The Silence, Susan Allott

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

The Silence (2020) is an Australian mystery by an English woman which I came to via a review and author interview on an American blog – Grab the Lapels (Melanie). Author, Susan Allott spent a few years in Sydney, as a teenager I think, but homesickness got her and she’s now back in England. She says that between having an Australian husband and her own time here, she became interested in and angered by the policies which led to the Stolen Generations. In my opinion Allott has managed to write a book which is both interesting and entertaining in itself, and which manages to discuss the issue of the taking of Aboriginal children without assuming to speak for the Indigenous community which these policies were intended to destroy.

The principal character of the novel is Isla, who in 1967 is a four year old whose parents, Joe and Louisa, have come out from England and settled in an ordinary northern Sydney beach-side suburb. While her mother works, Isla spends all day with Mandy, their next door neighbour. Joe is a construction supervisor in the city and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic, while Mandy’s husband Steve is a policeman whose only job, seemingly, is to drive his ‘truck’ into the outback to take Aboriginal children from their families.

And for those, like our Prime Minister, who like to claim that this stuff only occurred way back in the past, I should point out that the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board authorised the taking of Aboriginal children up till 1969. That is, there are Indigenous men and women, who were born at the same time as the Prime Minister, and in the same state, who were stolen by people of his and our parents’ generations.

The story proceeds on two timelines in parallel, and via the viewpoints of all five main characters. The second timeline begins in 1997 when Isla, who is working in London, returns to Sydney to stand by her father who is a person of interest in the belated police investigation into the disappearance of Mandy who, it turns out, has not been seen for 30 years.

I’m guessing Allott has chosen ’67 and ’97 to fit in with Aboriginal ‘Protection’ ending at the end of the ’60s, although this does make The Silence Historical as well as Crime Fiction. Particularly in the 1967 timeline, there will be a radio on in the background with Harold Holt defending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Sydney Opera House under construction and so on, to remind us of the period.

In the earlier timeline Louisa is unable to deal with her homesickness, nor with Joe’s drinking and violence, nor his inability to understand, and despite being pregnant, she flies home to her mother (at a time, the author says, when flying was still expensive and relatively unusual. My grandparents went ‘home’ by sea in the early 60s but flew for other trips later in the same decade*). Allott says she originally intended Louisa to be the principal character so she could discuss her own homesickness, many years later, but the Stolen Generations part of the narrative took over.

Isla feels a distance between herself and her mother and is much more comfortable with Mandy who has no children of her own, and likes it that way, but is happy to have Isla around her feet or to take her down the beach at the end of the street. Mandy has to deal with Steve’s distress each time he returns from a trip which has resulted in another Aboriginal child being dragged from its mother’s arms to be put into care, and also with his unhappiness at their having no children of their own. I must say Isla remembers a lot for a four year old. All I can remember is some very big blocks in kindergarten.

‘Steve’s back!’ Isla held onto the back of the couch and sprang up and down, her backside in the air. ‘He’s back, Mandy!’
Mandy stood at the window and looked out. Steve had parked up already, and the truck was filthy, as always. Mud-caked wheels; brick-red dust at the fenders. The windscreen was covered in muck but for the small double-arc of the wipers.
Steve turned the engine off and slumped over the steering wheel, resting his head on the bridge of his hands.
Mandy’s stomach turned. ‘Here we go,’ she said, as he lifted his head. She stepped away from the window, afraid to catch his eye.

Australian writer, Sara Dowse commented recently in Whispering Gums about crime fiction: “.. when it’s done well it’s often where you find the best characterisations, and the feeling of place and time.” That was in the context of a Gary Disher novel, though my own examples would be Ian Rankin or Camilla Läckberg. This novel is not of that standard but Isla and the four adults are well defined and we understand them better as the novel progresses, though this is less true of the locations, which are relatively generic.

