This novel of murder and military intelligence in wartime Melbourne is inspired by history.
While The Holiday Murders isn’t, sadly, a new William Powell book, Robert Gott has delivered another masterful crime novel steeped in Australia’s past.
It’s Christmas 1943 and the authorities in Melbourne are dealing with the difficulties of a workforce greatly depleted by the number of men serving in the war. That lack of manpower, however, does not affect the seriousness with which Inspector Titus Lambert regards every case that crosses his desk, and none more so than the violent, awful killing of a young man and his father. There’s been a clumsy and half-hearted attempt to set the scene as a murder-suicide perpetrated by the remorseful father, but it takes no time whatsoever for the experienced Lambert to see through that, and for his young offsider, Detective Joe Sable, to grasp the significance of the involvement of Military Intelligence.
Set within the compact time-frame of Christmas Eve 1943 to New Year’s 1944, the story contrasts the reactions to and effects of the war on the wealthy in their leafy inner suburbs and country retreats with those living in working-class suburbs. Along the way there’s a very subtle picture drawn of the differences between the classes.
One of the things that Gott has always done with great authority is deliver characters who are supremely real. With Lambert and Sable and their colleague Constable Helen Lord, Gott offers a cast of characters that will provide something for everyone. He also builds in just enough context and background for each of these individuals: a supportive and actively interested wife for Lambert; a Jewish family (albeit unobservant) and the prevailing attitudes towards refugees, Jews in particular, for Sable; the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated environment, and being regarded as a temporary inconvenience by other police members, for Lord. In a refreshingly concise yet thorough way Gott sets up each of these characters so that readers have sufficient time, and information, to get to know them.
Interestingly enough, in a book with such a strong concentration on character, there is a solid plot – particularly as the author’s notes indicate that parts of this plot are based on reality. Issues of the Publicist, the journal of a group known as Australia First, active around 1936 to 1942, provided the genesis of the ideas that Gott expands in this novel, and knowing that some of the characters’ beliefs and actions are historically based makes the book rather more sobering. In a response to a quote from the magazine:
… What is being done for Jewish refugees? Stupid gentiles are helping them. What is the solution to the Jewish problem? There can be none while a Jew lives …
Sable reacts as follows:
The Publicist cost sixpence. Sixpence. That was all you had to pay to be admitted into the realm of pure evil … The people who wrote this, and the people who read it, weren’t thousands of miles away in Europe. They were here, in Melbourne.
Gott has a light storytelling touch – not that he doesn’t tackle tricky issues, or raise the unexpected or unpalatable, but rather that there’s something beautifully engaging about the way he does it. The punches in this book are not so much pulled as carefully placed; the characters are vivid, and the story, even if you didn’t know the gem of truth at its base, is extremely believable and frankly quite confronting.
Readers and fans of Will Power might still be hoping for more from that series; but now we’re going to want more Titus Lamberts as well.
Robert Gott The Holiday Murders, Scribe Publications, 2013, PB, 320pp, $29.95
Karen Chisholm reads a lot of crime fiction, when she’s not wandering around the farmyard after pet alpacas, pigs, poultry, cats and dogs. http://www.austcrimefiction.org is where she posts book reviews, author and book bios, and whatever else seems like a good idea at 2.30 am.
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