Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Originally published 2021

If your mother was missing, would you tell the police? Even if the most obvious suspect was your father? This is the dilemma facing the four grown Delaney siblings.

The Delaneys are fixtures in their community. The parents, Stan and Joy, are the envy of all of their friends. They’re killers on the tennis court, and off it their chemistry is palpable. But after fifty years of marriage, they’ve finally sold their famed tennis academy and are ready to start what should be the golden years of their lives. So why are Stan and Joy so miserable?

The four Delaney children―Amy, Logan, Troy, and Brooke―were tennis stars in their own right, yet as their father will tell you, none of them had what it took to go all the way. But that’s okay, now that they’re all successful grown-ups and there is the wonderful possibility of grandchildren on the horizon.

One night a stranger named Savannah knocks on Stan and Joy’s door, bleeding after a fight with her boyfriend. The Delaneys are more than happy to give her the small kindness she sorely needs. If only that was all she wanted.

Later, when Joy goes missing, and Savannah is nowhere to be found, the police question the one person who remains: Stan. But for someone who claims to be innocent, he, like many spouses, seems to have a lot to hide. Two of the Delaney children think their father is innocent, two are not so sure―but as the two sides square off against each other in perhaps their biggest match ever, all of the Delaneys will start to reexamine their shared family history in a very new light.

From time to time I have to begin a post about a book with a reminder that Mysteries Ahoy! is a blog that exists primarily to consider novels and short story collections through the lens of the mystery and suspense genres. This is never intended to be a negative note but rather to acknowledge at the outset that I will ultimately be assessing a book in the context of a genre and the expectations that come with it and sometimes that may be, unfairly, to a work’s detriment. I think that certainly applies in the case of Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall.

The divide between genre fiction and literary fiction can sometimes feel a little artificial and often comes down to perceptions of artistic value. It will surprise no one to read that I do not regard genre fiction as inferior or less artistically valid than literary fiction – rather I think that it simply conveys some expectations that the reader can have with a book about the experience that they are likely to have reading it.

Apples Never Fall is a work that contains some significant mystery elements. It is the story of a woman’s inexplicable disappearance from her family home, the exploration of the past in search of the truth, and an examination of family relationships to try to find a motive for murder. We have formal investigators working the case, interrogations, speculations about guilt, and ultimately an airing of secrets. Yet structurally it also diverges from the form in a crucial way that means that those coming to this hoping to play armchair detective and solve a mysterious situation are likely to feel a bit short-changed.

Discussion of why those readers approaching this purely from a genre perspective are likely to be disappointed is tricky as the reasons are buried in final few chapters of the story. To discuss them even vaguely or try to identify analogous titles, risks spoiling the book’s conclusion which, naturally, I don’t want to do. I think the book’s conclusion works when considered in the context of the book’s themes and structure and do not want to suggest that it is a weakness in any respect other than as an example of the mystery genre itself.

Okay, enough foreword (seriously, it’s threatening to become about half of this post) – let’s discuss Apples Never Fall.

The book concerns the disappearance of Joy Delaney from her family home. For years Joy and Stan Delaney, both skilled tennis players, had run a successful academy together. Joy would take care of the bookkeeping while Stan coached the players, including their four children who were also each great players though none ended up competing at the highest levels for reasons we discover in the course of the novel. Now the pair have sold that business and are struggling to adjust to retired life together.

The sudden disappearance of Joy from the home is accompanied by an oddly worded text to her four adult children and when a piece of evidence is discovered in the home by their cleaner a week later, the police become involved. The investigation ends up dividing the siblings, each reacting to it differently. Some however question whether it may have been linked to a previous incident in their parents’ lives from months earlier in which they let a mysterious young woman into their home who seemed to quickly embed herself into their lives.

Let’s tackle the two mysterious elements chronologically starting with the stranger, Savannah. Of the two storylines I found this to be the more intriguing, even if it is not ultimately the focal point of the novel. That is partly because several of the Delaney children suspect that there may be a link between the two incidents which confers upon it a greater degree of mystery than if we were simply reading this sequentially. I think the other reason is that there are several different possible interpretations to where this part of the story might be headed that I think Moriarty does a good job of balancing.

Questions raised by this story thread include is Savannah really who she claims to be? Is she being truthful in her story about the events that led her to knock on the Delaney’s door? Are her actions helping out in the Delaney home really just repaying them for their kindness or is this a way of making them dependent on her? Is this a prelude to some act of exploitation? And, most importantly, how and why is she not still present in the Delaney home at the time of the disappearance?