This is not a classic whodunit, but 1997 Isla works her way around indifferent policing to prod her parents and the hard-to-find Steve until she and we get some idea of what happened to Mandy and why. I’m not sure Allott got 1967 Australia exactly right, but in the end I found the novel both plausible and interesting.

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Susan Allott, The Silence, The Borough Press, London 2020. 350pp.


*The era of cheap international flights began for Australians in 1971 when Qantas introduced into service its first Boeing 747.

The January Zone, Peter Corris

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

Peter Corris (1942-2018) must be our best known crime fiction writer, especially his Cliff Hardy novels of which this is one, the tenth as you can see, of 44. Looking through the list I can see that I’ve listened to a few, but this one happened to be on my shelves so I thought I would add it to Kimbofo’s month. In passing, his Wikipedia entry tells me Corris was married to AWW Gen 4 writer Jean Bedford, and that he had a PhD in History with a thesis on the South Seas Islander slave trade (into Queensland).

The Cliff Hardy novels are set in Sydney, Corris’s adopted home city (he was born and educated in Melbourne). Hardy’s home is an old terrace house in the inner-west, off Glebe Point Rd I think, which I used to know a little bit as B2 had a house there, 2 storeys, 11 ft wide and with a sandstone cliff at the end of the backyard. Although the novels are generally read independently, over the course of reading them you get some familiarity with his home life.

In The January Zone (1987) Hardy is late fortyish, so the same age as his author, divorced, alone, Helen his lover back living up the coast with her husband and daughter. He has a military background of course, in his case service with the Australian Army in Malaya; and is scruffy and anti-authoritarian and all those other cliches of modern detective fiction.

I am used to Hardy sloping around the streets of Sydney in his battered old Ford Falcon doing sleuthing stuff, but this novel jumps the shark a little – and it surprised me to find it was relatively early in the series – with Hardy acting as bodyguard (“security consultant”) to Labor politician, pacifist and Assistant Defence Minister Peter January during a trip to Washington to appear before a Senate Committee into the Russian threat in the Pacific or somesuch.

Hardy doesn’t want to be a security consultant but is persuaded when he’s present when a bomb goes off in the Minister’s office and a young intern is killed (and is barely mentioned again). And yes it pisses me off that a Federal Minister’s office is in Sydney. A constant stream of Sydney-based Prime Ministers over the past 30 years has incrementally moved the seat of government, not to mention the PM’s residence (I’d bomb Kirribilli if I could), away from Canberra in defiance of the Constitution.

January, so he fits in with every other male politician, pretends to be a lecher to divert attention from the fact that he’s actually going about with the wife of a senior Liberal. Hardy has the hots for Trudi, January’s secretary, though when his big opportunity comes he thinks of Helen and keeps his pants on (sort of).

She collapsed and I got properly onto the bed and held her. After a while she reached down and pulled the sheet up over us. “How do you feel now?” she said.
“I want you.” I was still hot and hard.
“Better we don’t,” she murmured. “This way you’ll remember … something different …”
“I’ll think of the Queen.”
She smiled and curled herself up.

A sniper takes a shot at Trudi before they leave Sydney; someone attempts to run the Minister’s car off the road on the way in from Washington airport; an assassin electrifies the microphone, killing the warm-up speaker at a January rally; January is a media sensation (the first Australian media sensation in the US since the PM’s wife wore a dress with a slit all the way up the side back in 1971). So you can see what I mean about jumping the shark.

Politicians around the world are struck by the brilliance of the junior Minister’s plan for peace in our time. Back home there’s a kidnapping, men playing merry hell with shotguns, more deaths, all the stuff you see every day in your morning newspaper. Not. The January Zone is more Action novel than Detective, very Sydney. I probably should have read a Peter Temple instead.

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Peter Corris, The January Zone, Unwin Paperbacks, Sydney, 1987. 205pp

Madame Midas, Fergus Hume

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

When Kim at Reading Matters announced Southern Cross Crime Month I had a C19th century Australian detective novel at the back of my mind but struggled to bring it into the light. It was not Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud (1886) which Lisa and I both reviewed on its publication in book form for the first time in 2017. Nor was it Madame Midas which I found serendipitously in my ‘new books’ TBR pile; it was of course Hume’s much more famous The Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886), which seeing as it is not on my shelves I must have borrowed, probably as an audiobook.

The cover notes say Hume self-published The Mystery of the Hansom Cab in Melbourne, where it sold 20,000 copies. He then sold the copyright in London, where it was also a success, in fact “the best-selling mystery novel of the Victorian era”, for £50, and never received another penny. He went on to write 140 novels and a small number of plays.

Fergusson Wright Hume (1859-1932) was born in England, raised and educated in New Zealand, came to Melbourne in 1885 or 6 and returned to England in 1888 (ADB). For the short time he was here he shows a remarkably intimate knowledge of Melbourne life and of underground mining at Ballarat. But he betrays himself in the opening chapter when two French convicts escaped from New Caledonia drift in their stolen boat to the coast of Queensland.

A bleak-looking coast, with huge water-worn promontories jutting out into the sea, daring the tempestuous fury of the waves, which dashed furiously in sheets of foam against the iron rocks.. At the back the cliffs rose in a kind of semi-circle, black and precipitous, to the height of about a hundred feet… At the top of these inhospitable-looking cliffs a line of pale green betrayed the presence of vegetation, and from thence it spread inland into vast rolling pastures ending far away at the outskirts of the bush, above which could be seen giant mountains with snow-covered ranges.

The Madame Midas of the title is a real woman, known to the author, Alice Cornwell, who owned and made a fortune from the Midas Mine in Ballarat. Clare Wright devotes her Introduction to her, another Independent Woman to add to my list, though here she has the name Mrs Villiers. As it is an important part of the plot that Villiers defrauds and deserts her, it is no wonder the real husband sued Hume. Unsuccessfully apparently.

Although The Mystery of the Hansom Cab was reputedly the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887) Madame Midas is not a detective novel. Prior to Sherlock Holmes it was common for the role of detective to be split amongst a number of characters, see Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) for instance, but even that is not really the case here. About halfway through the novel Villiers attacks his estranged wife and steals from her an enormous gold nugget. Mrs Villiers knocks him down but we know he was still alive later in the night, after which he disappears, and although various people’ including the police, look for him, life goes on.

The two French escapees are a Parisian playboy convicted of poisoning his mistress, who adopts the name Gaston Vandeloup and a big, mute man, unable to read or write, or understand English, whom Vandeloup is constantly worried will reveal his secrets. After we have been introduced to Mrs Villiers and her mine, which is following a promising lead – the bed of a stream buried eons since which contains alluvial gold – the two Frenchmen turn up and are given jobs, Vandeloup as office manager.

Villiers is hanging around Ballarat looking to intimidate his estranged wife into sharing with him her new fortune, after having run through the fortune she inherited from her father. And we get to meet the pretty and innocent Kitty, daughter of a non-conformist minister. There’s also a family of travelling players who pop up as needed, and various others, mostly upper-middle class loafers and socialites.

Vandeloup persuades Kitty to fall in love with him, takes her to Melbourne, but puts off marrying her because the big prize is Mrs Villiers, if Villiers is finally gone. Mrs Villiers makes her fortune and moves to a big house in (Melbourne bayside suburb) St Kilda previously featured in The Mystery of the Hansom Cab. After a year Kitty and Vandeloup break up and Kitty ends up living with Mrs Villiers. Kitty plans to poison Mrs Villiers to stop Vandeloup from marrying her, Vandeloup plans to poison Kitty. Someone puts poison in a glass by Mrs Villiers’ bed. Her companion Selina drinks it and dies.

I won’t tell you any more. It’s an entertaining enough story, with the expected convoluted ending, of general rather than literary fiction quality, but an interesting view of Melbourne after the goldrushes when it was for a while the richest city in the world.

