Set against the backdrop of the Askin government, with events revolving around notorious crime identities Dick Reilly, Lennie McPherson and Johnny Warren, Crooked reveals the dark underbelly of Sydney during the 1960s.
Gus Finlay is a young detective who is transferred to the Criminal Investigation Branch, which is run by Senior Sergeant Reginald Tanner, a charismatic cop with an unorthodox way of getting results. Gus realises fast that he has a lot to learn.
It's interesting that Camilla Nelson's first book (Perverse Acts) is a political satire, because CROOKED, her second book, is a crime novel with a distinctly political background. Set in 1960's Sydney, the book, whilst fictional, involves a number of well-known political identities by name, and one would assume less directly, a number of real-life criminal identities and events.
CROOKED is the story of a series of violent killings, in the underworld of Sydney, culminating in the execution style killing of one particular character, whose little black book listing the names of prominent politicians and members of the police force, blows everything wide open.
The links that are drawn between the underworld and organised crime, and the police and politicians is nothing new to Australian's - fans of true and fictional crime alike. A reader of CROOKED could be forgiven for expecting something particularly striking, even illuminating. The telling of the tale in CROOKED is done in a very different voice to that of recent stories of this style. It's told in rapidfire dialogue, peppered with a very stylised vocabulary and there are a lot of variances in the characterisation. There's a high propensity to use nicknames and that, along with the nature of the dialogue, definitely give the whole book a gangsterish feeling - reminiscent of earlier American gangster style films. It did give the book a slightly surreal feeling, the story set in Australia, yet it was hard to shake the feeling that any moment James Cagney was going to appear from behind a door.
Given the building blocks CROOKED didn't quite hit any particular mark - perhaps the story of a small time nightclub owner and protection racketeer (it seems a real person) Richard Reilly, trying to protect his own patch in the wake of the defeat of the State Labor Government didn't impose enough import or risk to carry the entire book. Perhaps the mixing of the real characters and the fictional would work better for a reader with a more detailed knowledge of the Sydney underworld in the 1960's. But mostly I think it was a combination of a cast largely made up of crooks, gangsters and self-serving individuals - it was hard for this reader to find anybody to line up on the same side as; and a somewhat understated telling of the murkier side of the story. The killing, the levels of corruption, the schemes, scams and illegalities seemed to disappear into the snappy dialogue and catchy nicknames.