A tale of two Sydneys: P M Newton and Katherine Howell

But first!  A digression!

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Hashtag: AWW2013 The Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge is an attempt to support the work of Australia’s female authors, and to redress the gender imbalance in reviewing.

I originally wasn’t going to do it, because I figured I was flat-out just reading an acceptable number of Australian authors of any gender in 2013.  Last year, 19 out of 140 books were written by Australians, a piddling 13.57%.  Shameful.

But my good friend Mel at Subversive Reader has been pursuing the challenge with great dedication, so I got curious and started reading the hash tag.  And then I started reading the reviews.  And then I thought, what the hell, this project has given me lots of ideas for what to read next — I might as well throw my hat in the ring.

(Yes, and if Mel jumped off a cliff often enough, I might start thinking there was something in that, too.)

Time constraints mean that I don’t review many individual books any more, but I’m going to make more of an effort.  Therefore, I present two Sydney-based crime novels by Australian women!

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Okay, I’m cheating here.  I read The Old School in November 2012, while I was travelling in America.  I had grabbed a paperback to read while planes were taking off and landing, figuring that if I didn’t like it, I could leave it behind for some passenger or flight attendant who might enjoy it more.

Not only did I like The Old School, but it’s still on my mind three months later.  It had a vivid sense of time and place, and a really fantastic heroine in Detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly.

Time and place: Sydney, 1992.  Bill Clinton is in the White House.  The High Court has just overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius with the Mabo ruling, establishing precedent for Aborigianal land rights.

The heroine: Ned is the daughter of an Irish-Australian and a Vietnamese woman he met while serving in the war.  Her parents were murdered when she was young, and she and her sister were raised by their eccentric paternal aunt, who doesn’t make a secret of the fact she wishes her nieces were just a little more, you know, white.  As an adult, Ned is career-minded, ambitious and somewhat resentful of senior officers’ expectation that she be their token minority (a role that falls by the wayside when she reveals she speaks no Vietnamese).  (So good was the portrayal of the pressures and micro-aggressions Ned faces that I was really shocked to learn that the author is in fact white.)

This is the status quo when the bodies of two women are discovered in the foundation of a building that Ned’s father constructed in the late ’70s.  One was an Aboriginal activist whose inability to swallow bullshit and play nice with the patriarchy earned her a lot of enemies.  The other was a Vietnamese refugee who may have had links with the Viet Cong.

Probably the weakest link in the novel is that Ned wasn’t transferred to other duties right away, but it does make sense that she would want to prove herself, and that her mentor would give her the chance.

Despite that, it’s a fantastic, intricate mystery that covers espionage and war crimes in Vietnam, police abuse of Aborigines in Sydney, and the way past sins can still damage families.  And the culture, the awkward fumbling steps towards inclusivity that in my family we called political correctness, is portrayed vividly.  Late in the book, events take place with Paul Keating’s famous Redfern speech as the backdrop, assimilating all the themes beautifully.  I was really excited to learn that there’s going to be a second book about Ned.

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It was Mel who put me onto Howell with her review of the third novel in the series, Cold Justice.  I used to be able to read series out of order, but somehow I just can’t do it any more … but luckily (from every perspective except that of my bank account) Amazon has the first book in the series in Kindle format for $5.32.  And having finished it, I’m now sternly telling myself that buying book 2 for $12.88 is stupid, when I can get the next two books from the library.  I just have to brave the heat … and the wrath of Terry Deary.  Yeah, that’ll keep me up at night.  (Here, have a rebuttal as a palate cleanser.)

Anyway, I totally am going to brave the heat as soon as I’ve finished my lunch, so obviously I enjoyed Frantic.  Like The Old School, it’s a police procedural set in Sydney with predominantly female protagonists.  After that, they diverge.

For one thing, Frantic occupies a Sydney which is much whiter and more middle class than The Old School.  The detective, Ella Marconi, is presumably of Italian descent, but everyone else appears to be of Anglo-Saxon background.  It’s almost jarring, especially as Frantic was written and set in 2007. 

Additionally, it has two heroines.  The narrative is divided between Ella Marconi, a police detective whose inability to play politics stands between her and promotion, and Sophie Phillips, a paramedic.  Sophie is a competent, clever person, unable to understand why her husband, a police officer, has become uncommunicative, even hostile.  In the space of a few days, a series of bank robberies are linked to the police,  husband is shot and her ten-month-old son is kidnapped.

Splitting the narrative gives us Sophie’s highly emotional, increasingly irrational response, and also Ella’s more distant perspective.  I came out feeling like I didn’t know Ella as well as I knew Sophie, but I understand the series features a different set of paramedics in each book, but Ella is a constant.  I’m hoping this means that Ella’s character will unfold over time.

I like the conceit of involving paramedics in the story, because it meant even the routine moments of Sophie’s life and job were fraught with tension.  Howell is a former paramedic herself, and while I can’t judge as to accuracy, it certainly felt realistic.  (At the same time, I think Howell was right to avoid anything was clichéd as a crime-fighting ambo.)  We got to see crime scenes from several perspectives, while the two women’s different and sometimes conflicting agendas meant we got to have fun with unreliable narrators.

I have to confess that, even though it was a fantastic, pacy read, Frantic is not as layered or thoughtful as The Old School.  But if you enjoy a solid procedural, and I do, it’s an entertaining way to spend a few train journeys.

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

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