It also helps that this part of the novel also contains one of the strongest sequences in the novel: the really uncomfortable Father’s Day brunch. This occurs a short while after Savannah has arrived and the children are struggling with the idea of this stranger in their parents’ home. During the meal they try to figure out her deal but end up revealing quite a bit about their own lives too. The centerpiece of this part of the story though is a really powerful and perhaps unsettling exchange in which Stan slowly dissects the characters of each of his children through a detailed examination of their tennis careers. This is not only a really dramatic moment in the story, it also reveals a huge amount about both them and him in a way that feels really true to each of their characters.

Moriarty’s character work is the great strength of this novel and I really appreciated the complexity given to the characters of each of the children. The four clearly share some similar, familial traits yet each is distinctive and are living quite different lives as adults. I was particularly taken with the way Moriarty uses their relationship with the sport to illustrate aspects of who they were, who they are now and the values they hold while the conflicts they each face in their lives are similarly distinctive and credible.

Similarly the relationship between Joy and Stan is really layered and complex. As we explore the events of the past six months, we learn more about the stresses and strains that have built up within that relationship. I found it interesting to see those tensions build, and see how the conflicts would play out whether expressed directly or, more often, indirectly. Once again the crucial description here is that the character work feels very credible and I appreciated that Moriarty avoids giving us an easy, direct read on them and where their stories are headed until shortly before the end.

The only weak link here for me in terms of the credibility of the characterization was that of Savannah. There were aspects of her story that certainly surprised me in ways that I found quite satisfying, yet there are also some parts of her story that I found less convincing, at least in relation to an important aspect of her past that is linked to her character’s motivation. On the other hand, some of her actions are really interesting and while I may have found the destination a little underwhelming, I found the journey to reach it to be an interesting one.

The mystery about what happened to Joy is, in contrast, does not provide quite the same degree of variety in terms of its ideas and story beats. It would, of course, be unrealistic for the police to focus on anyone other than Stan in the circumstances that Moriarty establishes and while I think there are some surprises in the final explanation, I do not find the ending particularly satisfying as a resolution to this mystery plot. On a thematic and character level however, when you disregard any expectations of this as a mystery novel, that ending feels far more satisfying.

The Verdict: If you approach Apples Never Fall purely as a work of mystery fiction you may find its resolution underwhelming. That would be unfortunate as Moriarty’s characterization and development of theme here is superb and makes this a really rich and interesting examination of a family in crisis.

Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood

Originally published in 1990
Phryne Fisher #2
Preceded by Cocaine Blues
Followed by Murder on the Ballarat Train

Walking the wings of a Tiger Moth plane in full flight ought to be enough excitement for most people, but not Phryne Fisher, amateur detective, woman of mystery, as delectable as the finest chocolate and as sharp as razor blades. 

In this, the second Phryne Fisher mystery, the 1920s’ most talented and glamorous detective flies even higher, handling a murder, a kidnapping and the usual array of beautiful young men with style and consummate ease–and all before it’s time to adjourn to the Queenscliff Hotel for breakfast. Whether she’s flying planes, clearing a friend of homicide charges or saving a child from kidnapping, she handles everything with the same dash and elan with which she drives her red Hispano-Suiza.

After having a rough old time with The Institute earlier this week, I felt that I didn’t want to take any risks with my next read. Instead of trying something new I would instead revisit a book I had already read and hope that it would give me a much-needed lift.

I discovered the Phryne Fisher novels a little over a decade ago at a point where I was just starting to get back into reading mystery fiction. The books, as I noted in my review of Cocaine Blues, read more as adventures than detective stories and the reader should not expect to treat these as fair play mysteries. They are however enormously entertaining thanks to a broad cast of colorful recurring characters, the striking Australian settings, and the personality of our heroine, Phryne.

Phryne finds herself engaged in trying to solve two mysteries in Flying Too High. The first involves the death of a rather unpleasant businessman who has been bashed on the head by a heavy rock. The man’s son, whom he struggled to get on with, is blamed for the crime but Phryne points to some logical flaws with this explanation. Instead she commits that she will prove the man’s innocence and that she will track down the real killer.

The main focus of the novel however, or at least the source of the greatest drama and storytelling energy, is the other mystery: the kidnapping of a child. Once this story point is introduced, the urgency of that scenario dominates the story and almost all of the action and development occurs in this storyline. Greenwood will wrap up the other storyline by the end of the novel but it feels almost like an epilogue – the story reaches a crescendo with the resolution of this kidnapping.

