An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

AWW BOOK REVIEW: A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

After you’ve closed the cover it can take a few days to pull free of a really fascinating story. You find yourself musing on the plot, the characters and the setting, and daydreaming about it in absent moments. For all my love for the crime genre, this doesn’t usually happen with crime novels – the main reason that they are my preferred weekday read. However, Sulari Gentill’s historical crime novel A Few Right Thinking Men absolutely captured my imagination.

So what was so unusual about this book? First off, there is the setting. I’ve always thought that Australian history was under-utilised as a setting for historical crime novels, and the thirties are probably one of the least-known eras of Australian history. I would have thought that they are a period not exactly ripe with dramatic potential, except that Gentill so clearly proves me wrong. The rising tensions between the communists and early fascists, played out in the context of a squattocracy with conservative leanings and a bohemian fringe with communist sympathies, make for a gripping backdrop. It’s extra fascinating because you can recognise a cultural discourse that still continues today between left and right in this country.

But of course a setting is nothing without a plot and characters, and these are especially key for crime novels. On the point of characters Gentill really excels. The main character, Rowland “Rowly” Sinclair, is a member of a wealthy squatting family, turned artist. He’s rejected the values he grew up with and almost succeeded at becoming a through-and-through bohemian – except that he still feels the tension of trying to fit in with the artists who have come to live in the family manor. His relationship with his family is hardly easier, as he tries to maintain his independence while not irreparably damaging the relationship. A part of him still seems to long for the gracious country lifestyle of his brother Wilfred, although the two brothers disagree on almost everything. When a murder in the family brings politics into the mix, Rowland and Wilfred seem likely to end up on different sides of the brewing conflict.

In terms of plot, this is perhaps not a classical crime novel. While it starts out with a murder, it soon devolves into an examination of the murky politics of the time. The murderer is discovered in the end, but the book avoids the trap of tying up all the loose ends with a too-neat bow.  However, I do wonder if the plot suffers a bit from the paradox Gentill identifies in her comments at the back of the book: “I found I didn’t need to fictionalise the events of the era…the facts were fascinating and ludicrous enough.” The truth may be stranger than fiction, but ironically it is sometimes less believable than pure invention. While the setting was impeccably drawn and Gentill’s historical research meticulous, I think that the book may have benefited if she took more creative licence with the facts. A final confrontation with Campbell, in many ways set up as the villain of the piece, would have given weight to the ending.

The thing I enjoyed most about the book, the thing that kept me thinking about it for days, was that it gave me an insight into Sydney in the thirties that I’ve never had before. You can read a list of facts, even a historical document, but to get that sense of what it was to be there – that idea of how people thought, acted, the politics of the day, the class divisions at work – you need a book like A Few Right Thinking Men. This is where fiction has a huge advantage over non-fiction, yet the best books still manage to educate as well as entertain. The phrase “bringing history to life” is overused to the point of cliché, but this is truly what Gentill manages. It’s a fantastic achievement.


  1. Dear Isobelle

    Thank you. I'm so glad you enjoyed AFRTM and am really delighted with the insights in your reveiw. You are so right...the cultural discourse between Left and Right has distinct echoes today.

    Warm regards


  2. Like the best historical fiction, it can really make you imagine what life was like during that period when a writer depicts the era accurately and in depth. Sounds like a wonderful book.

  3. Thanks for dropping by Sulari! I do have a vision of
    Campbell as a sort of early-John Howard figure...

    And Claire - I do hope you get a chance to read the book, it's such a window into a different world.

  4. I'm looking forward to reading this series!

    Thanks for sharing your AWW review!

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  5. I'm busy entering the AWW review links into a new, searchable database (there's a bunch of us working on this) but I had to stop and say I so agree with your review - I loved this book and its 3 follow-ups and consider myself one of Sulari's (and Rowly's) biggest fans. I think I too was blown away by the fact that someone could make real drama out of a period (and a country) that has always seemed pretty uneventful. The good news is the books just keep getting better :)