A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill

ProphetsA 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.

A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

RightThinkingRowland 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.