Crime Scene: MEG AND TOM KENEALLY The Soldier’s Curse: Book One, the Monsarrat series. Reviewed by Chris Maher
Literary icon Tom Keneally has teamed up with daughter Meg to launch a detective series set in Australia’s brutal past.
Readers can feel totally confident in the veracity of the convict-era setting of The Soldier’s Curse. Although Booker laureate Tom needs no introduction, it’s worth remembering he has an outstanding pedigree writing historical fiction, from the Hundred Years War in France (Blood Red, Sister Rose) to the Civil War in America (Confederates) and World War II (in Yugoslavia in Season in Purgatory, and most famously in the prize-winning Schindler’s Ark). But he is especially proficient at writing Australian historical fiction, including the iconic The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith.
He is also highly adept at distilling elements of the Australian personality – both mythical and real.
These considerable skills bear fruit as he and Meg depict the infant township of Port Macquarie, 380 kilometres north of Sydney, and its inhabitants, both convict and free.
Some time ago Tom wrote 30 000 words, but put it away without pursuing it further. Later, he decided to enlist the skills of his journalist daughter Meg to help drive the narrative forward, with the aim of creating a series of up to a dozen books. The Soldier’s Curse is the first instalment, following gentleman convict and amateur sleuth Hugh Monsarrat around the colonies of early Australia.
As the first outing for a serial character, this book must outline the backstory and establish the ongoing template. Thankfully, the exposition is entertaining as it follows Monsarrat’s transgressions, first in England and then in New South Wales.
While the story is a blend of history, drama and mystery, the whodunnit element tends to take a back seat in some respects, and a careful reader may well sidestep the various red herrings to uncover the culprit long before Monsarrat’s revelation.
But the real joy of the novel is its protagonist. Monsarrat is both believable and likeable, and in many ways the perfect amateur gentleman detective for the colony of New South Wales.
Australian readers would likely bristle if a verified English gentleman were to rummage through the business of the transportees. After all, in common Australian mythology convicts were unfairly transported – mostly starving waifs sent down for stealing bread or brave revolutionaries unjustly stifled in their nationalist aims.
Nonetheless, the character of Monsarrat straddles mythology and reality. He has the knowledge and background of a lettered gentleman, the guile and cunning of a convict, and the adventurous flaw (the shadow Monsarrat) that gives him the verve to tackle a mystery.
Port Macquarie was a settlement for second offenders, so not only does Monsarrat have a shady past – he has two.
At home in England, he had shown a natural talent for the law, but lacked the necessary class credentials to be admitted to the 19th-century bar. So, with expert penmanship, he took matters into his own hands. Armed with his forged documents, he proved adept at practising – in fact, much better than many of his would-be peers – until a chance encounter brought him undone. He was spared the noose at the price of transportation to ‘a place wreathed in misty tales of murderous natives and rampaging monsters’.
After working hard in the new land and earning his ticket of leave, he committed a second offence: the seemingly innocuous (especially to a modern reader) transgression of leaving his designated district to visit his lover.
Both crimes are easy to empathise with – one a matter of inequality, the other of the heart – even when they show the emergence of ‘shadow Monsarrat’; in fact, his risk-taking alter-ego adds a necessary touch of spice to the character. But his experience also allows him to fully sympathise with those brought under the heel of the law, making him a likeable as well as an interesting character.
The plot involves the slow decline of the wife of Port Macquarie’s commandant, the beautiful Honora Shelbourne, while the commandant himself is absent in the bush looking for a new river. She is loved by many, but there are resentments too, which slowly become apparent as she edges closer to death and the realisation she has been poisoned.
Monsarrat and his confidante Mrs Mulrooney, the commandant’s Irish housekeeper and Honora’s bedside nurse, have their eyes on arch-villain Captain Diamond – already proven to be brutal, manipulative and, if not quite murderous, then very close to it.
When a young Irish convict is caught trying to escape, Diamond is furious that his fellow Irishman, the charming rogue Private Slattery, is delivering the consequent flogging with too little gusto. He takes matters, and the nine-tailed scourge, into his own hands:
Everyone watching, including Slattery, had expected Diamond to make his point and then hand back the flail. But he didn’t. He seemed to become lost in the dance, seeing nothing except the flail, caring about nothing except its trajectory and velocity. He did not stop. He did not seem to tire from the effort. He became an extension of the flail, merely its power source, a river to its mill.
After Diamond’s first few lashes, Dory was unable to stop a cry escaping him. After the next ten, he was no longer trying to stay silent. After twenty, the cords on the scourge began to excavate glimpses of bone …
Brutality, inequality and legal indifference are to be expected in any story set in colonial Australia, and in The Soldier’s Curse we get a measured dose of all these elements, tempered by the good nature of a few souls.
As well as the convicts, soldiers and the few free inhabitants of Port Macquarie, we meet the local Indigenous tribe, the Birpai. Collectively they offer further suspects in the crime, and also provide an opportunity to delve briefly into interracial colonial politics:
‘There’s a lot of land, though,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Why not just move on a bit?
Bangar’s face tightened. ‘So what if I come in and take that kitchen,’ he said, ‘and I say, eh Monsarrat, it’s a big house up here on the hill – which used to be ours. Why don’t you just go and make your tea in the bedroom? But there’s no stove in the bedroom, you say. Well, this place is our house. We have places for hunting, places for ceremonies. Every place has a use. We can’t just move on.’
‘We share that, at least,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Neither can I.’
But Monsarrat will be moving on, as the next book is set in Parramatta – fertile ground for another well-drawn historical landscape, and surely a town brimming with colonial intrigue.
Meg and Tom Keneally The Soldier’s Curse: Book One, the Monsarrat series Vintage 2016 PB 384pp $32.99
Chris Maher is a Sydney writer and journalist who occasionally blogs at Not a Book Review.
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