I grew up on a literary diet that had a healthy portion of crime fiction in it and these days if I see one crime novel that sparks my interest then the entire process of hunting down the whole series one by one begins.
This is also one reason why I am so glad that the first book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series never fully grabbed me in the same way – I would still be trying to get through all of them decades later.
And what fascinates me about this series is that it is a woman of colour writing about a white male protagonist in genre fiction in Australia. There are quite a few woc (women of colour) authors yes definitely writing in all sorts of genres, yes but so far Sulari Gentill is the first crime fiction writer I have come across in Australia ( Shamini Flint writing in Malaysia and Singapore and many others elsewhere) but Gentill is the first one I have discovered here and I am hoping to find more. But the discovery of her work in this genre, being shortlisted for and winning various awards, published by major publishers – all of this makes me feel far more optimistic and encouraged about the chances and representation and audiences that woc authors in this country will have in the future.
Gentill writes about Rowland Sinclair, artistically inclined younger son of an upper class Sydney family who much to their chagrin, mixes with bohemians and other artists and isn’t too worried about his reputation in high society or espousing the “right” political views. I understand why setting the stories in the twenties means that Gentill is writing about a white male protagonist suddenly involved in the complicated politicking of the day involving riots, armies both rogue and official, public and secret and all sorts of plans for coups and in the middle of all this a murder he feels he must help solve.
History is Gentill’s secret weapon here. You are immediately immersed in such a wealth of detail that you do indeed feel like you are right there. And yet she doesn’t hit you over the head with it – the reader isn’t lectured on backstories of different political factions nor is there a lot of exposition involved – the story moves along without being bogged down by such details simply because she places such snippets of context setting history at the start of chapters in epigraph form, almost there for the reader to refer to if they wished to, almost like a little mini guide or cliff notes placed in. Others have used this technique before – Sir Terry Pratchett made great use of footnotes to prevent rambling off the path of the story.
And as such any rambling is often just contained to Rowland’s thoughts on a topic and often only used when needed to showcase a character trait or to set up and hint at something upcoming in the plot. It lasts a paragraph and doesn’t detract from the story. And you do feel like you are right there with him.
In the midst of trying to extricate himself from blind dates with his sister in law’s upper class set and keeping his emotions about his love for his sculptress friend Edna to himself, Rowland finds himself courted by his brother to join the right side of politics in an attempt at a coup while embroiled in a murder at a Communist Party rally. Rowland would much rather just paint but instead he must dodge his brother, his sister in law, a variety of political leaders, recall a brother lost in war, bear up stoically as his own mother forgets him & assumes he is her lost son instead, go undercover in the hope of aiding justice at first and then the police and protect his left leaning friends from reprisal. It’s a lot to ask of someone and it is wonder he manages to get through to the end alive at all though definitely not unscathed. Gentill definitely follows the rule of throwing everything including the kitchen sink at her characters and her greatest measure of her skill is that she does so but it does not seem contrived that so much could occur to one person – Rowland is so much more than what society expects him to be or thinks he is and all that does occur is possible during such a tumultuous political time in Australia’s history.
Gentill is writing crime fiction, a genre that other writers may often look down upon and erroneously so in my eyes but what she is also doing is teaching us not to ever sell our characters short whatever genre we write in. She is teaching us how to craft a story, how to think beyond the stereotype, how people are far more complex than we give them credit for. Reading A Few Right Thinking Men teaches us a lot about crafting stories and now I want to know when, much like Kerry Greenwood’s Ms Fisher, she and Rowland will get their own TV series. It has everything any TV producer or writer would want.