Miles Off Course by Sulari Gentill

Book Details

Originally published in 2012
Rowland Sinclair #3
Preceded by A Decline in Prophets
Followed by Paving the New Road

The Blurb

It is 1933 and wealthy Australian artist Rowland Sinclair is enjoying a leisurely sojourn in the luxury Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains. As ever, he is accompanied by his entourage – a poet, a fellow painter and a brazen sculptress. The Depression-era troubles of the wider world seem far away. Until long-time Sinclair family ally and employee Harry Simpson disappears.

Rowland must leave for the High Country to find Harry. He encounters resentful stockmen, dangerous gangsters and threatening belligerence all round. With his trusted friends’ help, he uncovers a dark conspiracy which suddenly renders the beautiful Australian outback very sinister…

The Verdict

The characterizations and setting are great. The case however seems to meander a little, making this entertaining but not as good as either preceding novel.


My Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my first two outings with Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Australian artist who finds himself getting caught up in mysteries while trying to navigate an awkward relationship with his disapproving older brother. I had actually intended to get to this one soon after the last but as often happens with my TBR pile, I find new things to add on top and can lose track of an enjoyable series in favor of the new. Happily I stumbled across it at just the right time, particularly as I felt keen to read a historical mystery, and ended up devouring it in a day.

After having an escape from a group of toughs in his home, Rowland Sinclair is summoned to see his brother Wilfred who makes two requests of him. The first is to cast a vote in his role as a director of a company. The other however is to journey into the High Country in search of an aboriginal employee who disappeared without a trace after being sent to take investigate a matter on Sinclair lands. The people he visited suggest he had gone on walkabout but Wil points out that behavior is quite unlike Harry who is usually responsible and communicative.

The book is at its best in the chapters in which we see Rowland and his friends roughing it in the countryside in search of Harry. This not only inspires some very effective descriptions of the landscape and the isolation of working the land and gives Gentill an opportunity to explore some different types of characters than we have seen in the series up until this point.

One consequence of Rowland being pulled out of his comfortable setting is that it reminds us that we have tended to view him through the lens of his family. In particular, his very conservative brother Wil. Compared to him Rowland certainly comes off as being much more down to earth but when he is thrown into a rough, rural setting we see him struggle to figure out how to talk with and deal with the people (and, quite memorably, the wildlife) he finds there.

Where his previous adventure saw Rowland making a choice to take a cruise that led him into adventure, here he finds himself quite unwillingly drawn into events. While he cares about Harry and wants to make sure he is safe, he is not enthused about undertaking this trip, nor about being pushed to take on additional responsibilities as a company director at an upcoming board meeting. Still, while this adventure will push him into some uncomfortable situations, I think it also works well to demonstrate some sides to his character that we have not really seen before as well as giving us further insight into his early life and that of his deceased brother Aubrey.

All of Rowland’s friends return and make appearances in this story which is welcome. That little family of characters that surround and support Rowland provide much of the series’ energy and heart. There are even some events that threaten to disrupt or at least complicate his relationship with Edna. That relationship still strikes me as quite charming and I will confess to being fully invested in wanting to see that realized (if you have read further in this series than me, please do not spoil me on whether I will be happy with the way it develops).

The relationship that interests me most however is not with his circle of friends but his complicated feelings towards his elder brother. The two men are clearly quite different in temprement, outlook and political sympathies. They have different views on what their role in society should be and how they can best represent their family. At times their relationship can become quite acrimonious and bitter – indeed, we get several such moments in this story. Yet you also see the bond the two men have, their shared experiences, and I am always struck by how real that relationship seems. That relationship seems to sit at the heart of this series – at least in these early installments – and it is this aspect of the books that I am most curious to see how it develops.

As much as I love the character content and the setting, I do have to comment on the mystery plot itself and here I am afraid I was a little disappointed. I have already indicated that I think the early part of the book with Rowly investigating the disappearance is really quite effective and engaging. The problems for me occur in the book’s back half. That is partly because the action relocates to the city, taking away the book’s most distinctive element, but it is also because the villain of the piece did not strike me as particularly convincing or stand up well in comparison with those in the first two books while their motivations felt somewhat generic.

