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

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

Stay with me here, this is going to get complicated. THE MYSTERY OF THE VENUS ISLAND FETISH is a satirical, comic crime novel set within the realms of Sydney Museum. Written, supposedly by museum curator of worms, Dido Butterworth, the first complication is that the story comes straight from the voice of Assistant Curator Archibald Meek (more on that coming). Introduced by well known environmentalist and Australian identify Professor Tim Flannery, the next complication is that he actually wrote the thing, Dido Butterworth being a fictional character as well.

To make matters even more confusing the "manuscript" is mysteriously rediscovered embedded in the preserved remains of a museum exhibit, emerging into the light when it drops into view via the animal's.... well let's go with lower orifice and you can work it out from there.

Buried within the arch and slightly rambling style, the nub of the story revolves around the Fetish of the title, and the connection that Meek builds with the islands of it's origin, when he heads off on a field trip there, from which he is somewhat (by years) delayed in his return. That return finds him a fish out of water as he has matured during his time on the island, and assimilated to Island life, culture and customs extremely well. So his return to Sydney is full of social and societal clangers - from clothes that no longer fit, to tanned skin, to utter befuddlement when his common island custom love token turns out to be profoundly unacceptable to "polite" Sydney society.

In the middle of all of this there's a story about the origins of the Fetish and the mysterious disappearance of a museum curator but some readers would be forgiven for a slightly desperate feeling in trying to hang onto that central premise. It's hard to read THE MYSTERY OF THE VENUS ISLAND FETISH and wonder if the mystery isn't more about Flannery's use of this vehicle to fire a few poorly disguised barbs at detractors, anti-sciencers and a hefty dose of people who have annoyed him. Which, had this used a different vehicle, seems to this reader to have been a perfectly reasonable undertaking and one which would engender much agreement and sympathy in many quarters. Unfortunately the heavy-handed artifice of THE MYSTERY OF THE VENUS ISLAND FETISH, and the potential of some of that message clash so badly it's hard to divine what the book's really trying to achieve.

Needless to say we're talking a particular style of humour which includes a range of eccentric references to body parts (the Venus Island Fetish is made up of skulls, and in particular, their teeth which you'll need to pay attention to). There's also a range of vaguely Dickensian joke names (Meek's love interest Beatrice Goodenough as an example).

If the underlying agenda doesn't interest you, this might be a book that reader's with a preference for that sort of jolly hockey sticks, slightly exaggerated absurdist humour. For this reader, despite a distinct liking for absurdist styling, it was too-heavy handed to be that convincing, satisfying or even vaguely amusing.

Year of Publication

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 something amiss.

Fetish. Has someone tampered with the fetish? Is there a link between the puzzling disappearances of museum curators and the strange discoloured skulls on the primitive artefact? Could Archie be next? But murder, mystery and malevolence are not the only things on the assistant curator's mind. Why hasn't Beatrice - registrar, anthropology - accepted his Venus Island love token and proposal of marriage?

Add new comment

This is a book review site, with no relationship whatsoever with any of the authors mentioned here.

We do not provide a method for you to contact authors for any reason and comments of this nature are automatically deleted.

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.