Review - THE PORT FAIRY MURDERS, Robert Gott
The first book, THE HOLIDAY MURDERS marked a change in series, but not style, for author Robert Gott. Much of this author's crime fiction writing has concentrated on historical time periods, in particular around the second world war.
This reader was very impressed with the first book. It introduced a range of new characters in the newly formed Homicide department of Victoria Police, from Inspector Titus Lambert (and his wife), Detective Joe Sable and Constable Helen Lord. Events from that book physically and mentally scar Joe Sable, scars that he carries forward, along with a serious threat, into THE PORT FAIRY MURDERS.
Linking the small seaside town of Port Fairy on Victoria's Coastline with the team back in Melbourne are elements of the very real threat that the villain George Starling poses, as he hides away there, plotting and planning finishing the job he started in the first book.
"George Starling hated jews, women, queers, coppers, rich people, and his father. He loved Adolf Hitler and Ptolemy Jones. Hitler was in Berlin, a long way from Victoria, and Jones was dead. He knew Jones was dead because he stood in the shadows and watched the coppers bring his body out of a house in Belgrave. One of those coppers had been a Jew named Joe Sable and that meant one thing, and one thing only - Joe Sable's days were numbered."
Which he nearly manages to achieve late one night in Melbourne. The second connection emerges when a brutal double murder happens in Port Fairy, which allows Lambert to put Sable and Lord into that town, the investigation and inadvertently the firing line yet again.
There are many strong elements from the earlier book that carry forward to this one. Gott draws a very detailed and yet entertaining portrait of war-time Country Victoria and Melbourne. The example of Lord's difficulties as a woman in the police force nicely illustrates the attitude of workforce participation prevalent at the time. The behaviour of the branches of an established family in Port Fairy a particularly telling demonstration of the outcomes of snobbery and favouritism.
"She didn't have a much higher opinion of her niece. She was pretty, but insufficiently interested in her appearance to do herself justice. Her voice was irremediably awful, beyond surgical help because it wasn't just a question of adenoids. Timbre, tone and pitch were all off."
"Her feelings about her nephew, Matthew, were, if not extreme, at least extravagant. She adored him. He was beautiful - others less smitten admitted to his being good-looking, nothing more - and his decision to live within minutes of her had raised her flagging spirits."
Even the way that the main suspect in the double murder in Port Fairy is an intellectually handicapped man, gives the author the opportunity of drawing out the way that some society and families reacted to people with disabilities at the time.
The action, however, does move backwards and forwards between the investigation in Port Fairy and the threat to Joe Sable posed by George Starling. Unfortunately this leads to one of the major downfalls of THE PORT FAIRY MURDERS in that the two elements never seem to quite jell, spending instead a lot of time competing for attention. Whilst there's something inevitable about the double murder investigation (and not just because the reader knows the truth right from the outset), the potential for Starling to succeed also seems quite high. That threat is constantly being shifted around in focus to allow for much rushing backwards and forwards between Melbourne and Port Fairy, and a series of rather odd coincidences that are a tad heavy handed in execution.
Frankly the Port Fairy component didn't seem to contribute an awful lot to the overall story. The threat of Starling, the investigation of his activities, the further exploration of Sable's Jewish background and the affect that will have on him as well as the expansion of the bone-headed behaviour of so many towards women in the workplace were really involving. The complications of Lord's personal life and how her work impacts on her home life, particularly when Sable needs somewhere to live were particularly engaging. That background, and the search for Starling had some sense of genuine threat and menace to them, and it felt like they could have supported a larger concentration. At the very least, there was something more to say there than some daft old lady with a fetish for a loser nephew to the exclusion of her obviously well-meaning niece, all of which came with a sense of overwhelming inevitability. By the end of this book it was hard to ignore the big question, which was why somebody hadn't done away with many of that family a lot earlier.
Having said all of that, there's enough here to make you wonder if THE PORT FAIRY MURDERS is "the difficult second book" that's got some positioning of characters sorted out, kept a major element of threat in play, set up some ongoing relationships and provided a path into "the series moves forward third book".
This reader certainly hopes so. For the elements of THE PORT FAIRY MURDERS that did disappoint, these are still such an interesting group of characters, and the historical background is so informative, you'd hope there's a further outing in the works.
The Port Fairy Murders is the sequel to The Holiday Murders, an historical crime novel set in 1943 in the newly formed Homicide department of Victoria Police.
The Holiday Murders explored the little-known fascist groups that festered in Australia both before and during the war, particularly an organisation called Australia First. The Port Fairy Murders continues with this exploration but looks, as well, at the bitter divide between Catholics and Protestants. This divide was especially raw in small rural communities.
The Homicide team, which includes Detective Joe Sable and Constable Helen Lord, is trying to track down a man named George Starling. Starling is a dangerous loose end from the investigation in The Holiday Murders. At the same time they are called to investigate a double murder in Port Fairy. It seems straightforward — they have a signed confession — but it soon becomes apparent that nothing about the incident is as it seems.