The other reason I think the second half is weaker than the first is that Rowland loses his direct motivation to become engaged with the mystery. That is reflected in how he seems to become responsive rather than proactive from this point in the story and from that point on things seem to happen to him rather than feeling like he is choosing to engage with a mystery.

Still, Rowland remains a really fantastic creation and while I think this case is uneven, I cannot help but admire Gentill’s approach to characterization or giving us a sense of Australian society in the 1930s. While I preferred the first two novels which set a very high standard, the good bits here are very good. I feel keen to see how this series continues to develop and I look forward to reading the next installment – Paving the New Road – to see what the rest of this tumultous decade has in store for the Sinclair brothers.

Great Black Kanba by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Also known as The Black Express by Conyth Little

The Blurb

Who was she? Where was she going? And why?

All she knew about herself she got from a fellow passenger on the train. According to this dubious source, she was Miss Cleo Ballister, a pretty, shabbily dressed actress who had been struck on the head with a valise which had tumbled from an upper bunk and completely blotted out her memory. Now here she was en route to Melbourne to meet relatives she couldn’t remember ever having heard of before.

As the trip went relentlessly on, Cleo picked up a whole family – Uncle Joe, Aunt Esther, miscellaneous cousins, and two unknown boy friends, both of whom claimed to be engaged to her. Flickers of the past tantalized her memory, serving only to add to her frightened mental confusion. Finally murder boarded the Trans-Australian express, and Cleo Ballister was seriously implicated. A series of fantastic events build up to a climax that unveils a murderer and “Cleo’s” lost identity.

The Verdict

Fascinating story that blends suspense and whodunnit elements effectively, although be prepared to wait for the murder. The solution is clever and well clued although the way it is revealed is a little underwhelming.


My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog for a while will know that I am a subscriber to the Coffee and Crime subscription box run by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime. It is always a thrill when I get book post, particularly as Kate always seems to pick out something by authors who are new to me. Great Black Kanba is a great case in point. Not only was the edition I received a beautiful Dell Mapback, the first in my collection, it was by two authors I knew relatively little about.

Constance and Gwenyth Little were Australian sisters who wrote together as Conyth Little in the 1940s and early 50s. I had seen several intriguing reviews for their work including some from Kate herself. This book, also sometimes known as The Black Express, comes from the middle of their careers and is set in that most appealing of all Golden Age locales – a train.

The hook for the story is that the narrator begins the story having completely lost her memory to the point where she does not remember her own name. Instead she is told who she is and where she is traveling to by a stranger who deduced that information from searching through her baggage. We quickly realize though that this information could be incorrect as the only identity document she has, a driving licence application for Sydney, does not feature a photograph.

Among the items in her purse is a letter from Uncle Joe who tells her that he and the family will meet her at Melbourne. She goes to the meeting as Cleo, assuming that her memory will simply return in time, keeping that a secret from them. Given that Cleo was to meet most of the party for the first time, their ready acceptance of her hardly proves the matter of her identity either.

Memory loss is one of those tropes that can feel really quite corny, in part because this sort of total memory loss is really, really rare and, I imagine, rarely caused by a falling valise. Given that the whole story is built around that idea it does mean that you do have to come to this with an acceptance of the artificiality of the setup. If you can accept that idea though I feel that the story takes that idea in some really interesting and entertaining directions.

One of the most stressful parts of the situation for “Cleo” is that she is met by two men, each claiming that they are engaged to her. While she is trying to work out who exactly she is, she also has to navigate these relationships and figure out which of them (if any) she can trust. It is not only an entertaining situation in terms of often awkward conversation, it does relate back to the core mystery of who she is as one of them shares some information about herself that she does not want to believe.

