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Posted on 3 Aug 2023 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

ANDREW NETTE Orphan Road. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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The third novel from pulp fiction aficionado Andrew Nette is a delightful, knowing nod to the genre.

Following on from the enjoyable Gunshine State, Orphan Road again features Nette’s antihero Gary Chance, a survivor of military service in Afghanistan, in a new standalone adventure. As the novel opens, we find Chance in the middle of a scheme to knock off money from Cornelius, a cult leader in Queensland.

Cornelius didn’t exactly come across as prime real estate for a returning Atlantean spirit. Clad in a faded denim shirt and black jeans, eyes hidden by ever-present dark sunglasses, he struck Chance as a cut-price Jim Morrison, all bone and sinew, his skin stretched tight and weather-beaten. Chance watched Cornelius and wondered how many back roads and dingy motel rooms the cult leader had spent time in on the way to his current scam.

But Lilith was something else. Chance could well imagine an Atlantean spirit being at home in her form. She was one of the group’s ‘Elders’, and watching Lilith was one of the few pleasures in Atlantis not forbidden.

The job has been set up by Chance’s mentor, Vera Leigh, a fading nightclub hostess and madam. But the scam goes wrong, Cornelius is shot dead, and Chance goes on the run. He leaves behind his accomplices, Tremont and Celeste, but joins forces with Lilith, one of Cornelius’s henchmen. Lilith is not who she seemed and has also been after Cornelius’s money. Swain, Cornelius’s muscle and a Nazi sympathiser, gathers up Tremont and Celeste  and sets off after Chance.

So far, so pulpy. Nette knows his tropes. Our daring heroes encounter dangerous villains in an exotic location featuring a snake-handling cult leader and we know we are in for a thrilling adventure. But this is just the start, and as Nette reels the reader in, he leads us in more subtle directions. This is an appetiser, and the subsequent plotting is much more ambitious.

Chance and Lilith go to the Melbourne Docklands to find Vera Leigh. Vera has been an important figure in the Melbourne underworld for years, having started as a hostess in Kings Cross nightclubs during the Vietnam years. Chance suspects she is losing her grip and has lost confidence in her. He wants to call it quits but she tries to inveigle him into one last scheme.

While not strictly part of the traditional pulp era, Vietnam war novels can fit into the pulp ethos. These novels often focus on the experiences of soldiers, the horrors of war and the psychological impact on its characters. Notable examples include Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornberg. Both are highly regarded as gritty and atmospheric novels set in the aftermath of the war with characters who are deeply scarred by their experiences.

Nette cleverly invokes the real-life Great Bookie Robbery, an infamous unsolved mystery, and ties it in with a fictional jewel heist. George Mundy, a shadowy ex-military intelligence officer, supposedly disappeared with the jewels and has not been seen since. Chance is not convinced by the story but agrees to go to New York, where Munday was last seen in the company of notorious Mafia figures. In the meantime, Swain and his crew get to Melbourne, determined to find out what Chance and Vera are up to and get revenge.

The scenes in New York are delicious. In order to get to Mundy, Chance works with a Jackie Brown-type intermediary to arrange access to a retired Mafia boss. The trail appears cold but Chance learns more of the story and more about Mundy. By now I was starting to draw parallels with Apocalypse Now and the journey to find the mysterious Kurtz.

‘There were rumours Mundy was involved in a big heist in Australia, that he’d stiffed his partners on the take. It hardly made him Robinson Crusoe in the circles I moved in. But there was something else about him. It’s hard to put into words, but the guy has a strange aura about him.’

‘Strange how?’

‘I know that he had a sideline involved with smack while he was driving for me and didn’t kick nothing back. Not that I could do anything about that on account of him being protected by New York. But it was his other interests that worried me more.’

‘What other interests?’

‘Agency business.’

“I don’t understand.’

‘The Central Intelligence Agency. There were rumours that he’d worked for them in Vietnam, freelanced for them on and off since then.’

’You saying Mundy was a CIA spy.’

‘I ain’t saying nothing, and he certainly never did. Just telling you what I heard. Although it goes some way to explaining why he had influential friends.’

With each step, the intoxicating blend of homage to the era of Blaxploitation and the Mafia grip on New York becomes more evident. It’s a vivid tribute to a bygone period.

Back in Melbourne, Chance reunites with Lilith. In his absence Vera’s Docklands building has been attacked by Swain and his crew and they are now also in pursuit of the jewels. A weakened Vera has been kidnapped and Chance goes after Swain seeking revenge. There is a showdown at an abandoned orphanage in the middle of the bush. The final chapters are epic as Nette gives us his tribute to outback noir:

To one side of the building was an overgrown cemetery. A collection of crooked headstones bobbed up from the bush, railed off by a wrought-iron fence. No doubt the final resting place for those young wards not strong enough to survive the horrors their adult keepers inflicted on them.

‘What a place to put a child,’ said Chance under his breath.

Keeping to the tree line, they circled back in the direction they’d come, until the front of the building came into view. The wooden doors of the arched entranceway stood open, a large four-wheel drive and a Volkswagen Kombi van parked out the front.

‘Swain and his conspirators have indeed got here before us,’ said Loomis.

Orphan Road is a deeply satisfying read, its themes of violence, survival and moral decay evoking a dark nihilism. Nette writes with a deft touch, which softens the brutality but heightens the emotional intensity. Given Nette’s background as a scholar of pulp fiction who has written many articles on the subject, this could have been an academic exercise, but he has created a haunting story that is raw and primal while retaining an enjoyable pulpish allure.

Andrew Nette Orphan Road Down & Out Books 2023 PB 224pp $28.95

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen

You can buy Orphan Road from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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