A note for Emma/Book Around the Corner, Fergus Hume’s early novels were apparently inspired by the works of French detective fiction pioneer Émile Gaboriau (1832-1873) who was at that time very popular in Melbourne (in translation).

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Fergus Hume, Madame Midas, self-pub. Melbourne, 1888. My edition Text Classics, Melbourne, 2017.

Cake in the Hat Box, Arthur Upfield

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Coming out of Albury last trip, west along the Murray Valley Highway, which follows the river along the Victorian side, I stopped at Strathmerton to check my load and found myself opposite both an op shop and a patisserie. The combination was irresistible and I soon found myself with a cauliflower pie and another Western Australian Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte novel.

Cake in the Hat Box (1955) is set in the Kimberleys, in WA’s North West, rugged, tropical cattle grazing country. Unlike Mr Jelly’s Business (review) which is set in a real town where the author worked in the 1930s, the setting for this story is a fictional settlement, Agar’s Lagoon, maybe based on Durack which marks the turn-off from the ‘Great Northern Highway’, in those post WWII days a primitive dirt track, to the port of Wyndham.

I’ve only been to the very north of WA a couple of times – something I hope to rectify in the coming years – but the descriptions of country sound authentic and Upfield’s ADB entry says, “In 1948 he led a 5000-mile (8047 km) expedition through the Kimberleys, Western Australia, for the Australian Geographical Society.”

The murder at the centre of this novel is that of a policeman found dead in his Landrover on a remote road. His Aboriginal companion (‘black tracker’), Jackie Musgrave, who is missing, is the initial suspect. However, Boney believes that he is dead and explicitly leaves his murder to be discovered and punished by his fellows, the Musgrave mob who live to the south, in the desert. The Aborigines around Agar’s are of a different language group and ‘belong’ to the various stations – one of the principal characters says that her Aborigines are as much the property of the station as the cattle.

The AITSIS map (here) shows just how many language groups there are in the East Kimberley, and the book Two Sisters which I reviewed (here) some time ago gives an account of Aborigines, Walmajarri people, moving out of the desert, although a bit to the west of this story, and onto the stations.

I like Boney mysteries, and have listened to so many that I was unable to read this one without hearing the mellifluous Humphrey Bower in my head. However, as I have said before, Upfield is not free of the racism of his time, and that is particularly true of this story where the mainly white principal characters are interacting all the time with Aborigines.

Sam left the seaport of Wyndham on August 16th, his six-wheeler loaded with ten tons of stores for stations south of Agar’s Lagoon. For ten miles the track was almost level as it crossed the flats south of Wyndham, a ship sailing on a sea of grass as yellow and as tall as ripe wheat. Thereafter it proceeded up an ever-narrowing valley between flat-topped ranges sparsely covered with stunted scrub and armoured with red and grey granite. The ranges merged into a maze with walls a thousand feet high, and the surface of the track was of loose stone and slate, level at no place for more than ten feet.

Gotta love a good trucking quote! Later, an old station owner describes how he used a wagon drawn by 52 donkeys to get over the range. Sam discovers Constable Stenhouse who has been shot dead and reports the death in Agar’s, where fortuitously Boney has been held up on his way home from Broome to Queensland. Stenhouse, married to a local girl, had been a notorious wife beater:

‘Wife got knocked round a bit. She was only two hands high, and couldn’t take it. If she’d been my sister, Stenhouse would have been sitting dead in his jeep years ago.’

Though the speaker goes on:

‘Fair’s fair, I reckon. A good belting don’t do any woman any harm, but no woman is expected to take punches from a bloke like Stenhouse.’

In fact Stenhouse’s wife had died of her beatings some years earlier and now her brother, a cattleman, is the principal suspect for the murder of her husband. Boney does a tour of the neighbouring properties; the ‘Musgrave mob’, never seen except for their smoke signals, come looking for Jackie; we meet some interesting people, White and Black; and a conclusion is soon reached.