I found the discussion of the logistics of traveling across the Australian continent by rail to be utterly fascinating. Not only did this trip require multiple changes to one’s watch as you cross multiple time zones, you also needed to change trains on several occasions. This was not because you were needing to head in a different direction but because the Australian states had decided to use different rail gauges when building the network, making it impossible for a single train to complete a coast to coast journey.

The relationships between the Australian states has another interesting impact on the story later on, following the first murder. The complex question of jurisdictional authority crops up, creating an obstacle for the police forces in investigating that crime. These are just two examples of the ways that the novel’s setting and the train journey itself create an interesting backdrop to the crime investigation plot.

You may have noticed that while I have referenced murder, I have not shared any details of the circumstances leading to it. That reflects that we do not see a murder committed until over halfway through the book, long past the point I feel comfortable spoiling. Trust though that this is not simply an investigation into identity and that the Littles give us a compelling murder story too.

In her own review of this book, Kate shares her frustration with the book’s ending which she felt was rushed. I do understand what she means, although I thought that the explanation of what had happened was interesting and hung together very well. I definitely share the frustration though with the circumstances in which we learn that information.

Basically the trouble is that we have two different styles of narrative being forced to coexist. One is a psychological suspense story about a forgotten identity while the second is a more traditional murder story. Both are fascinating and there are some really interesting connections between those two story threads. The problem is however that while the first thread is responsible for turning up some of the information about the second, it is hard to say that the heroes really do much to bring about the ending. It is instead something that seems to happen to them. Similarly, the confession is something we hear rather than something that is actively brought about.

I do think it important to stress though that my issues with the ending are almost all presentational rather than substantive. While I may wish that the central characters were more directly responsible for solving the case, the actual solution to the murders is very clever and thoughtfully clued, pulling together several seemingly disconnected strands of the plot. I was largely satisfied, even if I wish that the final chapter had presented us with a more credible cause for the memory loss than the fallen bag explanation.

This was my first taste of the writing of Constance and Gwenyth Little but I am fairly confident that it will not be my last…

Sydney Noir edited by John Dale

sydney
Sydney Noir
John Dale (ed)
Originally Published 2019

Sydney Noir is the fourth collection of short stories I have read from Akashic Books having previously reviewed collections set in Prague, Moscow and Marrakech. While I have found that the stories in these collections are darker than I usually enjoy, I love the window these offer into other cultures and their own crime literature scenes.

This collection is based on the city of Sydney in Australia and some themes quickly establish themselves: almost all of the stories here touch on either sexuality or drugs. It is probably the most graphic of the four collections and readers should be prepared that many of the stories touch on some subject matter that some will find pretty heavy and upsetting.

In spite of that though I felt that the standard of the stories was generally very high and only a couple missed the mark for me. The strongest section is the third which is titled Criminal Justice with stories focused on exploring the lives of criminals. These stories were the ones that most clearly evoked a sense of place for me.

Slow Burn is probably my favorite story in the whole collection and I found it to be the most mysterious. It opens by introducing us to a retired police officer who is fishing next to a man he has spent twenty years planning to destroy. In the course of the story we learn what he did to warrant this and follow as he executes his plan. A really solid, character driven tale that is effective without the need for dramatic twists or revelations.

The first section, Family Matters, is a little less even though it does contain some really interesting stories. The Birthday Present packs the punchiest ending in the collection while In the Dunes is a deeply emotional story that I really connected with. I was a little less impressed with Good Boy, Bad Girl by John Dale who also edited this collection as I felt it had few unexpected moments while I found In the Court of the Lion King hard to enjoy though, in fairness, I am never much of a fan of prison noir.

Which leaves the second section, Sex and the City. As you might guess from the title, this is the most explicit section of the collection though it is also one of the most diverse. The standout story is Leigh Redhead’s The Transmutation of Sex, which is likely the only crime story I’ll ever read based around a work by Napoleon Hill. Not comfortable reading but it has that compelling “is it going there” factor that made it hard to put down and I felt Redhead had a very clear image of who her characters are. Others apparently loved The Patternmaker but I found it a pretty seedy and predictable read.

