When I tweeted recently that I was on the train to Melbourne from Ballan reading an advance copy of Sulari Gentill‘s new novel Miles Off Course, an Aussie crime fiction blogger promptly tweeted back ‘I am jealous enough to meet your train and mug you for your copy of that book’.
Such is the devotion Gentill inspires in fans of the Rowland Sinclair series set in the late-1920s and early 1930s in NSW and beyond.
Miles Off Course is the third book in the series and opens at the luxury Hydro Majestic hotel spa at Medlow Bath, where Rowland and friends are ensconced, his only burden a temperamental artist’s model. Rowland’s love interest and muse, Edna Higgins, is receiving treatment at the spa after recovering from an attempted poisoning at the end of the previous book, A Decline in Prophets, until she is ‘jolly sick of baths’.
When Rowland is despatched by his disapproving but loyal older brother Wilfred to the High Country in search of their missing foreman, a Wiradjuri man called Harry Simpson, his friends naturally tag along. Their journey takes them through Gundagai ‘to see the already celebrated monument which had been unveiled by Prime Minister Lyons a few months before’, to Tumut, Batlow and the Yarrangobilly Caves. The Tumut valley is the author’s own stomping ground and you get a sense of the glee with which she sets her characters loose in this landscape.
For me the book really takes off when Roland and his Bohemian entourage arrive at the Rope’s End camp in pursuit of Harry Simpson and without giving too much away, all hell breaks loose. Just when I was getting tired of Roland’s stiff upper lip, Gentill provides a glimpse of the passion that lurks beneath the paint-stained waistcoats and tailored suits.
Speaking of clothing, I had a laugh out loud moment when Roland after a near-death experience is reunited with his brother Wilfred, whose first reaction is, ‘Good Lord, man, where’s your tie?’
Miles Off Course was typical of Gentill’s entertaining and engaging novels in the Rowland Sinclair series until it neared the end, when it took what was for me a really interesting and poignant turn as a character whom I won’t name tries to convert Rowland to communism.
I read Rowland’s response — ‘I grew up’ — as ironic. Whatever the case, Gentill lets the reader glimpse the less likeable side of Rowland Sinclair’s character, the indifference and indolence that come with never having to work for a living. She also does a great job of communicating big ideas without ever coming across as didactic.
As in the previous novels in this series, Gentill’s fictional characters get to cross paths with historical figures. Look out for a hilarious cameo by infamous ‘Razorhurst’ brothel madame Kate Leigh.
The unspecified circumstances of Harry Simpson’s life and the hints of Rowland’s past as an angry young man hang tantalisingly in the air at the end of the book. I’m dead curious to see what happens to Rowland Sinclair in Paving the New Road, the next book in the series. Gentill plans to send him to Germany in 1933 to defend Australian democracy from the onslaught of Fascism. Will Rowland Sinclair be forced to take a stand? Will he really grow up?
Miles Off Course is available from 30 January 2012.
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