But to to return to my argument, the best you can say about Upfield’s views, here expressed by Boney, is “patronising”:

‘Those aborigines have many traits similar to dogs … They’re full of knowledge and helpful in their own country, and are nervous and suspicious when away from it. We feed them and clothe them and we bring them to understand enough of our language to communicate. They smoke our tobacco and ride our horses, many of them drive our cars and trucks, and are able to repair windmills and pumps.

‘Nevertheless, they retain their tribal customs and cling to inherited instincts and convictions. They are loyal to white men living for a long time in their own locality, and suspicious of all others… Be patient. A thousand years are as nothing in this timeless land, and when the last aboriginal sinks down to die, despite the veneer imposed on him by our civilization, he will be the same man as were his forebears ten thousand years ago.

After that, should you read it? My answer is a qualified yes.

The mystery is well done, with the right number of red herrings, and Boney is an engaging character. The landscape of the Kimberleys is spectacular and Upfield describes it well, as he does the male-dominated drinking culture. Ernestine Hill provides similar descriptions, a couple of decades earlier, in her travelogue, The Timeless Land, which no doubt Upfield had read, and she actually hitched a lift with (famous station owner) Michael Durack in this area. Northern Australia is still racist, in a mostly off-hand way (ie. murder is now frowned on, though there are still ‘deaths in custody’) so the depiction of White attitudes is not so wide of the mark. The description of Aboriginal activities is probably accurate, and to a large extent, sympathetic, but Upfield’s descriptions of Aboriginal motivations are inherently racist and should be discounted.

 

Arthur Upfield, Cake in the Hat Box, first pub. 1955. My edition (pictured) Pan Books, London, 2nd printing 1966.

The Dry, Jane Harper

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In the summer of 1994 the national Scout jamboree was in Perth and for those scouts unable to make the trip Victorian scouts held a smaller “jamborette” at Green Lake in the Mallee, coincidentally, adjacent to one of the three blocks farmed by my grandfather and after him by my uncle, only four years my senior, Les.

The Mallee is sandy country on a limestone base, flat except for low sandhills lightly bound by eucalypt scrub and wheat stubble. In bad years the cleared soil blows in the wind. During the Depression and again in 1984 the prevailing hot summer northerlies created huge dust storms blanketing Melbourne 400 km away with red Mallee dust.

Green Lake is (was) not natural, just a shallow depression in low eucalypt and acacia bushland, fed by the channel system which brought water up from the Grampians. Gone now I hear, converted to pipes. We had huge family picnics there every summer, all Granddad’s brothers and sisters and all their children, and us four boys, the first of the grandchildren.

On the Friday before the jamborette I drove Gee, an enthusiastic scout, and two of her friends up from Melbourne, to stay overnight at Les’s before going on to the camp. Up the Calder Highway through Bendigo, through Charlton, Culgoa where Grandma’s brother, Uncle George  (Cox) bred champion clydesdales and you could sometimes see huge colts gambolling clumsily by the highway, to Berriwillock. Turn left, past the little weatherboard Anglican church, where mum’s younger sister was married while we boys sat outside in the car being fed sausage rolls by the church ladies, out the Woomelang road, turn right at Uncle Bert’s – ‘Wheatlands’, my great grandmother’s home farm – then left again before the bush block with scrubby native pines and bulokes where we’d get our Christmas trees, past the Austerberry’s. Dirt roads now, hard packed sand, graded smooth, pulling up at Les’s side gate, padlocked, round to the front, up the half mile drive to the old familiar farmhouse surrounded by peppercorns, from Brazil I think, not native but endemic throughout all of Australia’s wheat farming country, and a few sugar gums.

The first time I had made this trip for 30 years, the first (and last) time ever as a driver, but ingrained indelibly in my mind by 15 years of school holiday after school holiday, sitting behind my father, 3 boys across the back seat of the Prefect, the FJ, the EK, our first new car, baby B4 in the front between mum and dad. Granddad and Grandma did their shopping in Sea Lake but went to church in Berriwillock, my uncles played football in the green and gold, and once memorably we went to a gymkhana there where Grandma and all the other ladies chased a greased pig.