One of the reasons that I think this second storyline comes to feel like the more significant one is the natural sympathy that the reader will feel toward the plight of a child. This is amplified by allowing the reader to follow the story not only from the perspective of the investigator but also from that of the victim, Candida, and her kidnappers. This adds to the sense of urgency, reminding us that Candida is in imminent danger and it also lets us into the thinking of her kidnappers. We know what they have planned adding to the desire to see Phryne succeed in rescuing the child.

As I suggest earlier, readers should expect the actual detection here to be quite slight. There are few clues to consider while the kidnappers’ motives and plans are known to the reader from the start, reducing the possibility of a surprise. The adventure angles here are great fun though, building beautifully to a rather memorable action sequence in which our hero comes by plane to try and save the day.

The only aspect of this story thread I didn’t love relates to an aspect of the resolution. I will try and treat as carefully as possible here to avoid spoilers!

Towards the end of the novel there is a point at which Phryne cuts a rather unsavory deal with someone to buy their cooperation. It’s a really odd moment, hitting a very strange and perhaps unsettling note in relation to the themes of the novel. What’s stranger, it doesn’t feel remotely necessary to the development of the story overall, nor its themes. In short, that part of the book just doesn’t sit quite right with me…

That first mystery plot, while receiving little narrative attention throughout most of the novel, is at least a little better-clued than some others – at least with regards a few points near the end. There are a few observations to be made, some very clever, concerning the murder method that the reader might work out before the sleuth.

The real heart of the book though lies not in the mysteries but in seeing the continuing expansion of Phryne’s circle of helpers. After the first volume gave us Bert, Cec and Dot, this one adds a pair of housekeepers into mix, amusingly each named Butler. This is nice firstly because it reflects that sense that Phryne is slowly putting down roots in the area but also because it allows for us to see Phryne once again through the eyes of someone who is not already accustomed to some of her behaviors, reintroducing some of her eccentricities and foibles.

It is this sense of an adoptive family building up around Phryne, comprised of a really unlikely blend of very strong but fun personalities, that I think is my greatest sense of pleasure when it comes to this series. There are still a few more elements to slot into place but overall I think it is very impressive how quickly this series comes to find a sort of rhythm.

So, where does that leave me with Flying Too High? I think it is often quite an exciting tale and I appreciated that it isn’t static but rather makes use of a range of backgrounds and settings. There are two barriers to me recommending it however. The first is that it doesn’t read so much like a mystery as an adventure. That may be just what you’re looking for. The bigger barrier though for me is that there are a few parts of the story that feel very, very dark, in one case bordering on being in rather uncomfortable taste.

For those that read and enjoyed the first in the series, Flying Too High is a solid choice for a next step. It’s quick, exciting and certainly worth a look – particularly for fans of historical stories.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Originally published in 2018.

Brothers Nathan and Bub Bright meet for the first time in months at the remote fence line separating their cattle ranches in the lonely outback. Their third brother, Cameron, lies dead at their feet. 

In an isolated belt of Australia, their homes a three-hour drive apart, the brothers were one another’s nearest neighbors. Cameron was the middle child, the one who ran the family homestead. But something made him head out alone under the unrelenting sun.

While [the family grieves] Cameron’s loss, suspicion starts to take hold, and Nathan is forced to examine secrets the family would rather leave in the past. Because if someone forced Cameron to his death, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects.

Cameron Bright had been missing for several days when his body is finally found at the stockman’s grave, a remote spot miles from the road on the edge of his vast property. His two brothers, Bub and Nathan, can only assume that he was forced to abandon his vehicle but when they find it functional, full of fuel and a healthy stock of supplies almost ten kilometers away they cannot understand his behavior. Did he get lost walking his own property or was it an intentional decision to kill himself?

As the family prepares for the funeral, Nathan realizes that he may not have known his brother as well as he thought he did. As Nathan learns more about Cameron’s final days, he reflects on the reasons for their strained relationship and uncovers some family secrets. Secrets that may hold the answer to their questions about his death…

Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Lost Man is its setting – the remote and unforgiving Australian outback. Harper does a superb job of conveying the potential loneliness of that life and the difficulties it brings. In a short but very atmospheric prologue, we get a sense of just how isolated this cast of characters are – not only from the nearest settlement but from each other. We quickly learn that their isolation is not just physical but social as the brothers’ relationship with one another have been uneasy for years.

