Crime Scene: SULARI GENTILL The Rowland Sinclair series. An overview by Karen Chisholm
In 2010 a new crime fiction series was launched, set in 1930s Australia where the effects of the Great Depression are still being felt. The protagonist – Rowland Sinclair – is a member of an important family in the Squattocracy. His position as the youngest son has provided him with the freedom to follow his heart, unlike his older, much more traditionally inclined brother Wilfred, who has stayed on the family property. Rowly lives in the family’s Sydney mansion, which has become a sort of select bohemian artists’ colony. Sharing the house are Edna the sculptress; Milton (Isaac) the poet, and Clyde, a fellow country boy and painter. They are looked after by a perpetually bemused, and often scandalised, housekeeper. The connections between the four housemates are deep and heartfelt. They are friends, fellow outsiders, and extremely supportive and protective of each other. In his own way, Rowly’s brother is equally protective of him, and together they form a close, sometimes slightly exasperated with each other, and believable cast. Character and connection are vitally important in these novels.
As is the sense of time and place. The settings are a combination of locations – not just within Australia, but also ranging to Europe, in particular — and include actual historical events. Gentill skilfully weaves reality into her stories – whether it’s the advent of Eric Campbell’s New Guard in 1930s Australia or the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany, she’s not afraid to work within some of history’s darkest moments. There are also contrasting lighter touches, with landscape pioneer Edna Walling making an appearance, very early air travel, and of course, Rowly’s glorious Mercedes sports car – of which Wilfred heartily disapproves. To assist further with the sense of time, each chapter starts with a newspaper clipping or quotation. Some of these are breathtaking, many are weirdly funny (like the one in the latest book espousing the benefits of smoking in moderation), but all of them serve to reinforce the sense of the times.
The first book in the series is A Few Right Thinking Men, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book. Set in Sydney and Yass, it instantly draws the reader into the tension between Fascists and Communists and the activities of the New Guard in particular, some of which concern Rowly’s own family:
‘You don’t need to worry about my discretion, Wil,’ Rowland said angrily. ‘I’m not about to tell anyone that my brother is raising some clandestine, tweed-jacketed army because he thinks Stalin is heading south!’
While it could be argued that this book covers the historical aspects more strongly than the criminal, there is much promise here, which is more than met as the series has gone from strength to strength.
2011’s release was A Decline in Prophets (winner of the 2012 Davitt Award for best crime fiction). Getting the balance between history and mystery spot on, the characters continue to evolve individually and as a group. The easy friendship between them all is wonderful – from Milton’s propensity to spout lines of poetry as if they’re his own, and Rowly’s low-key responses with the actual authors’ names, to Edna’s affection for Rowly and his more strongly felt, never really articulated feelings, these seem like people who have known and accepted each other for a very long time. With the action taking place mostly at sea, on the RMS Aquitania, the closed-room scenario is something that Gentill handles deftly, again seamlessly weaving the fictional into the factual.
Miles Off Course came out in 2012 and saw Rowland and his band of friends return to New South Wales — specifically, to the Blue Mountains’ luxury Hydro Majestic Hotel and the High Country of the Snowy Mountains. Once more there is a strong plot and great character interactions, but the stand-out element here is the way that the characters seem to grow into their personas, with glimpses of internal conflict and questioning amongst the banter. While this is a series that you could start reading at any point, starting at the beginning would be more rewarding, to see how the characters grow and develop.
Paving the New Road (shortlisted for the 2013 Davitt Award) came out in the same year, and as you’d expect from the 1930s timeframe, starts to look towards the threat in Europe. Rowly and companions find themselves in Germany at the same time that Australian New Guard leader Eric Campbell is wining and dining the upper echelons of the Third Reich, amongst others, giving Gentill the chance to be a lot more pointed about historical events. She avoids the cliché of Rowly coming face to face with high-profile Fascists; he encounters instead well-known supporters and sympathisers. While it might seem odd that a bohemian artist is even considered for the role of spy, the mechanics of Rowly in Germany work well, providing a solid base for the need to investigate the mysterious death of the man in whose footsteps he follows. Given the setting, and the timeframe, the book is more espionage than murder investigation, which makes it even more satisfying reading.
