Under ceaseless rains, the Murray has burst its banks and engulfed the remote Mosquito Creek goldfield. Life on the diggings just got even tougher.
As disease adds to the camp's miseries, a suspiciously abandoned tent suggests frictions have turned murderous. The experienced Sergeant Niall Kennedy knows that things are not always as they seem. But if the missing digger is on the run, what is he running from?
MOSQUITO CREEK, the first novel from Robert Engwerda is set in 1855 on the northern Victorian goldfields. It's a particularly pleasing experience to read about this area of the goldfields, deep in flood, when we've spent such a long desperate period in drought.
Engwerda has done a fantastic job at putting the reader into this location and the time period. There is a real sense of place and time, evoking the sheer weirdness of the alliances, tension, desperation and transience of the Goldfields. It's very easy to forget, in this day of easy transportation, just how much these communities moved around - constantly chasing the latest big gold find. There are references dotted throughout the book to people, last seen in Geelong, or Melbourne, or elsewhere on the goldfields, and it's only when you sit down and think it through that you realise what is now a 3 hour drive for us, must have been a many day walk for them. And they carted their home and chattels with them.
But in terms of a crime fiction novel, MOSQUITO CREEK is doing something different. This isn't your standard murder up front, investigation resolves the case type of book. There are crimes past and present, there is a disappearance, there are miners stranded by the flood. There is also a possible Cholera epidemic, the need for a quarantine station, and a budding romance. As well as a circus, a boat building exercise, and a hefty dose of barking mad officials.
A fair amount of this book is spent introducing Sergeant Niall Kennedy, and that, and the ending to this tale, means this reader has to assume that this will be the first book in a series. Because of that backstory concentration, and probably also because this isn't a traditional crime / investigation style book, there are points where the narrative does wander a little, or maybe get a little fuzzy, but that is not so surprising in a first book, and the difference in approach could impose that style. MOSQUITO CREEK relies more on developing a sense of place and a feeling of the time. It's a book for immersion reading - rather than pace, tension or even to some degree puzzle solving.
It's interesting to see something different being tried in local crime fiction, and the period and location definitely appeal. Where MOSQUITO CREEK really excels is in that evocation of the place, the time and the setting. It gives a realistic glimpse into the physicality of the Goldfields, alongside many more human elements. Obsession, Machiavellian revenge plots, politics and tensions within the Goldfields, differing groups of miners (on ethnic lines, but also some form of convenient tribal alliance), and the difficulties in building a Policing Authority from elements of free society and the convict community. Really, there's too little current day fiction being published set within this most influential place and time, and hopefully there will be followups to MOSQUITO CREEK.
THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL - Geoffrey McGeachin
In 1947, two years after witnessing the death of a young Jewish woman in Poland, Charlie Berlin has rejoined the police force a different man. Sent to investigate a spate of robberies in rural Victoria, he soon discovers that World War II has changed even the most ordinary of places and people.
An ex-bomber pilot and former POW, Berlin is struggling to fit back in: grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, the ghosts of his dead crew and his futile attempts to numb the pain.
It's always interesting to see a favoured author head off in another direction, and THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL is a big directional switch for Geoffrey McGeachin. Moving away from the madcap all-Australian James Bond of the Alby Murdoch books, we are introduced to a new character, a new timeframe and a very different approach.
Set in post World War II Victoria THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL introduces Charlie Berlin. A pilot during the war, back to the police on his return, Charlie is deeply traumatised. Sent to Albury-Wodonga to investigate a series of robberies that have suddenly become violent, this is also a story of the after-affects of war. Alongside the robbery, a subsequent murder and Charlie's own story, there are glimpses of the damage done on the home-front as well. The man whose son was a victim of a brutal death, and the brother who survived. The young Australian photographer and would-be newspaper reporter, who has her own family tales of difficulty for her German-born parents.
