In this past week I have swallowed whole Australian author Gentill’s delightful mysteries. Seriously I have read one book a day! I could not put these things because they are so funny and easy reads with charming main characters.
The hero of these books are Rowland Sinclair, an extremely wealthy artist living in Sidney in the early 1930s. He is at his beginning of his career as a portrait artist, but the question of whether or not he will make it is not really a question that worries Rowly; his family has more money than he could ever spend in a lifetime it seems. Rowland has opened his mansion to artist friends from humbler beginnings and all live together in a sort of artist’s commune. The friends include Milton, a poet who does not write poetry but has a love for everything inappropriate, Edna, a clever and ambitious sculptress with a heart of gold and finally Clyde, a mechanic/working class landscape painter with a Catholic conscience that often makes him the voice of reason in the group.
Rowly is living a care free life with his four friends when one day his uncle and namesake Rowland is found murdered. Of course, Rowly becomes determined to find the murders and bring them to justice. Turns out that potentially the murderer is connected to the growing Australian fascist movement. In the course of the next books Rowland encounters a lot of dead bodies and somehow each murder is somehow connected to the growing conflict between fascists and communists in the 1930s whether that the murderer being motivated by the conflict or ending up in a dangerous and fatal situation because of the growing feeling of war.
What made me go from one book to another was really the emotional journey of Rowly. I have never been a crime fan, and the who-done-it question is not that intriguing to me. How each murder changes Rowly and his dynamic with his friends and family appeals more to me. Rowland is the black sheep of his family. The Sinclairs have been part of the gentile, landed, and wealthy upper class of Australia for generations. The men are educated in England, they marry into the other established families and they participate in the government of Australia as a matter of course. But Rowly has extremely little interest in conservative politics or politics at all, he is bored at garden parties and suitable well-raised young girls. He would much rather spend the day talking poetry with Clyde, paint Edna nude and fix cars with Clyde than settle down to business, politics and marriage to someone appropriate. As the books progress, Rowly remains separate from the conventional life of the upper classes, but his political awareness increases. Clyde and Milton are members of the Australian communist party and although Rowly never becomes convinced of the tenants of socialism, he develops into an anti-fascist and one of the first to understand the danger that fascism and Hitler poses to the world.
One of the more touching parts of the books are the scenes with Rowland and his much older brother Wilfred. Wilfred is the opposite of Rowland in many ways. He is a settled family man who is happy to fulfill the roles society has assigned to him. There was a third brother once, Aubrey, who was killed in WW1, and without this middle brother, the generational gap between Wilfred and Rowly becomes quite apparent: Wilfred came of age in the Edwardian age and fought in a world war, whilst Rowland became an adult in the roaring twenties and has always led a life of material comfort. As the head of the family, Wilfred is chronically annoyed by Rowly’s lifestyle: his choice of inappropriate friends, his inappropriate ar, his inappropriate politics, his inappropriate taste in women and his inappropriate car (it is a German brand). Wilfred probably has a point when he calls his little brother spoiled and reckless; Rowland does take their wealth for granted and he does seem to be in the wrong place absolutely every time. Each book contains part in which Wilfred enters angered by his younger brother’s latest escapade, but each book also shows Wilferd’s protectiveness of Rowly, his determination to keep his remaining brother safe and his genuine worry that Rowly’s propensity to get into trouble will one day kill him. Their relationship is a difficult one and their main mean of communication is an argument, but there is so much unspoken love between the brothers that you just have to cheer for them.
Another thread throughout the books is the will-they-won’t-they romance between Rowland and Edna Higgins. Rowly remains in love with Edna in all eight books, but has been as firmly friend zoned as can be. Edna is primary responsible for this state of affairs. She is a woman with clear ambitions for her career and has an admirable determination to not let the restrictions put on women prevent her from having a life of adventure and art. An affair with Rowland would destroy their friendship as she, correctly I believe, has noted that although Rowland leads a very unconventional life for a man of his class, he continues to value a number of the conventions of an upper class lifestyle (such as a devoted wife). Life with Rowland would, she believes, inevitably to her having to compromise her career and consequent resentment towards Rowland. And so, over in each and every book, the readers are presented with evidence of their love for each other, but also the reasons for why they do not act on or speak of their feelings. However, although I greatly enjoy Rowly and Edna’s almost romance, I sincerely hope they get together soon; how Gentill could sustain the tension between them without it becoming tiresome is difficult to imagine.
Gentill clearly has done her research on Australian politics of the 1930s and peppers her murder mysteries with historical figures either as cameos or as important characters. For instance, Edna dates Errol Flynn for a couple of weeks and the leader of the Australian fascist movement, Eric Campbell, figures as Rowland’s nemesis in several of the books. In a way, this reminded me of George MacDonald Fraser’s use of historical characters in his Flashman series: the characters are naturally woven into the story and extensive research is displayed.
A ninth book in the series has been published, but I have unable to get my hands on a copy. More installations in the series is planned since Gentill apparently intends to follow Rowland and his friends and family through the 30s and WW2. I am looking forwards to spending more time with Rowland, for he is one of the more charming detectives I have come across in historical crime literature.