Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical novels give readers the chance to find out what life was like in a particular era; that’s part of their appeal. When the era is presented authentically, readers can be drawn in not just by the plot and characters, but also by what they learn about the time period featured in a book. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at the work of Sulari Gentill. Today let’s turn the spotlight on A Few Right Thinking Men, the first in her Rowland Sinclair series.
It’s 1932 in New South Wales, and the worldwide Great Depression has hit hard. The wealthy and powerful Sinclair family and others in their circle have been spared though. Artist Rowland Sinclair and his brother Wilfred, head of the Sinclair family and business interests, are aware of the Depression but they are also protected from it.
They are not protected from tragedy though. One night, the Sinclairs’ uncle, also named Rowley, is murdered. Inspector Biquit and his team begin to investigate and naturally, they’re interested in the whereabouts of the victim’s family members at the time of the murder. Rowland and Wilfred are cleared soon enough but the police begin to suspect that the victim’s housekeeper Mrs. Donelly might know more than she’s saying. Rowland doesn’t believe that Mrs. Donelly had anything to do with the murder, but some of the things that she says make him suspect that his uncle was killed by members of the New Guard. This group is an ultra-Right faction led by Colonel Eric Campbell. Its purpose is to stamp out Communism and left-wing sympathy, and install a new government in Australia, to be run by ‘right thinking men’ who will maintain traditional ways of life and the current class order.
Rowland decides that the best way to find out if the New Guard had anything to do with the murder is to infiltrate it. So he does just that, using the name of a friend and the guise of wanting to paint Campbell’s portrait (his own name is too well-known). It’s a dangerous proposition though. If the members of the New Guard sense a spy in their midst, Rowland’s at serious risk. What’s more, Rowland has several friends and acquaintances on the political Left. If any of them find out that he has joined the New Guard, they’ll see it as a betrayal, and they won’t hesitate to deal with him as with a traitor.
As Rowland begins to be accepted in the New Guard, he learns that they are an extremely dangerous group, and that they’ve hatched a plot against the current New South Wales government. With the radical Left preparing for a coming battle too, Rowland tries to do what he can with the information he has so as to prevent mass violence. He’s also determined to find out who exactly killed his uncle and why. In the end, and with help from his friends (about which more shortly) and his brother, Rowland finds out the truth.
One of the most important elements in this novel is its depiction of the deep divides among the social classes. The Sinclairs and their circle are among Australia’s elite. And while Rowland himself has friends in different social classes, he is accustomed to having everything he wants. Some other members of this circle are even more protective of their status and their class, to the point of violence. For the average Australian worker, times are difficult, even desperate. It’s not hard to see why some of these people despise the wealthier classes and are willing to take up arms against them. There is a strong undercurrent of mistrust, fear and dislike among the groups that runs through this novel. It’s worth noting too that Gentill doesn’t present either side as ‘all bad’ or ‘all good.’
Despite the underlying sense of threat, it’s not a bleak novel. In part it’s lightened by the way it all works out. Without spoiling the novel, I can say that New South Wales doesn’t descend into a blood-soaked war, and that the murderer is found out. At the same time, the ending is realistic.
The novel is also lightened by a bit of wit that runs through it. Wilfred takes his role as head of the powerful Sinclair family very seriously. He sees his younger brother as impulsive, irresponsible and far too prone to take up with the wrong company. This, to Wilfred, risks the family reputation, something he is loath to do. Here’s what he says to Rowland about it at one point:
‘Why can’t you just drink too much like everybody else’s wayward brother?’
Rowland sees the humour of what his brother says:
‘I’ll make sure I’m totally under the table next time you see me.’
The two brothers have their tense, even very angry moments. But underneath it they have a bond, and as the novel evolves, we see that bond develop. Both characters grow, too, and that rounds them out.
Another important element in this novel is Rowland’s group of close friends. There’s Elias, who’s usually called Milton because he fancies himself a poet. There’s Edna Higgins, sculptor and occasional model, who also does a little acting as an ‘extra.’ And there’s Clyde Watson Jones, an artist like Rowland. Each of these people is a little eccentric and certainly not bound by convention so they aren’t Wilfred Sinclair’s favourite people. But they are true friends to Rowland. In several places in the novel they come through as only good friends do. It’s easy to see why he’s happy to let them live at his home as long as they want to.
The story is set distinctively in 1930’s Sydney. In fact, a major event in the story takes place during the 1932 opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Dress, customs, lifestyles and physical setting all reflect that era and that place. So do the issues the characters face.
A Few Right Thinking Men shows the consequences of political fanaticism and deep social class divisions. It features a clearly-drawn set of characters, a fleshed-out protagonist, some wit, and a distinctive Sydney setting. The historical details are authentic and the mystery itself fits the context. But what’s your view? Have you read A Few Right Thinking Men? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 24 February/Tuesday 25 February – Tilt a Whirl – Chris Grabenstein
Monday 3 March/Tuesday 4 March – A Calamitous Chinese Killing – Shamini Flint
Monday 10 March/Tuesday 11 March – Murder in a Cold Climate – Scott Young