The information that came with this book highlights how the author has used the stories of his own father's wartime experiences as both an airman and a POW in Europe, as well as his childhood recollections of growing up in country-town Australia. It's a very realistic portrayal of country Australia - be it in the late 1940's or even more recently (well in this reader's memory anyway). Balance that small-town, closed environment, and the changes that are coming over a society traumatised and profoundly changed by the war and those who did and didn't return, against the individual story of one man who was so profoundly affected by events in Europe, and well, you end up with something that's entertaining, moving and affecting.
THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL isn't a straight up police procedural, this book is about a man who, as damaged and fragile as he is, is an observationist. Along with the personal perspective that this book is built upon, there is also an investigation - finding the motorbike riding gang who have terrorised and robbed multiple Railway locations, and then the horrific murder of a young Chinese girl in the town. There is also a fragile and tentative love story. There is also some stark examples of the differences between acceptable social conventions then, and now. Domestic violence, racism, thuggery, sexism, double standards - they are all touched upon, displayed but not dwelled upon.
Undoubtedly the great strength of THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL is the character study of Charlie Berlin, followed very closely by the affects of war on everyone, even in a small country-town deep within Australia - on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Charlie Berlin is a wonderfully flawed human policeman, doing his duty, falling apart and picking himself back up again. THE DIGGERS REST HOTEL really does remind you that in the days post World War II there wasn't counselling, there wasn't retraining, there wasn't support. There was just the demons, and the jobs that had to be done, and alcohol and there were those that found a way to fit back in, and those that never did.
BLOODY RELATIONS - John Kerr
It can take years for love to turn to murderous hate - or it can happen overnight.
What drives a man or a woman to commit the ultimate betrayal - to take the life of a parent, a child, a sibling, a lover?
BLOODY RELATIONS is an unflinching exploration of fourteen well known and not so well known murder-in-the-family cases. Taking readers inside the life and mind of both killer and victim, John Kerr unfolds the gripping stories behind some of Australia's most sensational and shocking crimes.
There are quite a lot of collections of true crime stories floating around, and more than one that uses the theme of murder in the family as it's connecting fibre. BLOODY RELATIONS, however, touches on a number of family murders that are less well known - as well as some of the better known cases in Australia.
Starting off with the startling case of the death of Maureen - wife of Dr Rory Thompson in Hobart in 1983, the book then heads to a more well known case in the death of Jennifer Tanner at Bonnie Doon in 1984. Next up the death of Chris Hatfield in 1985, asleep on his couch in Sydney's Southern Beaches he was shot in the head. Then the strange and complicated Waters family goings on when the live-in man of the ex-wife of Ces Waters was shot dead outside their home in 1988. From there the death - originally thought to be of SIDs of four of Kathleen Folbigg's children starting in 1989, which dogged police work and expert testimony finally revealed as something considerably more disturbing. Then the New Zealand case in 1994 where originally it was thought that Robin Bain had shot his wife, three of his four children and then himself. Until the police had a closer look at the only surviving son - David. In 1997 the body of Svetlana (Lana ) Rana was discovered in a vat of acid in Sydney, when she was supposed to have gone missing from Crown Casino in Melbourne, and in 2000 the family of Jack van Krevel finally imploded completely and he died, horribly. In 1994 the simple life of Lindsay Jellet was ended, run down by a car on the roadside just outside Ararat - in one of the saddest stories in the entire book. Around the same time as the highly publicised Wales-King murder in Melbourne, Gaetano and Maria Russo were killed in their home in North Altona. Similar circumstances - not as much notoriety. In 2000 Katherine Knight killed her lover John Price - the way that she opted to dispose of his body, well even in a careful telling of the story like the one in this book - it's not pleasant to think about. In 1991 the investigation into the death of 22 month old Harry Manley has some chilling similarities with the Azaria Chamberlain case, and finally, in 2001 the violent deaths of the mother, father and sister of Sef Gonzales seems to have left him distraught - for far too short a time.
