(This review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 2013)
Three historical crime books down, and Robert Gott has changed tack. The period is still the 1940s, but Gott’s series character, the would-be Shakespearian actor and wanna-be private eye, William Powers, is no longer mis-directing the action. Gone too is much of the sly humour which bubbled up in the gaps between the Powers self-aggrandising lines and the reader’s recognition of just what a twit he was.
The Holiday Murders started out as William Powers adventure, but following the advice of his publisher, Gott was encouraged to blow off the froth and treat the topic of murder more seriously. This meant abandoning the first person voice of a nitwit narrator, and opting instead for a more sober tone and a range of different perspectives.
And so we are introduced to Inspector Titus Lambert, head of the newly formed Homicide Unit, who is called out on Christmas Eve to what appears to be a particularly gruesome murder suicide. One man is nailed to the floor and the other dead in the bathroom of a palatial family home in East Melbourne. Titus is not entirely adverse to taking the call: he’s not that keen on Christmas or the prospect of listening to a new radio serial on 3UZ with his wife.
Already at the scene is Sergeant Joe Sable whose nagging self-doubt and Jewish ancestry soon become critical to a story which will encompass the anti-semitic undercurrents in the Australia First party and its fascist sympathisers. To illustrate the tenor of the times, Gott makes strategic use of references to, and quotations from, The Publicist, The Paper Loyal to Australia First which was indeed a real publication.
Following Sulari Gentill’s recent historical crime novel Paving the New Road which also dealt with pro-fascist movements in Australia around the time of World War II, it is tempting to speculate that Australian crime fiction, like a great deal of recent Scandinavian crime fiction, might be looking in the rear view mirror of a guilty past as the nation tries to come to terms with unsettling racist tendencies in the present. Would that as a crime fiction wave the Australian turn might be both so successful, especially since there is a prominent role for a smart female character – the redoubtable policewoman, Helen Lord, a modern woman if ever there was one.
Helen likes being a policewoman despite the fact that she is not allowed to wear a uniform and has to put up with rather a lot from the men with whom she works who see her as a novelty, ‘useful to them only occasionally in dealing with hysterical tarts and with wives who’d been beaten up by their hopeless, drunken husbands’. Joe thinks Helen looks a bit like Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Both are therefore very happy to go undercover as a clumsy couple of skaters on the Galciarium: an ice rink constructed on what is now the site of Southgate.
Lest this sound like too much spiffing fun, there’s a serial killer at work whose fascist sympathies are simply a cover for his pathological desire to hurt and maim. Joe has to get close, but a lot of innocent people are going to get badly hurt in the process.
What works best in The Holiday Murders are the characters and their nicely judged relationships. Titus, Joe and Helen are keepers. More please Mr Gott.