Monday, October 29, 2012

{review} the rowland sinclair series

Sulari Gentill A Decline in Prophets (2011) 
Sulari Gentill Miles Off Course (2012) 
Sulari Gentill Paving the New Road (2012)

Rowland Sinclair, Milton Isaacs and Clyde Watson Jones lined up at the foot of her bed, all leaning against the rail as they asked about her health. Annie Besant regarded them warmly. It was a particularly Australian habit, she observed - to lean. Australian men seem to lean whenever possible - against walls, posts, chairs… Australians had the ability to relax in any company or circumstance - they would face Armageddon itself leaning casually on a fence.
Sulari Gentill's 'Rowland Sinclair' series goes from strength to strength. She is such a refreshing new voice in Australian crime writing: no brutalized female corpses; barely a hint of sex; lots of solid historical background (and some wonderful bits from old newspapers), memorable characters, classic locations, and a sprinkling of little historical and literary riddling to tease the reader. I reviewed her first book (A Few Right Thinking Men) here, and have recently devoured the next three in the series. 

The second in the series is A Decline in Prophets. I was wondering how Gentill would manage her large cast of regular characters, and a highlight of this book was how she took her time to flesh out the groups' dynamics. Their witty badinage is a delight. We discover our hero Rowly - semi-voluntarily exiled from Australia after his disastrous run-in with the New Guard - travelling in style on RMS Aquitania, along with a group of Theosophists (including Annie Besant), a hot-headed Catholic Bishop, various eligible young ladies, and - of course - his faithful coterie of Clyde the artist, Milt the Red poet, and Edna, sculptress and unattainable love of Rowly's life. The action shifts - with murders aplenty - from the luxuries of life onboard to New York (where Edna makes a hit with one Archie Leach) then back to Sydney. Mysterious pregnancies, mad prophets, ambiguous suicides, Masons, mortuary chapels, dodgy poetry, and lots of fun and games. Can the gang make it safely back to lovely Woollahra with a murderer hot in pursuit? And has Rowly pushed his conservative elder brother's tolerance of his Bohemian lifestyle too far this time? A Decline in Prophets won the 2012 Davitt Award for Best Adult Crime Novel by an Australian woman.

The third in the series, Miles Off Course, is, I think (and at the moment!), my favourite. It has such a wonderful Australian setting, moving from the sophisticated high life of the rich in the Blue Mountains to the harsh life of the stockmen who graze their animals in the 'High Country' of the Snowy Mountains. Rowly is sent by his brother Wilfred (a 'Mycroft', and one of my favourite characters - perhaps I relate to being the oldest sibling?) to track down a missing stockman. Harry Simpson is no ordinary stockman - an Aboriginal hand who grew up with the Sinclairs, he is far more than an employee to the Sinclair men. Rowly's stint roughing it in the High Country is more than welcome to him for other reasons: someone is gunning for him - could he be the next high-rolling victim of a spate of abductions? If the travelling snake circus doesn't get him first… This book also has the single best opening line I have read in the last decade. 

No 4., Paving the New Road, offers a change of scene for Rowly and his mates; it is also rather more brutal than its predecessors. It is quite an achievement on Gentill's part to create a veristic 'What If?' as she transports her gang of Bohemian Australian artists to Munich, 1933: "it was decided that they would pose as art dealers. Art was a language they could all speak." Rowly agrees to go to Germany to sabotage the plans of his old enemy Eric Campbell, the New Guard politician who would bring Fascism to Australia. Campbell is touring with members of the British Union of Fascists, whose members include the repellent Unity Mitford (with whom Rowly makes rather a hit). Along the way, Rowly also makes the acquaintance of a young blonde lady called Eva who works for a photographer and has a very secret boyfriend… Gentill does a lovely job manipulating people, events (and dates) to place her hero at the centre of an Australian-led fight against Fascism. There's a lot of humour in this book, despite the grim subject-matter and the knowledge of what is to come for the world. Where will Rowly and co. be in 1939? At the rate Gentill is producing these books, that won't be long! (Two incidental points: does "taught-haired" = tow-haired? And how freaky is it to discover someone you know has given his name to a character. My equilibrium is still awry.) 

If you liked this... for crime-loving history-nerds? It is hard to avoid comparison with Kerry Greenwood's 1920s' heroine Phryne Fisher, who is rich, strong-minded, and (er... unlike Rowly) not always a lady.



  1. Ahh taut-haired.... I think that may be an "authorism". When I was young I had a librarian who pulled her hair back into a bun so tautly that it made her eyes bulge...I referred to the style thereafer as taut-haired but it probably isn't a real expression. Just checked the should be taut not taught.... that part's typo...sorry. I did have a great deal of fun attaching out mutual friend to a character... if anyone could be an international gentleman spy... :) I'm really glad the continuing adventures of Rowland Sinclair did not disappoint. Thank you so much for the review.



    1. That's so sad, Sulari - I was hoping it was a new word for me, or perhaps a cunning pun. (I am a failed hair-trainer myself!) I'm looking forward to the next Rowly book with great anticipation.


{READ IN 2017}

  • 23.
  • 22.
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  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
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  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore

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