Category Archives: Crime & Suspense

Murder on the Apricot Coast

Marion Halligan. Murder on the Apricot Coast. Allen and Unwin, 2008. ISBN: 9781741753844.

It seemed appropriate to come full circle at the end of the Centenary year, and finish the journey somewhere near where I began. So I’ve returned to Cassandra and the Colonel, to O’Connor and Tilley’s and the south coast to read Murder on the Apricot Coast.

It was also a blessed relief to return to Marion Halligan’s gentle, thoughtful prose after Rose’s tired complaining in The Tenants. To be entirely truthful, I read Murder on the Apricot Coast before The Tenants, intending as I said for it to be my last Centenary read. But I finished it with too much of the Centenary year to spare and so picked The Tenants to keep me going. Laker’s book was such an unsatisfying conclusion to the year that I went back to Apricot Coast and read it again, little more than a week after finishing it the first time.

You may recall that Cassandra Travers – now Marriott in some contexts – is an editor, and so she muses from time to time on the nature of writing and the experience of reading. At one point she contrasts two books she has been editing – one a joy and one a chore – and has this to say:

I have this theory, about reading books, it’s all to do with rhythm. Sometimes you find yourself in prose that has a rhythm that somehow suits yours and so you are carried along with your reading of it, it chimes beautifully with your own sensibility. It’s like what they call chemistry with a lover. It explains why some people love books that others can’t stand.

This sums up nicely my feeling about Harrigan’s writing that I’ve read this year – not just the two Apricot books, but her contributions to The Invisible Thread and Canberra Red as well. Of course, the differences between Halligan and Laker as authors can be put down to more than just my sympathetic rhythms, but there is certainly a lot of that to do with it.

I’m looking for interpretations of Canberra, and when you are looking for something you are much more likely to find it. And so I also I find in Halligan’s writing a need, like mine, to find and celebrate the reasons for loving life in Canberra:

Sometimes I think people have a gene that makes them love the land they are born in…. I grew up in Canberra and I love the place. That’s not difficult, whatever stupid outsiders say, blaming the city for the decisions of the politicians they elect. I love its high country light, its ancient hills at the end of new streets, it’s clear air.

To the story, though. Murder on the Apricot Coast finds Cassandra married to her Colonel, and sharing their time between her comfortable O’Connor home, the Colonel’s nearby flat, and his beautiful south coast beach house. They are to some extent still settling into their new life together, working out how it all fits. Some parts of Cassandra’s old life remain – visiting Paperchain, book launches at the National Library, possums in the garden, Vietnamese dinner in Dickson. Cassandra and Al’s friends live in apartments in Kingston and “spreading” houses in Forrest and are press gallery journalists and public servants and lawyers. The more stylish ones shop at edgy boutiques in Braddon. Of course they lunch in cafes in Manuka – one “a bit retro, with banquettes and booths and wall lights like pointed shells.” Could it be Caphs? Does Caphs have booths as well as tables? I can’t remember. It definitely has retro, shell-shaped wall lights.

The suburban calm is interrupted by the death, in her Lyneham group house, of a beautiful young woman, a daughter of Cassandra and Al’s friends. Fern’s death reveals some grim secrets about Canberra: women working as prostitutes to get through university, and glimpses of a heinous trade in young girls for the most heinous of purposes. But what is truth and what is fiction? Where does fact end and fantasy begin?

Having read it twice, I’m not sure that the murder mystery of Apricot Coast hangs together entirely satisfactorily. Without wishing to introduce spoilers, some elements of the story – major events and plot lines that seem portentous – turn out to go nowhere and have no real significance. I know this is part of the point of a murder mystery, but I felt the final explanation of the motivations behind many of the tangled events was a bit under-explained and somewhat unconvincing.

Somehow, though, this seems entirely appropriate for a Canberra story. The big stories going on around us often turn out to have no real significance. It is the mundane and the everyday that has real meaning. Cassandra observes a number of times that she believes in the truth of fiction. There’s a truthfulness in Murder on the Apricot Coast, with its gentle treatment of the ordinarily extraordinary Canberra, that appeals very much to me.

