Review: The Holiday Murders

HOLIDAY_MURDERS_300dpi_titlecoverThe Holiday Murders by Robert Gott explores the fragile territory between prejudice and murderous hatred in a riveting crime novel that is both intelligent and terrifying.

Shedding light on a nasty period in Australian history when right-wing elements — motivated by politics or pathology — attempted to cultivate a home-grown version of National Socialism, The Holiday Murders also provides fascinating insight into policing in Victoria at a time when the Homicide division was in its infancy.

The action takes place between Christmas Eve 1943 and the 1944 New Year. Melbourne is on a war footing. Police Inspector Titus Lambert and Sergeant Joe Sable of the new Homicide Division are called to a wealthy home in East Melbourne to find two corpses, those of a father and son, the latter nailed to the floor in a ghastly imitation of a crucifixion.

A search of the home unearths copies of a right-wing, anti-Semitic periodical called The Publicist and a stash of German nudist magazines. When one of the deceased turns out to have links to Military Intelligence, the police are forced to cooperate with the army in an investigation that will place some of them in mortal danger and leave others broken, perhaps irrevocably.

The reader is aware of who is responsible for what becomes an increasing number of violent crimes long before the police catch on. It is a measure of Gott’s skill that this only increases rather than diminishes the novel’s tension.

Gott has assembled an appealing ensemble cast in what is billed as the first novel in a new series. There is the happily married albeit world weary Inspector Titus Lambert, who relies as much on his wife Maude as he does on his colleagues in the pursuit of his cases. His sidekick Sergeant Joe Sable is likeable though conflicted, self-conscious about both his Jewish heritage and the heart murmur that exempts him from national service. They are joined in the course of the investigation by Constable Helen Lord, whose excitement at being deployed to Homicide is tempered by the fear her male colleagues are playing her for a fool.

The evocation of mid-1940s Melbourne hits all the right notes, the period detail subtle and engaging, never jarring.

Apart from the historical setting and the odd Shakespearean reference, The Holiday Murders has little in common with Gott’s three previous historical crime novels, Good Murder, A Thing of Blood and Amongst the Dead, featuring thespian-cum-sleuth William Power. Where the William Power novels were unashamedly comical, The Holiday Murders is dark, brutal, almost tragic in its scope.

The novel’s rare moments of levity play on the preoccupation among some fascists with the nakenkultur German nudist movement of the 1930s, and the reluctance of Australian intelligence officers to infiltrate such groups. For Gott, creator of that paean to inappropriate nudity Adventures of Naked Man cartoon, this subplot must have been irresistible.

The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott (2013) is published by Scribe.

I’m delighted to be interviewing Robert Gott about The Holiday Murders and his body of work at a literary dinner on Thurs 7 March 2013, 6.30-8.30 pm at the Meeting Pool Restaurant, Montsalvat. Download The Holiday Murders event flyer, join the Facebook event here or phone (03) 9439 8700, email elthambookshop@bigpond.com for details.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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9 Responses to Review: The Holiday Murders

  1. Angela – Oh, this does sound compelling. I think it’s sometimes difficult to take a look at an unpleasant part of history and do so in an honest way. The temptation I think is sometimes to oversimplify the situations, social forces and so on, but as this seems to make clear, it’s rarely that simple. And I do like the fact that this novel doesn’t play on melodrama. Thanks for the fine review.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks Margot. I don’t know about the USA, but I find many Australian crime novels portray us in terms of how we’d like to think we are, rather than how we really are. The Holiday Murders bucks the trend. The truth is sometimes ugly — but what’s that line about those who fail to learn from history being doomed to repeat it?

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      • Oh, Angela, I’ve always loved that statement! A lot of people think it was originally George Santayana, but I’ve recently found out it was Sir John Buchan who originally said, ‘Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it,’ And in the case of some ugly history I think it’s even more important. It’s not just Australian novels either that do that. Plenty of U.S. novels are not as unflinchingly honest as they could be. I suppose we’d all love to think our history is ‘cleaner’ than it really is…

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  2. kathy d. says:

    Here, here to a book which portrays history accurately. This sounds fascinating, but, I wonder if it will even be over here thousands of miles from its publisher.
    And, so true that many U.S.-written and -published books don’t look at past events honestly.
    Would that were true it would be quite educational as well as interesting.
    It makes me appreciate Sara Paretsky, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and all other muckrakers and truth-tellers. Yes, I occasionally read non-crime fiction and love the aforementioned prize-winning authors.

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  3. Finally got around to reading this one. Fantastic book…you’re so right about it depicting “us” how we are rather than how we would like to be. Every note just perfect though and I do hope we get to meet these characters again.

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  4. kathy d. says:

    I am now avidly in the midst of this book, and cannot put it down. It has horrific aspects to the real history and the fictional brutal murders, but it is fascinating.
    Very well written, compelling, a good mystery and police team. It’s changing my view of historical crime fiction: It can be interesting and informative.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Great to hear that feedback on The Holiday Murders, Kathy. Robert Gott is a wonderful writer and historian. And like you, I enjoy historical crime fiction that is gritty rather than cosy for a change of pace.

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  5. Pingback: My year of reading 2013 | Angela Savage

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