This collection is not going to be for everyone but I think it is one of the most consistent I have read from Akashic so far. That consistency in quality though is matched by a consistency of theme so this may work better as a collection you dip into rather than the sort you devour in a single sitting.

A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill

Prophets
A Decline in Prophets
Sulari Gentill
Originally Published 2011
Rowland Sinclair #2
Preceded by A Few Right Thinking Men
Followed by Miles Off Course

A Decline in Prophets is the second in Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series set in Australia in the early 1930s. When I read and reviewed the first story, A Few Right Thinking Men, I liked it a lot. The characters were enjoyable and the historical background to the case was fascinating. My only reservation in recommending it on this blog was that I felt the mystery element felt a little too straightforward.

One thing I should warn readers about up front is that this book reveals elements of the conclusion of the previous story. I have kept discussion of those specific elements out of this review to try to avoid spoiling anyone.

The book picks up shortly after the first left off with Rowland and his friends embarking on a world cruise. Among their fellow passengers are a collection of prominent Theosophists and an Irish Catholic bishop and his retinue.

One evening Rowland spots one of the male passengers aggressively propositioning his friend Edna and the men come to blows. When the man is found dead in the early hours of the next morning with Rowland’s walking stick embedded in his neck he finds himself inevitably under suspicion for murder.

The detective as chief suspect trope is not a favorite of mine so I was quite happy that the author acknowledges it but quickly moves past it, using it as an opportunity to show Rowland’s intelligence and reasoning. He demonstrates how the evidence suggests that he was not involved but while he is curious about the crime, for the first half of the novel he is not actively investigating the death.

These chapters are spent amassing information as we are introduced to the cast of characters which blends real historical figures with possible suspects. In my review of A Few Right Thinking Men I praised the way Gentill achieves this and I think her work here is equally impressive. While readers will likely work out which of the characters are real historical figures it is not because of any difference in the quality of characterization or dialogue.

Further crimes occur while aboard the ship with one incident in particular prompting Rowland to become more involved in discovering what is going on once they dock. As interesting as some of these incidents were, I preferred the second half of the book which mixes more direct investigation with a dose of Sinclair family drama.

Some of the novel’s strongest and most entertaining moments actually do not involve the crimes at all but the tension in the relationship between Rowland and his elder brother Wilfred who disapproves of Rowly’s bohemian lifestyle and friends. Many of these scenes are quite humorous such as an extended sporting sequence but there are also a couple of strongly emotional moments that give the relationship a good sense of balance.

That is not to say however that the mystery elements of the novel dissatisfy and I would suggest that this second Rowland Sinclair novel is actually a more complex and interesting case than his first. While I was disappointed that the solution to that puzzle was quite straightforward, this case is more complex and challenging.

The actual solution is quite complicated but I think it is explained well. Gentill makes it easy to understand the sequence of events that take place and the connections between them. I might question whether one key visual clue in the deductive chain could be noticed by the reader but I think that for the most part it plays fair.

While I enjoyed the book a lot, I should acknowledge that there are a few moments that feel quite extraneous to the plot and that some may feel is padding. I referenced the polo match above which was probably my favorite moment in the novel but there are others including a subplot where Wilfred’s wife is trying to set Rowland up with a friend of hers that perhaps do not add much to our understanding of the plot or these characters.

When I reviewed the first novel in this series I commented that while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it felt more like a piece of historical fiction than a mystery novel. This second installment does address that problem, developing a more complex plot than the predecessor while keeping its historical themes simpler, requiring less explanation and context. I still appreciated learning about theosophy and the lives of the historical figures depicted who I thought were interesting and depicted convincingly.

A Decline in Prophets is entertaining, lively and often quite charming. Its characters are memorable while the murders are genuinely puzzling. While I think on balance I enjoyed A Few Right Thinking Men more, I do feel that this is the superior mystery. Because it spoils the first novel I would not suggest jumping in with this one but for those that are curious I would certainly recommend taking a look.