At one point Cassandra watches an SBS documentary on a poor Indian family who speak of their life:

So tranquil and rewarding a life. The words seem so wise… Tranquil and rewarding. I thought I could make a kind of charm out of the words, for myself, and say them over in my head as a measure, a test of worth, of what was happening.

What a fine measure of the quality of a life. Tranquil and rewarding. There are certainly many lesser ways to live. One of the constant criticisms of Canberra is that it is dull, and dull can be a synonym for tranquil. But if great cities are the opposite of tranquil, might they also be the opposite of rewarding?

I like Cassandra’s mantra very much. I think I’ll take it as my own measure, my own test of the worth of my adopted home and of the quality of the life that is possible here.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

7%

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Uncategorized, Women Writers

Automaton

Alana Woods. Automaton. Woodsforthe Trees, [c2001]. ISBN: 9780957976702.

We’ve not had a courtroom drama before in our journey through fictional Canberra. I wonder why? Plenty of murders have happened, but up until now it’s the cops and the journalists who have had all the glory. But now we have legal aid lawyer Elizabeth Sharman, in Canberra to escape her recently failed relationship and to defend young Russell Montgomery, who is accused of murdering the owner of the supermarket at Narrabundah shops.

Russell’s case isn’t looking very hopeful, mostly because there are a number of witnesses to the murder, but also because he can’t remember a thing about it, or about himself. An ‘automaton’ case, as his lawyers refer to it.

Perhaps, though, it’s Elizabeth who is the automaton. Apparently alone in the world, apart from her friend Honey the leg model, Elizabeth seems unable to connect with anyone. Or perhaps to connect in the right way with the right people. Her instructing solicitor Robert Murphy is worried about her strange obsession with the defendant. He’s also more than a little miffed about her apparent lack of interest in a relationship with him.

Automaton has more plot twists than a country house whodunit, a strange, abbreviated style of prose, and an inability to correctly use apostrophes. Despite the enthusiastic reader reviews comparing author Alana Woods favourably to John Grisham, I didn’t quite see what the fuss might be about. The plot was enough to keep me turning pages, but as disaster after disaster befell Elizabeth and Russell, not least a Black Mountain car crash that leaves Elizabeth trapped for hours, I realised that I didn’t really care. Perhaps Woods has done too good a job at depicting the driven woman too strong to ask for help.

There are some nice connections with and observations of Canberra. Elizabeth has just arrived in town, and has rented one of the new apartments on Northbourne Avenue, walking distance from her London Circuit office. During her sleepless nights she can wander

the suburban back streets, the long twilight and wide-lawned stretches between hedge and road over which mature oaks spread their shade softening the heat’s effect.

Those rows of apartments, one layer deep along Northbourne, remind me of a Hollywood film set. Cardboard facades that give the illusion of a city when there is really all of that comfortable tree-lined suburbia behind it.

In Automaton there are lawyers lunches in Garema Place and drinks at the Wig and Pen, although the midnight café Elizabeth manages to find in Civic sounded fanciful to me, given the circa 2001 publishing date. Lawyerly investigations take us out to Belconnen to the remand centre, to Woden along the Tuggeranong Parkway tailing suspects, and over Clyde Mountain to Bateman’s Bay and the family beach house of the murdered man.

It was refreshing to read Canberra depicted as a cosmopolitan place. In Wood’s version of the city, Garema Place is bustling day and night, and the ANU bar and the Casino form part of a vibrant night life. Not all of these things are necessarily true. Somehow, though, even when the identity of the city is largely immaterial, Woods feels the need to centre Canberra on the lake.

In the early dawn she dressed and walked down to Lake Burley Griffin… Once there she sat in solitude, idly examining the pale lines of the public buildings on the opposite bank. The old Federation style and the flag-dominated new parliament houses, the blocked art gallery and high court… The occasional jogger, bicycle rider and fellow walker were out… With few people and fewer vehicles to spoil the serenity she thought how calmly beautiful it was. The light had a lucidity that stung the eyes.

