One of the reasons I keep putting up my hand to facilitate at the Crime and Justice Festival is that it introduces me to some great books and makes me prioritise reading over watching DVDs — and even writing fiction — for at least one month of the year. This year I’ve set myself the ambitious target of reading seven books in three weeks, and the first cab off the rank was A Few Right Thinking Men, the debut novel by NSW writer Sulari Gentill.
A Few Right Thinking Men is set in Sydney and rural NSW during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, though most the main characters, members of the elite Sinclair family, ‘seemed beyond the reach of the economic crisis’. Youngest brother Rowland Sinclair shares Woodlands House in Woollahra with his muse, the sculptress Edna, poetry quoting Communist Milton, and fellow painter Clyde. Rowland’s brother Wilfred runs the family property outside of Yass, a right thinking man himself who is scandalised by Rowland’s lifestyle, wishing he would “just drink too much like everybody else’s wayward brother”. When an elderly Sinclair uncle dies from a bashing, Rowland sets out to investigate, which sees him dodging right-wing Fascists, Communists and razor-wielding gangsters in his quest for justice.
The action is set during a period of Australian history I knew nothing about, when radical right-wing forces, the unimaginatively named Old Guard and New Guard, amassed secret armies and plotted armed revolt against what they saw as the mounting threat of Communism under Premier Jack Lang. Many of the characters and events exist on the historical record — Captain Francis Edward de Groot and the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for example — and Sulari does a great job of weaving fact and fiction together.
In Q&A notes at the back of the novel (a nice touch), the author says she was attracted to the ‘nuttiness of this time’. Her evocation of the era and witty exchanges among the characters, especially the Woodlands House residents, reminded me of the plays of Oscar Wilde, whom she cites as an influence.
I did think on finishing A Few Right Thinking Men that it was more of a historical political thriller than a crime novel: the Australian Crime Fiction review notes the murder is ‘more on the incidental side’ and there is more violence threatened than enacted.
I think this is due in part to the outlandishness of the plot: the wild plans of the proto-Fascists, their cloak-and-dagger codes and penchant for fancy dress undermine the seriousness of the threat they posed and the criminality of their plans. As Rowland Sinclair reflects of the time, “The whole state’s gone mad… we’re all following crazy people into revolution.”
Of course, on reflection, history is full of reasons to be very afraid when paranoid, morally certain, right thinking men are on rise.
A Few Right Thinking Men is a fascinating, highly entertaining read, which I suspect will attract a wide audience in addition to readers of crime fiction.
I look forward to talking with Sulari about her novel and her plans for the sequel when we meet in Melbourne at the Crime and Justice Festival. Together with Adrian Hyland and Felicity Young, Sulari will be appearing on a panel I’m chairing called The New (Crime) Wave at 12 noon in The Refectory, Abbotsford Convent, 1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford (map here). Book tickets on-line here.
Next stop, Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland…