Meg and Tom Keneally, daughter and father, are on a roll with their crime series set during the early days of Australia’s colonial settlement. The Unmourned is the second of a projected 12-book saga recently optioned by December Media, the production company behind that “other” historical TV crime-drama series, The Dr Blake Mysteries, set in the 1950s.
Given Dr Blake’s forensic investigations were conducted against the backdrop of his domestic arrangements with his astute housekeeper, Jean, there’s a continuity here. Ticket-of-leave gentleman convict, Hugh Monsarrat, also has a canny housekeeper, the small but redoubtable Mrs Mulrooney of the excellent tea. Irish by birth, Mrs M is not above flicking her employer with the end of a kitchen towel when he proves too slow to keep up with her quicksilver thinking. It’s another interesting master-servant relationship, although without the frisson of romance.
We’re also in a very different time frame, one in which female convicts are relegated to the first, second or third class depending on their social status, and housed accordingly in the Paramatta Female Factory: an institution that simultaneously serves as a prison, a marriage bureau for men seeking cheap domestic help, and an employment agency.
The prison-by-any-other-name is also a lucrative business for the abominable superintendent, Robert Church, who has been capitalising on the women’s labour while skimming their rations and raping them. The Unmourned opens with Church being unceremoniously murdered by an unknown assailant who spears him through the eye with an awl. He definitely had it coming.
As the authors inform us later, while the Paramatta Female Factory did indeed exist, and was the template for 11 similar factories that operated around Australia at that time, Robert Church is a fiction, although the “real” superintendents were not always above reproach.
As in the best historical crime series, archival evidence provides the structure for a story that riffs on a history that is also poignantly personal. In a telling coda, we learn that Meg Keneally’s great-great grandmother was one of 5000 women who went through the Paramatta Female Factory, transported from Limerick for stealing clothing.
Having recently relocated from the penal settlement of Port Macquarie to Parramatta, Monsarrat is directed by his new government employer to investigate the murder of Church. Everyone involved appears convinced that a troublesome female convict, Grace O’Leary, is to blame. Just in case she is innocent, Monsarrat is sent to interview the suspect before she is dispatched to the gallows.
In the commission of this task, Monsarrat is once again reliant on Mrs Mulrooney, whom he knows to be a far more astute judge of character than himself, and one much better equipped to talk to all the unfortunate women involved. They make a fine team.
One of the most interesting aspects of this tale is the attention to literacy and language. Monsarrat’s most in-demand skills are his ability to take shorthand and his copper plate penmanship. Even more significant is the fact that the prime suspect, Grace, is the author of many letters that exhibit her command of the official discourse while protesting the treatment of the women.
There is, as Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney discover, much more at stake than murder. Not surprisingly given its origins, this is a series that takes social justice very seriously.
Robert Church is the man whose murder sets off the second adventure of Hugh Monsarrat, newly freed convict and clerk to the governor’s secretary in the still young colony of New South Wales, and the woman who is ostensibly his housekeeper but really his best friend, Hannah Mulrooney. As Superintendent of the Parramatta women’s prison (known as the Female Factory) Church took full advantage of his position’s power by starving, abusing and sexually assaulting the prisoners as well as siphoning off whatever he could to line his own pockets. Literally no one, not even his beleaguered wife, mourns his death and it would be easy for the case to be quickly dealt with if not for the fact that the prime suspect appears, at least to Monsarrat, to potentially be innocent. But everyone else, including his own boss, believes Grace O’Leary, an outspoken leader among the female convicts, guilty of the crime. Monsarrat, ably assisted by Mrs Mulrooney, has only a few days and a limited amount of official tolerance for his shenanigans, to conclude his investigation.
It is always with some trepidation I approach a book I am really hoping to like because, as happened last month, it can be disappointing. But Meg and Tom Keneally did not let me down with this second instalment of their historical crime series set in colonial Australia. Although I enjoyed this novel’s predecessor, last year’s THE SOLDIER’S CURSE, very much I thought this one even better. The story here is more complex and so ultimately a more satisfying tale to unravel. Given the murder victim’s reputation there is no shortage of suspects and even if they aren’t involved in the crime many of them have secrets they’d prefer to keep hidden. Trying to ascertain which of the many secrets provided a motivation for murder keeps our amateur sleuths, and this reader, guessing until the very end.
Even Mrs Mulrooney has something to hide and its revelation provides a turning point in her relationship with Monsarrat, though not in the way the person who reveals the secret anticipates. These two characters and their relationship – something of a surrogate mother/son one I suppose – is another highlight of the novel. Monsarrat is forced to confront his core beliefs as he comes against situations in which his own freedom, something he values very deeply, is threatened if he continues down a certain path. It’s not immediately obvious which choice he will make and it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to avoid a third foray into fairly brutal penal life so there is real tension in seeing this thread unfold over the course of the story. Mrs Mulrooney continues to grow in confidence as she writes her first letters to her son, thanks to Monsarrat’s teaching. Her observations about the difficulties involved in learning to read and write offer an excellent insight into her practical and astute character
“…I would have to say that the letters won’t behave themselves. They keep insisting on doing different things in different words. There is no logic to it, no organisation. If I ran a kitchen the way the English language runs itself, it would be in ruins.”
Despite these problems Mrs Mulrooney in turn becomes a writing teacher as well as a friend to some of the inhabitants of the Female Factory. What we learn of her personal history, including her connection to the events which occurred at Vinegar Hill in 1798 only endears her further to Monsarrat (and readers).
Once again the Keneally duo has wrapped a terrific story around a fascinating and credible depiction of life in Parramatta in 1825. The physical aspects of the setting are vividly brought to life as are the psychological and emotional elements that must surely eventuate in a place where most people are either criminals (or ex-criminals) or their captors. The power imbalances and opportunities for abuse and ill-treatment seem endless and it’s almost a miracle that some people, like Grace O’Leary, retain their humanity in the face of it all.
I can wholeheartedly recommend THE UNMOURNED to fans of historical crime fiction but would even suggest it to those who’ve not tried this sub genre before. The book has humour, a touch of romance, and intelligently explores our social and political history while introducing memorable characters and telling a ripper yarn. What more could you want?
(BCC library has 44 copies + ebook and audiobook )