The author of this book has continued with his almost conversational, slightly wry tone in BLOODY RELATIONS which actually really helps the reader come to grips with many of these stories. Not just a chronology of events, there is some commentary and analysis in many of these accounts of some of the more notorious, sad, bad, horrific and just simply pathetic murders in families in Australia in the past couple of decades. Whilst you may have heard of some of these cases, there are some that are less well known - but the style of the book makes it's a very enlightening insight into all of them.
THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE - Lucy Sussex (ed)
'To fall asleep and dream dreams that change as quickly as the forms in an unsteady kaleidoscope, and to awaken with a bewildered feeling that you are not yourself but have changed places with some other identity, must be a sensation akin to that I experienced when I opened my eyes in the morning after my first sleep on the diggings.'
First published by Penguin in 1989 THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE wasn't the easiest book to track down. In fact it took a lot of driving across the Goldfields region of Victoria to get my hands on a copy, which is somewhat appropriate given that the Central Goldfields is one of the locations that Mary Fortune wrote so much about.
THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE is edited by Lucy Sussex who is undoubtedly the expert on a woman who deserves a wider audience and considerably more acknowledgement for both the quality of her writing as well as for her historic place in Australian literary history.
From the book blurb: "Little is known of Mary Fortune. She kept her identity secret by writing under the names of Waif Wander or W.W.. Arriving in Australia with her young son, she supported herself by writing about life on the goldfields and in the cities. She became Australia's first female writer of crime fiction."
The book is made up of a series of stories that Mary Fortune wrote - Part One is subtitled The Memoirs: Twenty-six years ago or The Diggings from '55. This is made up of stories that set in Arrival in Melbourne, Kangaroo Flat (now a suburb of Bendigo), Buninyong (now a suburb of Ballarat), Chinaman's Flat and Inkerman in and around the general area of Maryborough Victoria.
The second part of the book is subtitled The Journalism - Fourteen Days on the Road, Looking for Lodgings, How I Spent Christmas, Down Bourke Street, Towzer and Co, The Spider and the Fly.
Each of these stories evolve around crimes and people, detection by observation and interaction, whilst being firmly set in the time and the place. You get such a wonderful feeling of the goldfields, the difficulties of living in such harsh circumstances, and the people - the miners and the shopkeepers, the police and the criminals. You also get a real feel for the thinking / the prejudices and the humanity of the people involved. You're also allowed very small glimpses of the life of Mary Fortune herself, albeit dressed up / disguised just enough as she did with her own identity.
There's nothing like a quest in life, and there's something very satisfying about a quest involving Australian literature by a little known pioneering literary woman. If you've not read any of Mary Fortune's work then I can highly recommend a quest to track down a copy of THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE.
SINGING TO THE DEAD - Caro Ramsay
Two seven-year old boys have been abducted from the streets of Glasgow. Both had already endured years of neglect and betrayal - but for Detective Inspector Colin Anderson the case is especially disturbing, because the boys look so much like his own son Peter...
Then, with police resources stretched to breaking point, a simple house fire turns into a full-scale murder hunt.
Caro Ramsay's second book - SINGING TO THE DEAD - has a lot to live up to. ABSOLUTION was just a fantastic book, with a particularly brave ending. That ending means SINGING TO THE DEAD starts out looking back to some of that story, and with a need to shift the focus to many of the lesser characters from the first book, as well as introduce new ones.
The disappearance of two seven-year-old boys starts an investigation which finds itself stretched to the limit when a house fire turns into a full-scale murder hunt as well. Then another seven-year-old boy disappears and this time it's the son of DI Colin Anderson.
ABSOLUTION was undoubtedly one of my favourite debut books from last year, so SINGING TO THE DEAD was always going to be interesting reading - particularly as I was keen to see if Ramsay would continue to be as bold as she had been first time around. The start of SINGING TO THE DEAD did seem to be a little unfocused, and there was a rather hefty concentration on the personal aspects of some of the team members - but once a lot of the setup is cleared away, and Ramsay gets down to the core of the investigations the pace picks up markedly.