Somehow, Canberra’s landscape always manages to assert itself.

Awards:

Winner 2003: Fast Books Prize

Nominated 2004: Davitt Awards

Caphs count:

8%

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Women Writers

Underground

Andrew McGahan. Underground. Allen & Unwin, 2007. ISBN: 9781741753301

You might think that this book doesn’t belong on a list of fiction set in Canberra when you learn that its premise is that Canberra has been nuked off the face of the earth. Still, as our narrator Leo James records his memoirs, addressing himself to his “dear interrogators”, he reflects at times on Canberra, and remembers it as it was before the whole city was evacuated in the face of the nuclear threat from the Great Southern Jihad.

Following the destruction of Canberra, Prime Minister Bernard James, Leo’s twin brother, declared a state of emergency. Years later, it’s still in place. The emergency powers have been used to put in place a range of harsh measures. All Muslims have been corralled into ghettos. South Africa has boycotted us in the cricket because of our inhumane treatment of refugees. A number of joint Australian-US bases help to enforce what is essentially martial law. Some kind of spy communications facility has been built on top of Uluru. Individuals must carry their citizenship papers with them, which must be updated regularly. If, at any of the Citizen Verification Stations – checkpoints – around the country, a person’s citizenship is in doubt, they may be asked to take the citizenship test and recite the oath to prove their loyalty. Anzac Day is now Anzac Week.

This would be a ludicrous story if it wasn’t so close to what we have, or very nearly had back in 2006, when Underground was first published. Remember the citizenship test introduced by John Howard? Pondered lately our escalating war on boat people? Had a moment’s pause at the number of American troops being posted to Darwin? Felt in any way uncomfortable about flag-draped thugs claiming that they determine what is Australian or un-Australian? The genius and terror of Andrew McGahan’s story is that, outlandish conspiracy theory though it is, many of its individual elements aren’t very far removed from where we’ve already been. Apparently Andrew Bolt called McGahan an “unhinged propagandist”, which is to me pretty good evidence that it struck a nerve.

For obvious reasons the Canberra references in the book are limited. Leo is a Queensland property developer, so he has no real love of Canberra:

It was such an inconvenient place. Off in the middle of nowhere. Stinking hot in summer. Freezing in winter. And totally soulless, all year round. Still there were one or two decent restaurants I would miss, and what would happen to the nation’s sex industry, once the mail order warehouses and porn studios of Fyshwick had been vaporised?

The usual ciphers of Canberra as a place are there: parliament house times two, LBG, the Captain Cook Fountain, Mount Ainslie, the Lodge, Anzac Parade and the War Memorial. It is what Canberra symbolises as the seat of government and the physical representation of our democracy that is more important here. The terrorists who planted the bomb in Canberra gave three days’ warning, enough time to get everyone safely out. And, as Leo’s car crawled up the Federal Highway to Sydney with the other evacuees, he watched

an unbroken stream of commandeered trucks passing by in the opposite lanes. They were heading into Canberra, destined for the National Gallery, or for the National Museum, or for various government archives, or for any other such place where the national treasures and records might be in need of rescuing.

…[A]fter forty-eight hours of the most frenzied activity imaginable, Canberra was stripped of virtually everything that mattered.

And that’s it really, isn’t it? The value you place on Canberra depends on the value you place on the things that it contains. Communities, our own personal histories and connections with a place and the people in it. National symbols, a place of debate and democracy, of tolerance and inclusion. Coincidentally, I finished reading Underground on the morning of the federal election. And I worry about how some value the things that Canberra contains.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

9%

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Speculative Fiction

Crooked House

Peter Menadue. Crooked House. Harris Street Publications, 2011.

A few self-published works have turned up in the course of my Canberra journey, and I think Crooked House has been the most enjoyable so far. I’m pretty sure that Peter Menadue doesn’t like Canberra very much, but I can forgive in this case because of the bone dry wit he brings to his story.

