This is a cooperative work between Tom Keneally and his daughter. It may be difficult (if you want) to separate their contributions but the blend is certainly enjoyable. Readers know of Tom’s skills and they are brought into focus on a story that incorporates the Irish contribution to Early Australian colonial life in characterisation and speech patterns especially. Both are skilled at background research with Tom having had long and deep access to our colonial sources which have increased markedly in recent times.
They are evidently hoping for a franchise as this book is marked as the first of a series of possibly 12 colonial investigator series (‘detective’ would be a premature usage). The title indicates that the key character introduced (Montsarrat – he is half French) will be the linkage as he moved on to tackle further mysteries. The only other member of this genre I can think of is ‘Death and The Running Patterer’ in the Curious Murder Mystery series by Robin Adair which was noted earlier in this blog. I can only hope there will be more entries.
I confess to a personal interest in this book which must be shared by many. I have spent time over many years to excavate my family history in colonial Australia and have uncovered convict, marine, military and civilian sources in locations that the Keneallys utilise. I can only praise the efforts of anyone who effectively presents and popularises an understand of early European colonisation and especially understanding interactions with the original inhabitants.
The story is relatively simple with a murder by poison revealed in the early days of the Port Macquarie secondary punishment station. The physical setting is well sketched out with accurate references to historical places and buildings while some of the original personnel and events provide starting points for this fictional construct. There is not a great deal of narrative tension as it is pretty obvious what has happened and (relative early) ‘who dunit’. A lot of the pleasure come from the language and the development of characterisation especially that of Montserrat. If he is to be a continuing focus in future mysteries, he is well and understandingly well-developed here. The reader acquires an insight into his past and present motivations including his (literally) darker side. While this is no Agatha Christie with a teasingly knotty plot, the foundations have been laid and perhaps future attention to such matters will produce some very worthwhile reading.
It is always a little too easy to cheaply sensationalise brutality in a world such as that represented here but the authors navigated this potential minefield introducing complexity of context and characterisation that made dealing with this necessary reality effective without being maudlin or cheapening.
‘Everyone watching, including Slattery, had expected Diamond to make his point and then hand back the flail. But he didn’t. He seemed to become lost in the dance, seeing nothing except the flail, caring about nothing except its trajectory and velocity. He did not stop. He did not seem to tire from the effort. He became an extension of the flail, merely its power source, a river to its mill.’
I admit to my prejudices for favouring this latest output from the Keneally stable and recommend it to most.