In The Spotlight: Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club

>In The Spotlight: Reginald Hill's An Advancement of LearningHello, All,

Welcome to another special edition of In The Spotlight. As we continue our exploration of this year’s four finalists for the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel, let’s take a close look at Jen Shieff’s historical novel, The Gentlemen’s Club. Let’s turn the spotlight on 1950s Auckland.

Rita Saunders is a successful hairstylist who also runs a gentlemen’s club – a not-very-well-disguised brothel. Things are going well for her, although she does feel the lack of a partner. But everything changes when a ship from England docks. One of the people on board that ship is Istvan Zieglar, a refugee from Hungary who wants more from life than a spot in a Displaced Person’s camp (more about him shortly). Another is Fenella Grayson, who is English. She’s brought with her three orphaned girls who are to be placed at Brodie House, an orphanage that’s directed by a man named Lindsay Pitcaithly. It’s hoped that adoptive families will soon be found for them, and that they’ll thrive in New Zealand. The orphans settle in, and Fenella begins looking for work. Her mother, Rachel, is from Auckland, so Fenella’s already got some contacts.

For his part, Istvan, too, settles in. He’s going to be helping to build a new bridge over Auckland Harbour, and is eager to get started and begin to save money. He takes a room in a cheap hotel and gets ready to report for work. One day, he hears a young woman in the adjoining room. She’s in obvious serious distress, and he goes in to help her. She is sixteen-year-old Judith Curran, who has come to Auckland to have a (then illegal) abortion. It’s all been arranged by Pitcaithly, who has paid for her abortion in exchange for her agreeing to work in his home as domestic help. The abortion has just been carried out, and Judith is in serious danger of infection or worse. Istvan sees that she needs help, and stays with her, nursing her as best he can, until she’s able to leave.

Little by little, and each in a different way, Istvan, Judith and Rita become aware that something sinister is going on at Brodie House, and that Pitcaithly is not all that he seems to be. But he is a powerful person, and each of them is vulnerable for different reasons. As they work to find a way to prove their suspicions, they learn that there’s more to this case than it appears on the surface. If they’re going to be successful, they’re going to have to work together and be willing to take considerable risks.

Most of the novel takes place in Auckland, and Shieff places the reader there clearly. We see the growing city through several pairs of eyes, too. There’s Istvan, for whom the city is a place to start a whole new life. And, for the most part, he’s allowed to pursue that dream. In that sense, Auckland is depicted as more or less welcoming to immigrants. From Judith’s perspective, it’s a place to escape from her own unpleasant family situation and have her own life. And Rita’s known the city always. She knows both its good side and its seamy underbelly, and still loves the place. Readers who enjoy finding out about a city’s history will appreciate these different points of view about Auckland.

Point of view in its larger sense also plays an important role in the novel. We see the events through several pairs of eyes, including Istvan’s, Judith’s, Rita’s, Lindsay’s, and other characters (all in third person, past tense). Sometimes, the same event is described from more than one perspective. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. That said, though, Shieff makes it clear whose story is being told at any given point.

Another important element in this story is its timeline. While the story is told in a more or less chronological way, the timeline does occasionally move back and forth, so as to ‘fill in a blank’ for readers. Shieff makes those time shifts obvious, so that readers know when different events happen, but readers who prefer just one continuous timeline will notice this.

The novel draws together the fortunes of three people: Rita, Istvan and Judith. Their interactions, and those they have with others, are central to the story. So the element of character figures strongly in the novel. We learn about each person’s backstory (and their pasts do matter), and we see the events that draw them together. Each one of them has to summon reserves of courage as they go up against some real danger. And I can say without spoiling the story that all of them do. Readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate that, as will readers who prefer immigrants to be depicted as other than victims.

The dangers that these characters have to confront add an element of suspense to the story. But readers who dislike a lot of violence will be pleased to know that this isn’t really a violent story. It’s more suggested than described, if I can put it that way. That said, though, what is hinted at (and in a few places, made clear) is truly ugly, so readers who prefer light mysteries will want to know this.

The novel has been described as ‘gritty,’ and in some ways it is. Some of the characters turn out not to be what they seem on the surface. And others allow certain things to happen, although they know what’s going on. In that sense, this isn’t a happy story. But it’s not all ‘doom and gloom.’ Some of the characters turn out to have real integrity.

