Tag Archives: Paperchain

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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1 Comment

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

Smoke and Mirrors

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.

Awards

Joint Winner 2009: Ned Kelly Award Best Fiction

ACT Winner 2012: National Year of Reading Our Story collection

Caphs count

75%

2 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense

The Apricot Colonel

Marion Halligan. The Apricot Colonel. Allen & Unwin 2006. ISBN 9781741147667.

Because I love my Kindle, I’m starting with books that Amazon will sell me. I am well aware that this is a short-term arrangement. Marion Halligan is one of the few authors that I’ve so far identified who has (a) set more than one book in Canberra and (b) more than one of those books available for Kindle. On the basis that I expect to return to Marion a few times throughout the year, I thought I’d start with The Apricot Colonel.

What a lovely place to start.

Despite my dinner at Caphs assertions, The Apricot Colonel has no scene at Caphs. It is the exception that proves the rule. It does, though, reference another of the key sites for Canberra literature (as my early reading has uncovered). All cool people in Canberra-set books shop at Paperchain.

Instead of Caphs, Cassandra gets her caffeine fix at Tilley’s. In my alternate life I am young and cosmopolitan and have a job in the arts (like an editor, maybe? Hadn’t really thought of that) and I live walking distance from Tilley’s, where I can be certain that one of my community of young and cosmopolitan friends will be any time I feel like walking in. Cassandra, it turns out, is living my alternate life.

When I got back from the coast I went down to Tilley’s. My local, I think of it. I often wander down there instead of brewing my own coffee. Or opening my own bottle. …it was pleasant enough, sitting on the pavement underneath the umbrellas. You can usually count on finding someone you know.

Perhaps this happens anywhere you’ve lived long enough. I’m not someone who has a vast circle of friends, but I can no longer leave my house without running into someone I know. Small-town syndrome? Tight-knit community? Old age? Cassandra opines that “There are times when Canberra seems like a village.”

The action in The Apricot Colonel takes place in 2003, in the aftermath of the bushfires. The drama of the fires is not part of Cassandra’s story, but its effects are there like a malevolent presence. Smoke lingers over the city, and displaced dogs…

…are finding the sounds to go with it, crying, calling… Refugees, I suppose, come here because where they live was burnt, and what might they have seen, many of their companions perished in the fires.

The other malevolence in the background is the build-up to Howard’s decision to join the US invasion of Iraq, which of course will create other refugees, also here because where they live was burnt.

The 2003 Canberra bushfires were a domestic event made national—even global—by their scale. For a short time at least, the rest of Australia heard the word Canberra as meaning something other than the seat of government. It is the site of people’s homes, and 500 of them had burned. I remember at the time the Hilltop Hoods had released their single Burn Down the Parliament, and felt moved to explain that the timing was coincidental that they had never wished these terrible events on Canberrans. As if by saying ‘Parliament’ you must obviously mean all of Canberra, because what else could there be?

And the national is domestic life when Cassandra attends a march against the invasion, and feels uplifted by the common purpose made manifest around her. In Canberra a moment can have national resonances, although Cassandra is wryly realistic about the extent of that influence:

A split second, my short sharp words, and such mobs of people had heard them and seen me. I imagined the prime minister thinking, by golly, she’s right. Yes.

What I think endears The Apricot Colonel to me is its fondly mundane depiction of Canberra, and I guess its closeness to how I feel. The familiar references to Tilley’s “…at the counter waiting as you do even when the place seems empty”. The passing references to postings (diplomatic, not internet). Depredations of possums on the fruit trees and foxes on the backyard chooks. Editing work on government annual reports. Government is part of Cassandra’s Canberra, but it’s not all of it.

Awards

Winner 2004: ACT Book of the Year Award.

Commended 2004: Fellowship of Australian Writer’s Christina Stead Award for Fiction.

Shortlisted: Best Book-South Pacific and South East Asia section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2004

Caphs count

0%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Women Writers