Ramsay handles the multiple threads of these investigations - and ultimately - the team members really well. She also addresses their reactions to the events at the end of ABSOLUTION well, solidly giving the book a sense of history, without dwelling on the past. I don't think you would have to read the first book to understand events in SINGING TO THE DEAD - it's probably enough to realise that there is history for many of this team and that each of them is reacting to that history in varying ways. The chacterisations are great, the police procedural aspects of the book solid, and there's a real skill to the way that the various threads are interwoven. SINGING TO THE DEAD threw me a little at the start, but I ended up liking this as much as I did the author's first book.
RED QUEEN - H.M. Brown
Shannon and Rohan Scott have retreated to their family's cabin in the Australian bush to escape a virus-ravaged world. After months of isolation, Shannon imagines there's nothing he doesn't know about his older brother, or himself – until a stranger slips under their late-night watch and past their loaded guns.
There's an immediate dive into the here and now with the opening chapter, each of which is a self contained character study, and each chapter grouping is titled appropriately. Honey Brown touches gently on each chapter as if it were in preparation for a scene change in a film or play.
This kind of novel usually does offer up some futuristic and frightening prophecy for the future with a moral message that can't be avoided, rather like the surfer riding the wave of catastrophe. The biological concoction that is Red Queen is not explained in any great detail, so you are required to take it on board without really knowing how it is going to affect the outcome. The virus itself is not of great importance, more a means to the end of placing these people in such isolated and stressful circumstances.
Despite a couple of corny endorsements bandied about upon the release of this novel, you truly won't be up all night finishing this novel. It is only a short piece of work. Yes it is a psychological thriller and with all good reads of this kind, the plot is organically determined by the nuances and subtleties of the character's interaction. The author has straddled the fence between thriller and drama novel with this work, despite its science fiction premise. It is not a technical how-to survival novel by any means, and there's no slow march of blank eyed zombies to encounter. Australians wanting to read a disaster novel set uniquely in their home turf won't find it makes much of a difference as this novel could just has easily been set in the Canadian Rockies or some other isolated and rugged environment.
RED QUEEN is economically styled with a nice eye to the baser instincts of man in extreme circumstances. As a debut novel it serves well to introduce H.M. Brown as a new talent and will be one of those novels talked about in book clubs and readers groups with great interest.
DEATH AND THE RUNNING PATTERER - Robin Adair
One of the convict colony's soldiers has been murdered and Governor Ralph Darling is not pleased.
Reluctantly, he turns to Nicodemus Dunne for help.
DEATH AND THE RUNNING PATTERER is the book that won Penguin's last Most Wanted Crime Writing competition, and there's a comment in the acknowledgements that explain a little about the development of the book:
"I owe a debt to Robert Sessions, Penguin Australia's Publishing Director, who overcame his initial shock at being confronted with a manuscript knocked out on an old manual typewriter...."
The reason for highlighting this is that whilst reading DEATH AND THE RUNNING PATTERER was a very enjoyable overall experience, the book is made up of a series of short, sharp chapters, which gives the book a sense of rapidity of movement. It made the book extremely easy to read, particularly given that, as a period piece, it provided fictional entertainment as well as a real-life glimpse at Colonial Sydney life. A really good sense of place and time, as well as the incorporation of true historical alongside fictional characters bought early Sydney to life very vividly whilst just flat out telling a great story.