Three of Dad’s dozen or so schools were in the Mallee, the first, Sea Lake as I wrote recently, but then Underbool west of Ouyen where B2 was born and from 1961-63, Murrayville, further west again and so we would drive, in hundred degree heat in summer, 68 miles across to Ouyen then 80 miles down the Calder Highway to Sea Lake. Just mallee scrub, paddocks of wheat and oats, paddy melons and tumbleweeds. Identifying and counting cars to pass the endless hours – weren’t all hours endless back then.

Oh, the book review. You really should stop now or jump over to Emma at Book Around the Corner (here). Emma enjoys Harper’s crime fiction and writes a sensible review, which is more than you will get from me.

The setting of The Dry (2016) is a fictitious small sheep farming community, Kiewarra, though not so small it doesn’t have a high school, “five hours from Melbourne”. The number of towns in Victoria that fit this definition is just two, Robinvale and Ouyen in the north-west, the Mallee. Five hours in any other direction takes you into NSW or SA.

Robinvale is on the Murray and has a twin town, Euston across the river. Farming is irrigation dependent – grapes and citrus. Which leaves Ouyen, to the west, semi-desert, mallee scrub country, wheat farming mostly but some sheep. Dry and flat, salt lakes, no rivers. Kiewarra on the other hand has a wide river which normally burbles and rushes along, a lookout hill with a 100m high cliff, and late in the story the bare “fields” which surround Kiewarra become dense bush, tinder dry, threatening to engulf the town with bushfire. Any descriptions are plain vanilla generic – houses, fields, trees, river (and yes “fields” really annoys me).

Even the title is annoying, “the Dry” in Australia is actually winter in the tropics. “The Drought” or “The Long Dry” would have been more accurate given that that is what Harper (or the marketing people who came up with the title) meant, but who am I to argue when sales have been so good.

As a crime fiction novel The Dry is not bad, though in a genre renowned for meticulous technical accuracy her ‘police procedural’ errors are probably unacceptable. But the story is well told and the characters engaging. I especially enjoyed the back and forth between twenty years ago and now, flagged by italic script in the book, but not of course in the reading. It’s the geography that makes me mad. You’d have to think that the closest Jane Harper has been to the Bush is the observation deck of the Rialto with a telescope and the only experience she has of drought and farming is the stories she’s read in the Melbourne Murdoch tabloid, the Herald-Sun.

When the Mallee was divided up for settlement one block was one square mile, 640 acres. These days mechanisation means that an average farm is at least five times that, yet a big farm in Kiewarra is 200 acres. No wonder the farmers are desperate. The basis of the novel is that the ongoing drought has led one farmer to a murder/suicide which his parents ask his Melbourne-based former school mate and Federal policeman to investigate. The school-mate, Falk, around whom Harper is building a series, was blamed for the death 20 years earlier of his friend Ellie who was found at the bottom of the river with stones in her pocket, and he and his father were run out of town.

By the end of the book both Ellie’s death and the deaths of the farming family are explained, with a few unexpected twists along the way, the tension builds nicely, and yes the treatment of Falk by his former townsfolk has a “Deliverance” feel to it. But. The title makes the claim that this is Australian writing in the long tradition of Bush Realism dating from before the Bulletin, Steele Rudd, Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy, back to the mid-1800s and the women we discussed in Gen 1 Week. And it is a spurious claim. Harper has appropriated the tropes of Australian bush fiction to make a setting for her crime fiction and she has done it really, really badly.

 

Jane Harper, The Dry, Macmillan Audiobook, 2016. Read by Steve Shannahan

I knew someone else as well as Emma had reviewed it. Kim at Reading Matters writes: “Quite frankly, The Dry, is an astonishing debut. It’s an exceptional crime novel, one of the best I’ve read in years.”