AMONGST THE DEAD - Robert Gott
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".
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.
With a case too sensitive to be trusted to the police, military intelligence turn to the one man whose singular combination of abilities make him capable of infiltrating the clandestine military operation and rooting out the killer.
William Power goes into deep cover, posing as a cheap, vaudeville entertainer on tour to relive the troops. Enlisting the help of his brother, whose latent skills for female impersonation rise to the occasion, Will soon finds himself in the far-northern outback trying to raise the morale of a group of desperate young soldiers lying in wait for the arrival of Tojo's army - knowing all the while that one of them is the killer.