Set in 1828 Sydney, that story starts with the murder of a colony soldier. Governor Ralph Darling is not pleased, but as the killing's continue and get more violent, he's forced to put his faith in the investigative ability of Nicodemus Dunne. Dunne is an ex-Bow Street Runner, transported to Australia, he now makes his living as a running patterer - reading / reciting the news for people in the colony without access to newspapers because of lack of time, cost or illiteracy. Not only does he have the ability and skills to track down the killer, he also has the contacts, working in the streets, the pubs and the back areas of Sydney daily. Add to that, the perfect cover - few notice a man who is always around, a man who is expected to be interested in "the news". As Dunne searches he finds there are a lot of secrets in the newly formed colony and he's quickly under threat himself. Luckily there is the bonus of an increasing attraction to the charming seamstress Rachel Dormin.
There's nothing like something different to pique the interest of the dedicated crime fiction reader. DEATH AND THE RUNNING PATTERER hits that originality mark in a number of ways. Partly the setting - 1828 Sydney isn't commonly used and in this book it's done particularly well. The interweaving of the characters and the fledgling city sit together well, with glimpses of the pubs, the brothels, the newspaper offices, and the day to day living giving the story a depth of setting to work in. The characters - both the fictional and the real - are interesting, frequently fun and definitely involving. From the Pieman and his lunatic attempts at various records, to the dour Governor Darling, as well as Nicodemus Dunne they live in the city created in this book in a very natural way. There's a real sense of the society trying to come to terms with the Colonial background, to create an identity of its own. At the same time, there's constant acknowledgement of where many of the players come from - their backgrounds are sketched out, providing a real sense of moving on from the past. The brief glimpses of the awful treatment of the indigenous peoples, and yet their willingness to help / befriend the incomers is nicely balanced.
Already mentioned, the use of the short, sharp chapter layout adds both a readability and pace to the book, which was rather surprising and noticeable (the acknowledgement actually provided a possible explanation). Overall you can really see why DEATH AND THE RUNNING PATTERER won the Penguin Most Wanted Competition. Let's hope they run the same competition again, but in the meantime another Nicodemus Dunne outing wouldn't go astray.
THE TALL MAN - Chloe Hooper
This is the story of Palm Island, the tropical paradise where one morning Cameron Doomadgee swore at a policeman and forty minutes later lay dead in a watch-house cell.
The last thing THE TALL MAN needs is another review - the book is winning awards left right and centre at the moment. I must confess it wasn't a book I was particularly looking forward to reading, suspecting that the subject matter was going to be very very confronting. After it won the DAVITT AWARD from the Sisters in Crime, the judges comments on the night, were the little extra push required to make me stop dithering (well sooking really) and pick up the book.
Whilst I'm very very glad I finally did, reading THE TALL MAN was not a pleasant, easy or necessarily an ultimately satisfying task. Not, I hasten to add because of the standard of the writing, but because there's is no resolution to the mess that is Palm Island and the death of Cameron Doomadgee in particular, and white-Australia's relationship with the Indigenous People in general.
But then there are some very unpleasant, unbelievable and just flat out unsatisfactory and unacceptable aspects to the story of Palm Island and death of Doomadgee. (For some reason I still can't seem to get out of my head the fact that when Australia did the last census report - 2006 - Palm Island was "forgotten". How the hell do you "forget" an entire community? Just to add insult to injury it's a community that many many indigenous people were forcibly moved to.... it beggars belief).
There are aspects to the way that this community was setup, works and lives which are confrontational, and there are aspects to the death of Doomadgee and to the subsequent investigation, inquest and trials which just don't do a lot to give you much faith in justice, or even in the truth being paramount. THE TALL MAN delivers this story in a matter-of-fact, restrained, observant and respectful manner. There's no sensationalism of the events, it's up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
It's a book that had to be written, and it really is a book that should be read.
MOSCOW RULES - Daniel Silva
The violent death of a journalist leads agent turned art-restorer, Gabriel Allon, to Russia. Here he finds that in terms of spycraft, the stakes are the highest they've ever been. He's playing by Moscow rules now.
It's a particularly apt time to be reading Daniel Silva's espionage thriller MOSCOW RULES, given the recent re-release of Eric Ambler's early espionage works from just before the start of the second world war. Particularly apt as the Moscow Rules of the title, is a hat tip to John le Carre's classic novel Smiley's People - Le Carre having acknowledged Ambler as one of the influential pioneers of the genre.
