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Posted on 26 Mar 2024 in Crime Scene, Fiction | 0 comments

SULARI GENTILL The Mystery Writer. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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In Sulari Gentill’s new novel, aspiring writer Theo and her brother Gus become embroiled in increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories.

The Mystery Writer is the latest book by the prolific and always intriguing Australian author Sulari Gentill. Set in the USA, as her recent novels mostly have been, this one puts another twist on a concept she’s been experimenting with: the idea of the crime writer, and the story they are developing, being part of the larger story the novel tells. This time, though, it’s less metafiction and more the story of a writer who gets caught up in a mystery.

Theodosia Benton and her brother Gus are the beneficiaries of a wealthy family background, slightly dotty bohemian parents, and a preordained pathway in life.

The university education of Gus and Theo Benton was financed through a complicated trust set up by their late grandfather – who had been quite an eminent member of the American Bar. When his only daughter had eloped with a penniless Australian musician, Robert Maclean had cut her off from his life and his fortune, but he had hoped through the trust to retrieve his grandchildren, to lure them back to his world.

Gus has taken the path his grandfather laid out for him and become a partner in a US law firm. Theodosia, however, who is still studying at the time of her grandfather’s death, is all for abandoning that prescribed future and shows up on her brother’s doorstep with suitcases in hand and an unfinished novel on the go.

She told him about the creative writing classes she’d taken, the story she wanted to write. The words stumbled out, a confession: her increasing disinterest in the law, the ever-growing sense of panic and loneliness, and the feeling that she just couldn’t face another day, another lecture, until all she could do was run.

Which presents both of them with a few challenges. First, will Gus support an aspiring author? And can that aspiring author actually produce a novel that somebody will publish?

Together they reach an accommodation: just in case her plan to become an author doesn’t work, they agree not to tell anybody that she’s walked out on her legal course and so avoid the cancellation of the financial support that goes with it. In the meantime, for as long as they can hold out, Theo shares the ramshackle house that Gus lives in with his dog Horse (named for a good reason) and writes her novel. This includes finding a routine and place to work in a local coffee shop. Which is where she meets the famous writer who will become first her mentor, then briefly her love interest, before finally becoming the cause of huge problems.

She wondered, for the first time, how old Dan Murdoch was. He was handsome, but his were not boyish good looks and the lines at the corners of his eyes were deep whenever he smiled.

Dan Murdoch is a very well-known author with a number of published works to his name, an agent he can introduce Theo to, and an unexpectedly shortened lifespan.

And then, as she turned, the outstretched form of a man. Dan. He was lying with his legs beneath the table. Even without light, Theo could see the whites of his eyes, staring and fixed. And she knew suddenly that she’d slipped in his blood.

Gentill has a particular way of getting into tricky subject matter with a light touch that makes for surprisingly easy reading. The Mystery Writer tackles a number of current issues, not just the death of a famous author. It is a dive into the complications of relationships within families and the way that online conspiracy fantasists build and then conflate their alternative realities, generating the worst possible behaviours in way too many people as a result. It’s this area in particular that makes The Mystery Writer interesting reading – the world of the conspirators bubbles along, going from  vaguely silly and almost amusing to something much more sinister as the screwed-up minds behind it turn up the heat.

Heat high enough to become a real threat to Gus, Theo and their friend and helper Mac. Mac stands by the siblings, who return the favour when it turns out his own family is on the slightly different side as well.

‘Missing heirs, bail jumpers, default debtors – there’s no one he can’t find. Mac’s our very own private eye.’

‘I’m a researcher,’ Mac said firmly.

‘He’s been shot,’ Gus offered by way of qualification.

‘By accident,’ Mac added wearily. ‘My mom shot me by accident.’

The problems really start to mount when police begin looking very closely at Gus as a prime suspect in the killing of Murdoch, and Theo decides that drastic measures are required to protect him. But she’s a writer, and there’s a trail there for Gus and Mac to follow.

Turns out The Mystery Writer was always about exploring power, control, and conspiracy. Gus and Theo have spent their lives following the expectations of a previous generation. The push away from that control puts them in the path of others with an even bigger agenda of control and power. Their fight against that might feel very personal to start with, but the ramifications are deeper, wider and considerably darker than anybody could possibly have imagined.

Which felt very much like the point in The Mystery Writer. Just what is going on behind all these ridiculous conspiracy theories? And what’s next? Are we still talking about lizards? Paedophile rings under pizza shops? Vaccinations containing microchips? What is the power game at the heart of all of that? Who is being used in the process, and what on earth can we do to stop it?

Sulari Gentill The Mystery Writer Ultimo Press 2024 PB 384pp $34.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy The Mystery Writer 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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