Sulari Gentill has produced another winning novel with Gentlemen Formerly Dressed, the latest instalment in the Rowland Sinclair series of historical crime fiction series set in the 1930s. With its witty, erudite plot and engaging cast of characters, Gentlemen Formerly Dressed is a great pleasure to read, shedding new light for this reader on 1930s Europe and the Great Depression, not to mention the superiority of the Full Windsor Knot and the correct use of cutlery.
The story starts days after we last left Rowland and his Bohemian companions — sculptress Edna Higgins, fellow painter Clyde Watson Jones and Elias Isaacs aka ‘Milton’ — running for their lives from Nazi blackshirts in Germany. Their desire to put as much distance between them and their fascist attackers appears well founded when the French doctor who has set Rowly’s broken arm and treated the swastika of burns on his chest leads German officials to their Paris hotel.
The group flees to London where Rowland is surprised to cross paths with his older brother Wilfred, who disapproves of and cares for Rowly in equal measure. Wilfred has decamped to the British capital with his family in order to attend the London Economic Conference. Though keen to see Rowland and his entourage shipped safely back to Australia as soon as possible, Wilfred agrees to make some introductions so Rowland can first try to spread word about what he has witnessed in Germany.
But Rowland’s plans to meet with Wilfred’s contact the Viscount of Pierrepont at a gentlemen’s club go horribly awry when the Sinclair brothers stumble on a bizarre murder scene involving a man in a frilled, blood-soaked nightdress, a ceremonial sword and a hysterical young woman. When the young woman is later arrested for the murder, Rowland and his friends, convinced of her innocence, take it upon themselves to investigate further, plunging them — as the back cover blurb punningly puts it — ‘into a queer world of British aristocracy, Fascist Blackshirts, illicit love, scandal and spies.’
Gentlemen Formerly Dressed has all the elements that makes the books in this series such a pleasure to read. The period detail is thorough but never jarring. Rowland and his entourage rub shoulders with famous historical figures, from HG Wells and Stanley Bruce (Australia’s High Commissioner in Britain) to Prince George and Winston Churchill. Milton continues to taunt fascists and quote famous poets without acknowledgment. And one brief shining moment notwithstanding, the unresolved sexual tension between Rowland and Edna continues apace.
But Gentill keeps her stories fresh by shedding new light on 1930s history, firmly but gently steering her characters towards the dark times ahead. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed is bound to please Gentill’s existing fans and no doubt win her (more) new ones.
The novel has some wonderful set pieces, affording several laugh out loud moments. Among my favourites is a party scene, which contrasts Clyde’s working class background with Rowland’s privileged upbringing to great effect.
“Clyde, old boy, are you all right?” Roland whispered… “You look a trifle unwell.”
“Of course I do.” Clyde shook his head. “Why don’t you?”
“I was at Oxford,” Rowland replied, shrugging. “Englishmen, you know. I’m sorry, mate. I should have realised this was not an ordinary dance.”
“Rowly,” Clyde said, convinced his friend was taking the situation far too lightly, “We are surrounded…surrounded by men in evening gowns and make-up. We have to get the hell out of of here!”
Rowland grinned… “Don’t panic, mate…just don’t ask anyone to dance.”
I can’t say much about my other favourite scene for fear of spoilers, except to say it involves Rowland Sinclair, a Salvation Army Corps Cadet and a rousing chorus of ‘Even Greater Things’.
Gentlemen Formerly Dressed by Sulari Gentill, published by Pantera Press, is released November 2013.