MOSCOW RULES follows, therefore, a significant body of espionage thriller books. The central protagonist Gabriel Allon follows in the footprints of some incredibly strong characters, although as a part-time art restorer, part-time spy Allon is a slightly different take on the norm. In MOSCOW RULES Allon and his new wife are attempting to have a honeymoon when he's summoned back to meet with a Russian journalist who will only talk to him. The violent death of that journalist takes Allon into new Russia - awash with new money and old enemies. Allon must stop a plot to deliver Russia's most sophisticated weapon to al-Qaeda before it's too late.
I'm not adverse to a bit of good old fashioned espionage, spying, cloak and dagger doings as might be guessed from my overall reading habits. Unfortunately, not having read any of the other books in this series definitely put this reader at a bit of a disadvantage. Sorting out who Allon was; how he fits in with what seems to be an ongoing cast of characters; where the art restoring fitted; and other elements of his back story required a fair amount of effort, and as such I was frequently having to go back and remind myself of plot points and elements of the overall story, which made reading this book a little more time consuming than it would have been had I started somewhere earlier in the series.
Overall I did find that I was engaged by the storytelling, and I did like what I could glean about Allon. Perhaps reading earlier books would have helped as the plot here is very dense with lots of things going on, and sorting out the personalities and the who's who at the same time was very distracting. If you've read earlier books in the series I suspect that MOSCOW RULES will be another favourite for you. Perhaps, if like me you've not had the pleasure before, it might work better if you start a little earlier in the series, as I now intend to do.
The Gabriel Allon series is made up of the following books:
The Kill Artist
The English Assassin
A Death in Venice
Prince of Fire
The Secret Servant
The Defector (July 2009)
DEATH WORE WHITE - Jim Kelly
At 5.15pm Harvey Ellis was trapped, stranded in a line of eight cars by a blizzard on a Norfolk coast road.
At 8.15pm Harvey Ellis was dead, viciously stabbed at the wheel of his truck.
And his killer has achieved the impossible, striking without being seen, and without leaving a single footprint in the snow.
There's nothing better than a well-executed version of one of the good old staples of crime fiction - a twist on the locked room scenario.
DEATH WORE WHITE is the first in a new series from CWA Dagger Winner Jim Kelly, an author well known for his ongoing Philip Dryden books. DI Peter Shaw and DS George Valentine are a good pairing - Valentine the older cop, ex-partner of Shaw's father, his career has seen higher points. Shaw, on the other hand, is a rising star, keen to prove himself and to clear his father's, and consequently Valentine's, reputations over the last case they both investigated. Despite what sounds like a pretty predictable scenario (and let's face it - most of everything's been done before), Shaw and Valentine rub along together as you'd expect the old buck and the young upstart to do for a while, eventually coming to a grudging if not quite respect, then at least understanding.
At the heart of DEATH WORE WHITE there's a very complicated plot which unravels for some aspects predictably, and in others unexpectedly. One of the best parts of this particular locked room scenario is that whilst it's obvious that's what the reader is being confronted with, and therefore there must be more to the initial discovery of the scene, the full story is revealed in a way that the reader can draw some conclusions, maybe completely solve the puzzle. The story is, however, incredibly complicated and some readers might find that it stretches credibility somewhat, having said that, personally I had no problem with the interconnectedness of the entire thing.
The book is really a great story, told well, with a couple of interesting central characters, set in a vividly drawn and ever so slightly quirky setting. Kelly knows how to write good, solid entertaining crime fiction - a bit of a puzzle solver, as gruesome as the killing may be, these books aren't particularly confrontational and characters and the settings are a big part of what he does. DEATH WORE WHITE should appeal to fans of the Dryden series, as well as to readers who are new to Jim Kelly's books.