people sort out a mess that has to be sorted out. But the book doesn't suffer at all from this variance from the norm in crime fiction - if anything it adds a different dimension. In William you have a "hero" that you can truly laugh at - that you just want to sidle up to and whisper "dear me, old chap, put down the Shakespeare script, have a peek over the chip on your shoulder and I suspect you'll see something to your advantage". Having said that - he's marvelously awful - you just can't disagree with Shane Maloney's quotation on the press release. "Literature has had its share of heroes, heroes of many kinds: classic heroes, super heroes, accidental heroes, flawed heroes, anti-heroes. And now, at last, it has a dickhead hero".
Unjust Desserts is a crime story with a difference, set in the Australian coastal-village of Grevillia. Style and atmosphere are immediately and affectionately familiar to anyone who has ever lived in a small town. The characters are believable, from doughty heroine Olivia to sad Queenie and her repulsive husband Harry.
The story-line revolves around Olivia Beaumont's efforts to keep her cafe/deli, Not Just Desserts, afloat. Even before one of her clients dies after eating one of Olivia s curries, there is trouble in the air. Harry Oldrich is determined to become Olivia's sleeping partner and she's just as determined that he won't! A possible development has the townsfolk at loggerheads, and the arrival of an attractive young Australian Chinese teacher named Eddie Wong ruffles quite a few of the more hidebound feathers in the village. Add Detective Richard Brumby as the investigating officer, Olivia s dysfunctional family, a spot of middle aged sex and some cooking, and you have all the ingredients for a home grown puzzle to suit the most jaded palate.
Along the way, Goldie Alexander makes a few sly thrusts at attitudes and suppositions that are sure to have some readers nodding in rueful recognition of their own, or their neighbours, quirks.
The production values of this novel are excellent. The type is clear and easy to read, the editing and proofing well done, and the book is sturdy without any tendency to close while I was still reading!
Goldie Alexander's first crime novel has the distinction of being Australia's first full length culinary mystery. And Unjust Desserts fills that role with great aplomb.
The action centres around Olivia Beauman who has started a deli-catering business in the Victorian coastal town of Grevillea.
What starts as a sea-change for Olivia, fresh from a divorce, plunges into a murder mystery as first the wife and then the mistress of local developer and councillor, Harry Oldritch, die after eating her food.
Olivia's deli-foodstore, "Not Just Desserts", is already shaky. It's under threat by Harry Oldritch's new development BrodCom and it's under capitalised so Olivia fears the murder mean the end of her business and her fragile new life.
She's also worried about her daughter who could be mixed up with drugs, and whose boyfriend, a nasty little Yuppy who's balding with a ponytail, is also promoting the BrodCom development. Then there's Olivia's own non-existent love life. She's attracted to the hunky new school principal Eddie Wong, but he's a younger man.
UnJust Desserts is a delicious read with a sufficiently intricate plot and enough well-drawn characters to whet the appetite.
What gives the book strength is Goldie's trenchant insight into the lot of middle-aged women, and not just Olivia. There's Queenie, Harry Oldritch's wife, who's used layers of fat to insulate herself against Harry and the disappointments of the world, and the other women who inhabit Grevillea.
Goldie is not quite right about council planning processes, but my only real niggle is that Olivia doesn't solve the mystery herself, though she is ultimately involved in its denouement. But I'm looking forward to Goldie's next culinary mystery. She knows how to write a page-turner and has the recipe for crime down pat.
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.
BEHIND THE NIGHT BAZAAR - Angela Savage
Angela Savage won the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript by Emerging Author in 2004 for this book, then called Thai Died.
Jayne Keeney is an expat Australian woman who, in order to avoid a predictable life, left Australia and started teaching English in Thailand. Whilst helping out a student by doing some surveillance on a cheating partner she discovers she has quite a flair for detecting, and that there is a demand for this type of service. She gives up teaching and sticks to working as a private detective in Bangkok doing a good trade in following suspected partners. After a particularly violent turn of events during one such job she seeks some solace in the company of her dearest friend Didier de Montpasse in Chiang Mai. Didier and Jayne share a passion for crime fiction, even though they don't exactly see eye to eye over genre (Didier's a cozy fan, Jayne is strictly hard boiled).
As soon as Jayne arrives there is some apparent tension between Didier and his Thai lover Nau. After a night out with Didier at a gay bar in an out of way part of the city, the next morning Jayne finds the papers leading with stories about a brutal murder in the bar that she was drinking in earlier. Things rapidly take a much bigger turn for the worse and Jayne finds herself having to investigate what really happened in that bar.
This book covers a considerable amount of ground in and around the sex trade in Thailand - local, sex tourism and paedophilia. There are some big players making a lot of money from this trade and there are lots of connections to the police investigating the bar deaths.
Savage has spent some considerable time working in and around Bangkok on Australian Red Cross HIV/AIDS programs and she obviously has an understanding of Thai customs and of the people. The story is peppered with Thai words and phrases and Jayne speaks fluent Thai. The book has a very clear sense of place and the Thai characters and location are clearly defined and interesting.
The compelling thing about this book is that it's a crime fiction novel which is touching on a number of very serious social issues: child sexual exploitation, AIDS/HIV, sex tourism and official corruption, but the book tells the message, reveals the consequences, and avoids lecturing. This is a first novel and there are some
DEATH BY DEMONSTRATION - Patricia Carlon
It's the Sixties and Australian university students are marching against the war. They are demanding the release of a conscientious objector. Somehow a peaceful demonstration turns into a riot.
A young woman student is struck down and killed. The demonstrators are blamed by an outraged public. The students accuse the police. Most people assume that somehow an unfortunate accident occurred. But was Robyn Calder's death an accident? Or was she murdered? Private detective Jefferson Shields is called upon to find the answer before the wrong person can be made a scapegoat.
This book is quite different from Patricia Carlon's usual psychological mysteries, and it is far from her best work. Originally published in 1970, this book shows its age, not just in style but in the plot. The plot had potential, but is let down by boring characters and what I believe was the author's political agenda.
What action there is gets bogged down by the long tedious speeches that most of the characters would launch into at every opportunity. Although this was only a short book by today's standards (190 p.), it seemed much longer, and I found myself skimming many of the longer passages of dialogue.