The horrific circumstances of Cameron’s death are also conveyed quite strikingly, setting up some difficult problems for the reader to solve. It is a seemingly incomprehensible death. If suicide was intended why choose to suffer for hours when he had firearms at home. If it was murder, why are there no signs of a struggle. The question of whether it is murder is only resolved in the final pages of the novel meaning that we are searching for a reason for an event without a certainty of what exactly it was.

Given a lack of material evidence our focus instead is drawn to the characters. Whether it was suicide or murder, it seems quite clear that the reason must lie in understanding Cameron, the state of his relationships with others and the events that led up to his death. This process unfolds quite slowly and in a seemingly unstructured way with details emerging in conversations or observations made from some of his personal effects rather than as the result of an investigative process. It feels quite natural and credible, though those who come to this primarily looking for detection may feel a little frustrated by that pacing.

The early chapters in particular seemed to me quite slow, perhaps because I had anticipated more of an investigative structure or maybe because I was slow to warm to Nathan whose perspective we follow. He seems initially quite cold and bitter, both in his response to the death but also in terms of the way he is living his life in near-total isolation. That is reflected in the way others frequently express their concern for his well-being, wondering if he might be drawn to end his life the way his brother seems to have done.

It was only once we began to explore his past in greater detail that I began to appreciate the subtleties of that character and their development. Events in the past and the present are layered together with Harper often introducing an idea and then flashing back (or jumping forward) to show how it connects. This helps suggest a sense of near-constant discovery as our understanding of these men grows with each reveal.

Smartly Harper does not rely on shock but each realization feels like a natural development from what we learned pages before. The result is not dissimilar to seeing a picture slowly coming into focus and I found it to be quite a compelling reading experience.

That is not to say that the overall plot is predictable. If you were to have asked me to guess at what the truth might be a few chapters into the novel, I am sure I would have anticipated very little of the actual solution. In fact there is one element of the solution that I didn’t come close to guessing and which provided the one really huge shock of the book. While the clueing of that aspect of the solution feels a little slight, I still found that reveal very satisfying and felt it tied things together very powerfully.

The Lost Man is an interesting and rich read that prioritizes careful character development and a sense of setting. Those who come to it hoping primarily to engage with it as a puzzle may find it a little too careful and deliberate in its pacing or struggle with the lack of a focused investigative structure. Those who appreciate the development of character and theme however will find that there is much to admire here.

The Verdict: An interesting read with strong characterization, striking setting and careful development of its themes.

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

Originally published in 1989
Phryne Fisher #1
Followed by Flying Too High

The London season is in full fling at the end of the 1920s, but the Honourable Phryne Fisher―she of the green-gray eyes, diamant garters, and outfits that should not be sprung suddenly on those of nervous dispositions―is rapidly tiring of the tedium of arranging flowers, making polite conversations with retired colonels, and dancing with weak-chinned men. Instead, Phryne decides it might be rather amusing to try her hand at being a lady detective in Melbourne, Australia.

Almost immediately from the time she books into the Windsor Hotel, Phryne is embroiled in mystery: poisoned wives, cocaine smuggling rings, corrupt cops, and communism―not to mention erotic encounters with the beautiful Russian dancer, Sasha de Lisse―until her adventure reaches its steamy end in the Turkish baths of Little Lonsdale Street.

Earlier this week I realized I was in the mood to revisit a previous read rather than try something completely new so I reached for my copy of Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, the first of her Phryne Fisher adventures set in late 1920s Australia. I first read this, and many of the other novels in the series, over a decade ago and since then I have enjoyed watching the television adaptation of the series. I was curious to see how I would feel about it knowing the solution.

Phryne Fisher arrives in Melbourne as a result of a request made by an acquaintance that she visit his daughter who is living there and who appears to be suffering from inexplicable bouts of sickness. Keen for adventure she agrees and upon arriving in the city promptly finds herself caught up in another investigation into a cocaine smuggling ring and to find a brutal back alley abortionist.

The novel begins with a chapter that not only introduces us to Phryne but also shows her powers of observation at work as she cracks a jewel theft case. It is an effective way to introduce us to a character, also demonstrating her unconventionality in addition to her quick thinking, and it also helps explain the unusual commission she receives. In witnessing her abilities, the woman’s father realizes that she has a better chance of getting close to his daughter and learning the truth of what is affecting her than a male detective ever could.

Another smart choice Greenwood makes is to let the reader get to know who Phryne is and what her values are through her actions rather than exposition. Once we know who she is then Greenwood begins to fill in some of the information about the incidents and experiences that made her the woman she has become. This not only allows us to jump into the cases earlier, it also means that when exposition comes it feels more natural.