Crooked House’s Paul Ryder settles comfortably into the mould of hard drinking, womanising, old-school journalist. He is barely keeping it together, although he’s found a good woman who may just keep him on the straight and narrow this time around. One of his more recent indiscretions has caused him to be sacked from his last job, and now he’s stuck as the Canberra press gallery reporter for the Launceston Herald, babysitting the boss’ son who only has to “keep breathing” longer than his father to succeed in life.

The Herald only keeps a Canberra political reporter on staff for the prestige of it, and keeps burying the big political stories under acres of coverage of lost bushwalkers. So Paul has little pressure and plenty of time to pursue other lines of inquiry when he finds himself caught up in the murders of two women associated with the man who is about to challenge his party’s leader for the prime ministership.

The story’s not that important really, and you can probably guess the major plot points. Ryder’s journalistic nosing around starts to uncover what looks like serious corruption and crime, but powerful people are on his case and soon his life is in danger. He’s got to use his smarts to outwit the vested interests of political hangers-on, the cops who may or may not be in their pay, and the shadowy underworld figures who have jobs to do and their own and others’ interests to protect. In the meantime he has a relationship to try to keep together, a daughter who is growing up in front of him, and a glimmer of career rescue on the horizon.

What stops Crooked House from being just another largely forgettable self published bit of pulp crime fiction is its humour. Mendue is a dab hand at the one-liner, and this wry look at the world and the pacey plot kept me going along fairly happily. Paul’s bureau colleague, the boss’ son is “almost too stupid to roll rocks down a hill”, and can’t be left alone on a story because “he probably wouldn’t notice if the army started shelling Parliament House.” In relaying his problems to his partner, Anne, Paul fears that she had “suddenly realised she’d never really known me at all, because I was a deranged fantasist.” His physical stoush with his nemesis and former boss involves “[rolling] around on the floor, punching the air and collecting carpet lint.” Their verbal confrontations run like this:

His face reddened. “Fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we were professional wordsmiths.

I laughed quite a bit, although, as I said, Mendaue, or at least Paul Ryder, doesn’t like Canberra much:

Canberra is a strange, unnerving city in the middle of nowhere… If a competition was held to find the world’s most boring city it would win hands down, if the judges could be bothered visiting… Canberra has no centre, no ghettos, no ethnic quarters, no red light districts and no industrial zones. It’s just a vast archipelago of suburbs scattered through bushland and linked together by four- and six-lane expressways. In Canberra, it’s easy to drive anywhere, but there’s nowhere worth driving to.

I’ve often wondered at the recurring theme that you can’t have a real city without a ghetto, that somehow finding yourself in a zone filled with poverty and desperation makes living in a city worthwhile. And he’s wrong about the red light districts. They are in the industrial zones. Nevertheless. The Canberra-is-boring attitude also translates into the usual grab bag of references to actual places inaccurately described, or at least poorly understood. This imprecision isn’t important either, and there is nothing wrong with placing a seedy model in Yarralumla and a gym in Barton if that furthers the plot. The repeated references to the “Captain Cook Bridge” were annoying, though, and pointed me towards someone who has a superficial knowledge of the place but hasn’t taken the time to explore further.

Canberra architecture also comes in for Menadue’s deftly humorous criticism:

Most office buildings in Canberra are either outback neo-Stalinist or middle-of-nowhere modernist. Instead of being sympathetic to the landscape, they look like they hated it and wondered what the hell they were doing there.

It’s not all bad. On a “glorious” day Paul sits in the Queen’s Terrace Café at Parliament House, gazing at the lake, the High Court, OPH, the Library and War Memorial, and thinks of how in less pressured times he would have enjoyed the view. He has quite recently, though, been run off the road at Anzac Parade by a couple of thugs with guns, discovered dead bodies in Woden and in Campbell, and had to buy a whole new wardrobe in Manuka to replace his bloodstained suit. Given all of that, he could be forgiven for failing to see Canberra in its best light.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

9%

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense