I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing author Robert Gott about his new novel The Holiday Murders at an intimate literary dinner held at the Meeting Pool Restaurant at Montsalvat, organised by the Eltham Bookshop.
Robert is the author of numerous works of non-fiction, some of them on subjects he knows almost nothing about, which is a testament to his exceptional research skills. He is creator of the Adventures of Naked Man cartoon, familiar to readers of The Age on Fridays. He is author of the William Power trilogy of crime caper novels set in 1940s Australia, Good Murder, A Thing of Blood and Amongst the Dead. His new book, The Holiday Murders, is set of Christmas 1943 and the 1944 New Year in Melbourne and surrounds.
Our conversation at Montsalvat ranged across the diverse facets of Robert’s artistic life. He admitted a genuine affection for William Power, the failed actor turned even worse sleuth, anti-hero of his first three crime novels described by Shane Maloney as ‘Australia’s first dickhead detective’. I admitted that I recommend the Will Power books to people undergoing chemotherapy because they are such a fun distraction.
But the books didn’t sell well — apparently blackly comic historical crime is too much of a genre stretch for most people — and when Robert approached his publisher with a fourth Will Power novel, he was advised to get serious.
Robert subsequently stripped the plot back to its bare bones, retaining only the villain in what was to become The Holiday Murders. He found a new cast when he discovered that the Homicide Division of the Victoria Police was established in 1943. In a division struggling on a war footing, Robert introduced the experienced Police Inspector Titus Lambert and Sergeant Joe Sable, exempt from military service due to a heart murmur and struggling to come to terms with his Jewish heritage. Into the mix he added Constable Helen Lord to explore the issues for women police at a time when they wore civilian clothes to work because it was assumed that none would ever rise above the rank of constable and therefore needed no uniform on which to sew stripes.
One of the many interesting aspects of The Holiday Murders is its depiction of policing. There is a strong sense in the book of the vague dissatisfaction experienced by police when they solve crimes not so much because the police are smart, but because the criminals are stupid. As Robert said, in The Holiday Murders the police are not triumphant in their success, but regretful that taking as long as they did to solve the crime meant more suffering.
Robert uses real quotes from the right-wing publication The Publicist and articles from The Argus in The Holiday Murders, making his research gruelling at times. On the upside, he also got to explore the relationship between German fascism and the nakenkutltur naturist movement, which he deploys to comic effect as a subplot in The Holiday Murders — and which provides the ideal segue for talking about The Adventures of Naked Man.
Robert’s weekly cartoon, based on the girls’/boys’ own annuals of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, started out as a summer prank in 1998. Fifteen years later, Robert suspects it may be ‘the world’s longest running dick joke.’
Robert is currently working on a sequel to The Holiday Murders, as well as a novel set in Broome in 1910 as part of his PhD. Broome’s history has been romanticised, Robert said, but back in 1910 it was Hell on earth. His exegesis will explore the role of historical fiction in informing the way people understand history.
My thanks to Scribe Publications and the Eltham Bookshop for allowing me to be part of a wonderful evening, the barest (no pun intended) essence of which I’ve tried to capture in this post. Special thanks to Suzanne Phoenix for the gorgeous photos.