2013’s Gentlemen Formerly Dressed is set immediately after the group escapes from Nazi Germany. In England they quickly find themselves immersed in more Fascist Blackshirt activities, scandals and spying. Deftly combining the extremes of Fascism and the cloud of the Great Depression with disquiet at the ease with which a couple of Communist Australians can accept the services of a butler is not, one would assume, a scenario that would come easily to a writer. It’s all managed with considerable aplomb and humour:
‘Clyde, old boy, are you all right?’ Roland whispered … ‘You look a trifle unwell.’
‘Of course I do.’ Clyde shook his head. ‘Why don’t you?’
‘I was at Oxford,’ Rowland replied, shrugging. ‘Englishmen, you know. I’m sorry, mate. I should have realised this was not an ordinary dance.’
‘Rowly,’ Clyde said, convinced his friend was taking the situation far too lightly, ‘We are surrounded … surrounded by men in evening gowns and make-up. We have to get the hell out of of here!’
Rowland grinned … ‘Don’t panic, mate … just don’t ask anyone to dance.’
The elements of plot, character and history are well balanced as Gentill combines the complications of knotting ties correctly, the comedy inherent in a wax head in a hatbox and the rabbit-in-headlights effect of a full set of cutlery at a formal dinner with a clever murder plot – never once losing sight of Rowly and his companions’ determination to right wrongs for the disempowered in a world where money and titles talk.
In A Murder Unmentioned (2014) the group returns to Australia, still coming to terms with their European experiences. They are given no time to recover, however, and the mystery this time is historical for them, and extremely personal for Rowly. Set within a flurry of landscape gardening at the Yass family property, one of the best-known garden designers from that period discovers a clue when remodelling the grounds of the family farmstead, which takes Rowly and his brother Wilfred back to the death of their own father. In the meantime, their mother’s mental confusion grows worse, and as Wilfred’s family starts to grow in size, some decisions need to be made. Again the ensemble cast of friends and family are all deftly moved through a plot that actually makes you wonder for a moment whether Gentill is starting to enjoy placing her central character in extremis. Despite this being a book that you really cannot read as an introduction or as a stand-alone, you can clearly see why it was shortlisted for the prestigious Ned Kelly Award.
Which brings us to the latest release, 2015’s Give the Devil his Due. Remaining in Australia, this time Rowly Sinclair and friends are involved in a car race at the so-called Killer Track – Maroubra Speedway. Rowly is shanghaied into participation by his mother, now living at the family’s Sydney mansion. She is happy to be there under the care of nurses, and the watchful eye of Rowly (who she still believes is his older brother, who was killed in the Great War). This time the mystery is multi-faceted, starting out with the odd death of a journalist covering the race, then expanding to include the reaction and threat that comes from a death during racing practice.
The opening lines of this book give you a feeling for the delivery as well as the set-up:
Rowland Sinclair’s dealings with the press were rarely so civil. To date, his appearances in the pages of Sydney’s newspapers had been, at best, reluctant, and more frequently, the subject of legal proceedings for libel.
The battle between the racers, the journalists and the killers weaves itself around contemporary events, and personalities. Even Errol Flynn gets a bit part, although the old enemies and sentiments are never far away:
‘If you didn’t insist on driving that bloody Fritz contraption people wouldn’t get the wrong idea!’
‘What idea, Wil?’ Rowland demanded. ‘It wasn’t so long ago that Smith’s bloody Weekly was branding me a Communist. The blithering idiots don’t seem to know the difference!’
In among car racing, murder investigations, assassination attempts and odd goings-on at a wax museum, Rowly is dealing with Errol Flynn’s fascination with Edna, Clyde is coping with love lost to a proposed arranged marriage, and Wilfred has both his eldest son at boarding school in Sydney and a new baby. It’s interesting to look back at the start of motor racing in Australia and how very dangerous it was, even without unsavoury types lurking around the edges. As is always the way with the Rowland Sinclair books, Give the Devil His Due combines humour, sadness, thrills and spills with entertainment and a spot of education along the way. There’s even room for something deeper:
‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here,’ Milton declared quite sadly.
‘Shakespeare,’ Rowland said. ‘I’m afraid he might be right.’
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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