Nice Day for a Murder by C. A. Broadribb

NiceDay
Nice Day for a Murder
C. A. Broadribb
Originally Published 2004

Nice Day for a Murder opens at a family barbecue being held in Newtown in Sydney at the home of Steve, a visual artist. The family gathers to see his home and meet his new flatmate and almost all are secretly hoping that their dreaded Aunt Val will skip the event. They are all to be disappointed as she turns up, angrily criticising her daughter and immediately starts criticising the decoration, food choices and declares that she wants to take a pill for her headache and lie down.

When it comes time to serve the food the family decide to let her continue to sleep. Later in the event Steve’s brother Ben, a journalist, is coming back from the bathroom when he notices Aunt Val has a red lump on her forehead and her purse is lying open. On closer examination they find that she is dead and so all of the family members still at the event are called in to speak with the police.

From this point onwards we primarily follow Ben as he finds himself becoming the focus of the Police’s investigation. This is in part due to misfortune but also largely a result of his own inept handling of his interviews, coming off as defensive and evasive as he insists that he didn’t murder his aunt long before any post-mortem tests come back.

While Ben does possess some research skills and has professional experience of how to follow-up leads he is not a skillful investigator, rather Broadribb pitches him as a slightly irritable everyman who has been caught up in an unpleasant situation that he makes worse by his own inability to let justice take its course. This can make him a rather frustrating protagonist and yet I quite appreciated that his investigation doesn’t run entirely smoothly and that he makes mistakes as it helps to sell that this is a real amateur playing detective.

We spend only a couple of pages in the company of Aunt Val but it is easy to believe that such a character would irritate and offend all around her. The woman is established as being highly judgmental and lacking in any warmth or empathy while her relationships with her daughter and ex-husband are messy at best. Broadribb gives us several clear suspects to consider which is more than I might expect in a novella that is just 108 pages long though really there are just a couple who merit serious consideration.

It is here that I probably should address the issue of length because the novel’s page count plays a significant role both in the book’s strengths and in creating its weaknesses. Such a short page count means that almost anything that might be considered extraneous is not present: we jump right in at the start of the party and the book ends with the killer’s identity becoming known but even those two pivotal scenes are a couple of pages long at most.

This aggressive pacing is quite enticing in that it encourages the author to condense character relationships which can feel quite refreshing but some of the clues and important revelations feel a little rushed. In a few cases, characters’ motives are established in just a few paragraphs while the novella’s ending is so abrupt that it makes the piece feel unfinished. The approach lends itself to a punchy reading experience but I couldn’t help but feel it was a slightly incomplete one and I am not entirely certain that the reader gets enough information to be able to deduce an important element of the conclusion.

In spite of these frustrations, I did admire the author’s willingness to really trim down her narrative and I was pleasantly surprised at how strong some of the characterization is. One of my favorite sequences comes during Aunt Val’s funeral as Ben’s mother speaks affectionately about her dead sister and Ben thinks about the ways that her statements are either misleading or lies as I think it speaks well to the sometimes awkward nature of family relationships.

Nice Day for a Murder is a very competent, fast-paced mystery that had no difficulty holding my attention. While I think the streamlined storytelling style can be quite refreshing in the start and body of the novella, I do wish that the ending was not quite so abrupt and a little more time had been given over to explaining how Ben worked out some aspects of the solution. This does get close to being a very good read but issues with the pacing and balance threw it off.

Note: An edit to this review was made in response to a comment. In that same comment Santosh posts an explanation of the logic of the conclusion that I agree makes sense and is accurate to the story. I do still think though that the ending is abrupt and that the reader cannot expect to work out a character’s identity before the end (though they may guess).

