Thursday, May 29, 2003

Reading Shane Maloney

I’ve been ploughing through Australian detective novels of late. Mostly Shane Maloney’s Murray Wheelan series, of which I’ve finished “Stiff”, “The Brush Off” and “The Big Ask” (just “Nice Try” and “Fishy Business” to go).

(I do feel guilty about how little “high” Australian fiction I’ve read. Of the recent 40 “best loved” Australian novels as voted by Australian writers, I’ve only read seven. But that’s mainly because they seem to have included every Peter Carey novel I haven’t read and only one of those I have.)

Anyaway, as with my Ian Rankin review recently, Maloney’s “detective” is grounded in a sense of place – each novel is set in a specific year of the last two decades in Melbourne. Murray Wheelan is also not a detective, he’s a Labor Party ministerial advisor. The plots tend to turn on the internal mysteries of the Labor party, ethnic political factionalism in North Melbourne or the union movement. Wheelan tries to keep scandals out of the headlines, but invariably stumbles across a murder and gets in over his head. His tendency to run on gut reactions without reflection invariably makes things worse before there’s any hope of them getting better.

It’s interesting to absorb a lot of a popular author in a short period. Maloney’s ability to maintain pace, the complexity of his (often creaking but at least funny) plots, his use of flashback, and the quality of his prose all notably improve over the series.

What I most like about it though is his strong evocation of place and the distinctive voice of the narrator. It’s fun reading a novel set where you are living. When Wheelan talks about walking through the botanic gardens, the arts centre, Fitzroy, or cafes on Brunswick Street, I know what he’s talking about. When he talks about Melbourne weather “always being on the verge of imminence” I nod enthusiastically.

He also has a wonderful larrikin streak and an ability to take the piss out of himself, his situation and his Party. On a Labor politician’s adulterous, leather-clad indiscretions:

“Fooling around might be forgivable. Kinky is a matter of taste. But doing it with a member of the Liberal Party is beyond the pale.”

Well, I thought it was funny.

Wheelan is also endearing because he’s often so hapless. He never seems to learn that when you shove the world, it may shove back in the way you least expect it.

Am now reading one of Kerrie Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels, set in 1920s Melbourne. She’s terribly witty.

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