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.