A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

RightThinking
A Few Right Thinking Men
Sulari Gentill
Originally Published 2010
Rowland Sinclair #1
Followed by A Decline in Prophets

Rowland is the youngest son in one of Australia’s wealthiest families, the Sinclairs. He was too young to have fought in the Great War which took his eldest brother’s life and, as an adult, he has shrugged off any high society obligations to live and work as an artist with a group of friends that include a sculptress, a poet and a painter, to his remaining brother’s disapproval.

One family member who is much more positive about his choices is his namesake, Uncle Rowly, who lives a hedonistic lifestyle. When this uncle is found dead, having been brutally beaten by a gang of assailants, Rowland is frustrated at how little progress the Police are making in investigating the murder.

Meanwhile Australian society seems to be headed towards a crisis point. Tensions are growing between the socialists and conservatives as Rowland notices when a left-wing rally he attends to support a friend degenerates into a brawl and he notices his conservative older brother seems obsessed with talk of revolution and insurrection when he visits his home to sort out his uncle’s estate. Soon Rowland begins to wonder if his Uncle’s murder may have had political motivations and he undertakes an investigation of his own.

One of the reasons I love to read historical mystery fiction is the sense that you may learn something while you are reading. I knew very little about this period in Australian history and so the events described were entirely new to me. I found the setting to be quite fascinating and having done a little research since finishing reading, I was interested to see just how much of the novel draws on established history and impressed at how well Sulari Gentill weaves her narrative around those events.

Rowland is a natural sleuth and I was impressed by how well Gentill is able to use his unconventional background to drive the investigation. Like Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Rowland straddles two distinct social worlds and can live in each of them, albeit without ever truly being at home. The book is at its most successful when exploring the ways Rowland doesn’t quite fit with his family’s expectations or with the social group he chooses to associate with. He is a wonderful creation and I am certainly keen to read other stories featuring this character.

Gentill’s supporting characters are similarly well drawn and I appreciated that several of them were allowed to be ambiguous at points in the story. For instance, it is clear that Rowland feels something for Edna and Edna feels something for Rowland but it is not exactly a romance. Similarly, I appreciated that Wilfred is something more than just the disapproving older brother. While his relationship with Rowland is certainly frosty and awkward, Gentill gives them moments where you see hints of affection and takes the time to speculate on the reasons that these two men developed so differently and struggle to see the world in the same way.

As I turn to discuss the plot, I do have to acknowledge an issue that must inform my review on a mystery fiction blog. I think those expecting a puzzle mystery with multiple suspects and clues to consider may feel frustrated by how straightforward the solution to the murder turns out to be.

While the book is marketed as a mystery, an attentive reader will soon be able to infer much of what happened to Rowly simply by the choices the author makes in the developing the structure of their story. The writer does not offer enough alternative explanations and the only other reading of events is dismissed a little too effectively. In part that reflects just how tidy Gentill’s plotting is and how clearly the explanation makes sense.

The only question in relation to the murder that I think the reader will have by the midpoint of the novel is why Rowly was a target at all, and the revelation of the reason is unlikely to surprise the reader. In fact, some are likely to feel frustrated that Rowland considered that reason earlier in the narrative.

Structurally the book has more in common with a thriller or adventure story. Our hero identifies a possible suspect, puts themselves in danger to gather evidence and provide a resolution. The story even provides the hero with high stakes that gives their investigation national significance. This is still not quite a perfect fit but I think it is a better match for the expectations a reader may have.

To be clear, I did not feel that my enjoyment of this book suffered for the lack of a traditional detective story structure and I do think that there are a number of mysterious hooks to the narrative, even if they do not relate to the murder itself. I enjoyed discovering the broader historical context to this story, seeing how Rowland’s investigation would be managed and discovering more about his character and the people around him.

Assessed on its own merits, A Few Right Thinking Men is a really entertaining and interesting read. I would certainly encourage readers who enjoy historical novels to seek it out and I think readers who enjoy following an investigation will find much to enjoy here. Unfortunately the underdevelopment of the murder mystery keeps me from giving it a wider, more enthusiastic recommendation but I will certainly be seeking out a copy of the second title in the series.