I really enjoy Phryne as a character, finding her amusing and pretty admirable in the way she puts her life on the line for others. She trusts her instincts and her own sense of values, relying on them to help her make decisions quickly – something she has to do at several points in this story. She might not be typical of the age in which she is supposed to live in – she is certainly liberated and often shocks the characters around her – but one of the things the book also makes clear is that Australian society in this period offers her a level of freedom she would not have enjoyed in English society. We also see that similarly reflected in the character of Dr. MacMillan, a doctor who qualified at Edinburgh but found she had she move to Australia to be able to practice.

Dr. MacMillan is one of a number of characters that Phryne will regularly use to support her activities as a detective. This book has to introduce us to all of them, establish their characters and help explain why they are willing to put their lives on the line for Phryne at times. Greenwood does this really well, giving each character a memorable entrance and a strong reason for trusting her or wanting to support her. At times this can feel quite fast – the employment of Dot, her maid, is very sudden and rather trusting given its circumstances but as it reinforces Phryne’s tendency to make decisions quickly based on instinct (and Phryne does reflect afterwards on the risks taken), I accepted it.

Greenwood packs her stories with lots of interesting historical details, helping the setting come to life. Some of the most interesting here related to that history of the Queen Victoria Hospital, the women’s hospital ‘established by women for women’. I similarly appreciated the discussions of women’s roles in the Police force of the time.

The cases themselves are each interesting and move quite quickly. I would characterize the stories as being more adventurous than deductive in nature and each is packed with incident and moments of danger. Of the various threads the most powerful for me was the story of the hunt for Butcher George, the backstreet abortionist. This part of the story not only illustrates several characters’ personalities and values, it tells a compelling story of one victim and explores the ways women would find a provider in this period. It is really well done and the resolution of this thread felt particularly satisfying.

As for the other story threads – the cocaine ring and the quest to learn what is wrong with Mrs. Andrews, I appreciated many of the exciting twists and turns and found the payoff entertaining. I particularly enjoyed a sequence in which Phryne herself comes under police suspicion. I am afraid I cannot really judge whether I expected the final explanation as I remembered it too well from my first reading, though I appreciated it as a piece of adventure writing and think it felt fitting.

Overall then I enjoyed Cocaine Blues. Revisiting it was just what I needed this week, particularly given my poor attention span, and I appreciated getting to know Phryne and her friends all over again and to rediscover their origins as a team.

The Verdict: More adventure than detective story, this is an excellent introduction to Phryne Fisher who is a marvellous creation.

Miles Off Course by Sulari Gentill

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

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…

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.

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.

Great Black Kanba by Constance and Gwenyth Little

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

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.

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…

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.

Sydney Noir edited by John Dale

Originally Published 2019

Akashic Books continues its award-winning series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each book comprises all new stories, each one set in a distinct neighborhood or location within the respective city. Now, “Sydney Noir brings together 14 compelling short stories by established and emerging Australian authors, each offering a startling glimpse into the dark heart of Sydney and its sprawling suburbs” (Sydney Morning Herald, Australian edition review).

This anthology includes brand-new stories by Kirsten Tranter, Mandy Sayer, John Dale, Eleanor Limprecht, Mark Dapin, Leigh Redhead, Julie Koh, Peter Polites, Robert Drewe, Tom Gilling, Gabrielle Lord, Philip McLaren, P.M. Newton, and Peter Doyle.

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.

Continue reading “Sydney Noir edited by John Dale”

A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill

Originally Published 2011
Rowland Sinclair #2
Preceded by A Few Right Thinking Men
Followed by Miles Off Course

Travel back in time to 1932 and book a first-class suite on the passenger liner RMS Aquitania, but take care, for among your fellow passengers is a ruthless killer….

Direct threats from Australia’s warring Right and the Left having quieted, so wealthy Rowland Sinclair and his group of bohemian friends are their way home to Sydney via New York after a lengthy stay in Europe. The wealthy Sinclair scion has treated his artist friends to first-class accommodations on the Cunard ship, the luxury liner of the day. Also on board are some members of the Theosophical Society (a spiritualism movement), as well as an aggressively conservative Irish Catholic Bishop and his cohorts. Their clash ups the tensions in first class and presents the liner’s captain with a tricky situation when bodies start to drop.

It is Sinclair’s bad luck that he becomes a suspect in the first death, that of the Bishop’s beautiful young niece. But before the ship docks, he is cleared and the investigation, and further crimes, are taken ashore to the Australian capital and into some of its grand country houses―and of course, Rowly and his amateur sleuth friends follow.

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

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

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.