Review - THE MYSTERY OF THE VENUS ISLAND FETISH, Dido Butterworth (Tim Flannery)

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The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish
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Book Synopsis

Painted in white, red and black ochre, the heart-shaped mask was one of the greatest creations of primitive man. The size of a dining table, it was carved with crazed, spiky lines that told of its maker’s dangerous insanity. The nose, with its wide-open nostrils, sat above a great slash of a mouth filled with jagged, blackened, pig’s teeth. But these horrors were not what one first noticed. It was the eyes that drew you in. Bloodshot. Manic. Hypnotic. They had been fashioned from pearl shells smeared with red ochre, the irises blackened spirals made from cone shells. They pulled at Archie’s soul as powerfully as a vortex.

It’s 1932, and the Venus Island fetish, a ceremonial mask surrounded by thirty-two human skulls, now resides in the museum in Sydney. But young anthropologist Archie Meek, recently returned from an extended field trip to Venus Island, has noticed a strange discoloration of some of the skulls of the fetish. Has someone been tampering with the primitive artefact? Is there a link between the mysterious disappearance of Cecil Polkinghorne, curator of archaeology, and the fetish? And how did Eric Sopwith, retired mollusks expert, die in the museum’s storeroom?

Book Review

The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish is, from the outset, a tough sell – a satirical/comic crime novel set in the musty halls of Sydney’s Australian Museum of the 1930s. The book is based on a manuscript ostensibly written by one Dido Butterworth, curator of worms, but even this may be a pseudonym as, according to the introduction, no such person existed and the manuscript could well have been penned by one Hans Schmetterling. All this information comes from an introduction penned helpfully by the apparent discoverer of this manuscript – Tim Flannery, himself a former curator at the Museum and known for his non-fiction. It is unclear as the novel progresses what Flannery is trying to achieve by setting up this conceit.

Archibald Meek is a junior curator at the museum. He goes off on a three year posting to the remote Venus Islands but stays five. When he returns he is a changed man, not just physically but also in his understanding of the world of the islanders. Unlike his colleagues at the museum, he does not see the islanders as the lowest rung on the evolutionary ladder, and has been adopted by the local tribe. On his return his colleagues see a promising young curator who has “gone native”.

The islanders have told Meek to beware of a sacred object of theirs that is housed in the museum – a mask surrounded by a fence of 32 skulls. On his return to Sydney, Meek finds not only that the mask has been put on prominent display in the Museum but that seemingly new skulls have been appearing around the mask. At the same time, museum curators have been mysteriously disappearing. Meek suspects that the disappearing curators and the new skulls are connected.

Meek’s investigation of the disappearing museum curators and the possible use of their skulls as decoration is the plot driver but Butterworth/Flannery is more interested in the satirical possibilities of exploring the scientific beliefs and social mores of the time. Flannery, pummelled by the climate change debate, has turned his attention to evolution as a surrogate with his Museum Director, Vere Griffon, obsessed with creating a new evolution exhibit based around “Piltdown Man”, a famous evolutionary hoax. With the Great Depression starting to bite, Griffon is also desperate for cash, using his position to try and squeeze money out of wealthy benefactors by both legal and illegal means.

While there are some more subtle digs at the detractors of science through the focus in evolutionary ideas of the time, Flannery is not always so nuanced. He also feels the need to use the tale to more obviously grind his personal axes, peppering his narrative with thinly veiled references to his detractors and people with whom he takes issue. This is not satire, it is lazy and a little vindictive.

The novel is full of Dickensian style characters with obvious joke names like Henry Bumstocks the taxidermist and Meek’s love interest Beatrice Goodenough. The humour, such as it is, involving misunderstandings and reverses, is so old fashioned and obvious and generally unfunny for a modern audience that it almost feels like the manuscript could have been written in the 1930s.

The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish aspires to be a humorous, slightly anachronistic romp through 1930s Sydney. Unfortunately it fails to entertain. The characters are more like caricatures, the knowing winks to the future are heavy handed, the humour is so old fashioned as to be ancient and the satire is forced. While there are a number of worthy points desperately seeking to be made in this book, Flannery has not found the most effective or entertaining way to make them and has sabotaged any message he sought to make with barely concealed vitriol.

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