The Gentlemen’s Club is the story of some awful things going on just beneath 1950’s Auckland’s thriving, welcoming surface. It takes place in a distinctive setting and context, and features three courageous characters who are trying their best to make things right. But what’s your view? Have you read The Gentlemen’s Club? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 24 October/Tuesday, 25 October – The Fixer – John Daniell

Monday, 31 October/Tuesday, 1 November – Twister – Jane Woodham

Monday, 7 November/Tuesday, 8 November – Montana 1948 – Larry Watson


Filed under Jen Shieff, The Gentlemen's Club

21 responses to “In The Spotlight: Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club

  1. This sounds like a book that would work for me on many levels Margot – it is a time in history, the thought of those characters who think this is the start of a better life and the reality that doesn’t quite match their hopes. As you know I do like a book with multiple points of view and from your description it sounds like the author handles this well. Thanks for sharing this one with us.

    • I do think you might like this one, Cleo. I think Shieff handles both the time period and the multiple viewpoints very effective. And the characters are, I think, well developed. Some of what’s going on in this story is truly ugly, so it’s not for those who like light, easy mysteries. But it is, in my opinion, quite well done. If you do get to this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Another one that sounds interesting – it seems the shortlist provided plenty of variety. I always like when a book is in an interesting historical setting so long as it feels authentic. Sounds like it does here.

    • I think it does, FictionFan. And you’re right; this shortlist really did offer solid variety, and that adds to the quality, in my opinion. It’s an interesting look at Auckland, too. If you decide you’re interested, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. The New Zealand setting and the time make this an awfully appealing story, Margot.

  4. THE GENTLEMEN’S CLUB sounds like a wide-reaching, complex story with layer upon layer of intriguing storylines. The author must have done tons of research to nail down the nuances of 1950s Auckland, which appears to be a character unto itself in this tale. Your excellent dissection of the story is enough to cause me to check out the book further, and quite possibly buy a copy and delve into it. Well done, Margot!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Michael. I think Shieff did an effective job of evoking 1950s Auckland. It feels authentic. And this is a multiayered story. In fact, it takes place about the same (roughly) time as your Dinger, PI stories. You might be interested in it just on that score. It isn’t quite as dark, but it evokes that era. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  5. Col

    Another one to keep an eye out for, thanks – I think!

  6. I have come to try books by foreign authors and about foreign countries more often since meeting you Margot. You’ve opened up my book world to some fascinating books and authors. This sounds like another I’d enjoy. Traveling to another country through books is always fun. Thanks!

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • That’s very kind of you, Mason. I’m so glad you like what you find here as far as books/authors from different places. I always feel there’s so much to explore…

  7. Point to ponder: does a writer risk limiting the number of readers by writing a geocentric novel (i.e., one very dependent upon a familiarity with the setting)? I find that my reading enthusiasm fades in some novels wherein the setting (about which I know nothing) dominates. But that might be my shortcoming rather than other readers’.

    • Now, that’s an interesting question, Tim. I think there are likely plenty of other readers such as yourself, who prefer settings with which they’re familiar. At the same time, I do think there are a lot of literary globetrotters. For that reason, I think the author has to make a choice about which sort of setting s/he’ll use.

  8. It’s not easy to flash back and forward without jarring the reader from the story. I know you mention that the author made it clear about time shifts, but did you find it distracting? Or did it add to the overall story? I don’t mind a quick flashback here and there, but the constant shifts might annoy me after a while.

    • I honestly wasn’t distracted by the occasional shifts in time, Sue. They were made clear, and (for me, anyway), they didn’t happen too often. But I know what you mean: some shifts can jar the reader. Certainly too many of them can.

  9. I think I have never read any book set in New Zealand. So thanks for highlighting this book Margot. I’ll see whether I can get a copy of it in a library.

    • I’ve been very fortunate, Neeru, to have gotten the chance to read some very, very fine New Zealand crime fiction. IF you do get a chance to read this one, I hope that you’ll enjoy it.

  10. This book doesn’t quite sound like the detective/mystery novels you read so often! Did you enjoy the change of pace?

  11. Pingback: In The Spotlight: Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club — Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… – Jane Woodham

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