Kel Robertson. Smoke and Mirrors. Pan Macmillan 2010. ISBN: 9780330426190.
This book was chosen in a popular vote as the book to represent the ACT in the National Year of Reading collection for 2012. The Year of Reading website explains:
we set out to identify a set of eight books, which together describe what it’s like to live in, be from, visit or in some other way connect with the eight different states and territories. We wanted to create a collection of books which, if read together, articulates the Australian experience – remote, regional, suburban and metropolitan.
I did initially wonder how on earth a book of crime fiction that I’d never heard of could possibly fit this bill for the ACT. Having read the book, I now think I understand. That is hard to explain without spoilers.
Detective Brad Chen is on the trail of the murderer of a former Whitlam government minister, rumoured to be, in his forthcoming memoir, about to spill the beans on the CIA’s influence on the 1975 dismissal. The killer is brutal, and also takes the life of the woman editing the memoir.
The intense and violent interest of thugs of various nationalities in locating a copy of the manuscript seems to confirm that there is an international political scandal here worth killing for. At the same time, much more personal disputes are happening at the Uriarra writers’ retreat where the murders took place. And like all good fictional cops, Brad Chen’s personal life is a disaster area. People seem to want to hurt him for a variety of reasons.
So which is the real story and which is just noise? The drama played out on the political stage, or the ones that are forming, dissolving and reforming communities and relationships all around us?
I love that Brad gets out into the burbs a bit. No one in The Marmalade Files travels more than 1 500 metres as the crow flies from the lake, unless they are trying to hide from someone. Brad Chen is all over the place. The Belconnen cop shop, the Coombs building at ANU, Dickson, Ainslie, even a bus ride through my neck of the woods around Weston. There are throw-away truisms about living in Canberra that give the book authenticity for me. Brad assumes that parliament can’t be sitting when he’s able to get a cab within five minutes . On his jaunt around the suburbs of Weston Creek he observes:
Canberra buses are often empty outside peak hours and they take long, meandering journeys on silent streets… It’s impossible to shadow a Canberra bus without blowing your cover.
Brad is pretty cool, which means that he lives in the Kingston/Manuka area. It’s compulsory. If I was doing a Manuka count instead of a Caphs count in this project we’d be at a 100 per cent strike rate, but as Brad shares a bottle of bubbles with a sequential couple of friends in Caphs, we are still at a respectable three from four. Telopea Park and Paperchain, both also in the cool zone, are other relevant measures.
Can I really believe that international intelligence agencies and criminal gangs would stage a violent robbery at on a grey morning outside the Melbourne Building? No. Because these things don’t happen in Canberra. What happens in Canberra is that brothels run model operations so clean that Brad is “astounded they’re not advertising ISO 9000 compliance.”
It is strange that the books I’ve enjoyed the most so far have both been examples of quirky, humorous crime fiction. I don’t have a history of reading in this genre, Phryne Fisher excepted. [And to digress completely, who will join me in lobbying Kerry Greenwood to bring Phryne to Canberra?] Both Smoke and Mirrors and The Apricot Colonel I found funny, endearing and intriguing. I’m not sure it’s necessarily the genre that agrees with me, though. Both books seem to have recognised the balance that is in Canberra—domestic lives lived out while the world rumbles along in the background. Politics is not the only game in town.
Joint Winner 2009: Ned Kelly Award Best Fiction
ACT Winner 2012: National Year of Reading Our Story collection