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Shortlisted for Best First Book for the Commonwealth Writers' Price for 2011
Meet Rowland Sinclair, gentleman and artist living in 1931 Sydney. Friend of the Left, son of the Right, he paints in a superbly tailored, three-piece suit and houses friends who include a poet, a painter, and a feminist sculptress whom he has painted nude and hung it in the drawing room. Is he perhaps in love with Edna? If so, she isn't having any.
Sinclair's fortune and his indifference to politics shelter him from the mounting tensions of the Great Depression roiling Australia and taking it near the brink of revolution.
One day in December 1931 comes terrible news: Uncle Rowly has been murdered in his home by unknown assailants. The murder prompts Roland to infiltrate the echelons of the old and new guard. Among them are a few "right thinking men," a cadre of conservatives who became convinced of a Communist takeover and have formed a movement to combat it. In time, Rowland's investigation exposes an extraordinary conspiracy with direct personal consequences.
About the Author
After setting out to study astrophysics, graduating in law and then abandoning her legal career to write books, Sulari now grows French black truffles on her farm in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains of NSW. Sulari is author of The Rowland Sinclair Mystery series, historical crime fiction novels (eight in total) set in the 1930s. Sulari's A Decline in Prophets (the second book in the series) was the winner of the Davitt Award for Best Adult Crime Fiction 2012. She was also shortlisted for Best First Book ( A Few Right Thinking Men ) for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2011. Paving the New Road was shortlisted for another Davitt in 2013.
Read an Excerpt
Five days earlier
It wasn't right. He leaned to the left, squinting, but no change of perspective improved it. Swearing at the canvas was also unlikely to help, but he tried that anyway. A reasonable man would have walked away long ago.
It was ridiculous to be working in the evening, by the light of an electric bulb. He knew that. Of course, the colours would be wrong. It seemed some destructive urge compelled him to render it completely irredeemable, rather than to leave it simply unsatisfactory. Still, he continued, hoping that by some accident he would find the precise combination of pigment and stroke to resurrect the landscape. Under the broad bright sky of morning, the painting had shown such promise.
He stood back and cursed again. It was no use. He had finessed it beyond redemption. He could not even bring himself to sign the lifeless work. Not that the signature of Rowland Sinclair was of any great consequence in the world of art. Perhaps in time.
Rowland gazed out the window as he cleaned his brushes. The grounds of Woodlands House were immaculate and traditional. The distant front hedge was made just visible by a street lamp, which added its radiance to the muted light of the moon. Somewhere beyond that hedge stretched the fairways of the golf-links, and further in that direction, the great harbour of Sydney. It was hard to believe that so many struggled and despaired under the weight of the Great Depression; the leafy streets of Woollahra seemed beyond the reach of the economic crisis.
Rowland wiped his hands on his waistcoat. Not so many months ago, it had been a quality item of gentleman's attire. Now, it was stained with paint and smelled of turpentine. Rowland preferred it that way. He looked again at the painting with which he had battled all day and which, in the end, had defeated him.
"Hmmm, that's rather awful — embarrassing really." The voice was Edna's. She peered over his shoulder and spoke with all her customary bluntness.
He smiled. "Yes, I should have stopped when it was merely bad."
Edna laughed, and slid into the tall wingback armchair where she often posed for Rowland. She pulled off her hat and gloves, tossing them carelessly onto the side table as she shook out her dark copper tresses. "I sold Lescalier today."
"That's smashing," Rowland said, impressed. Lescalier was one of Edna's larger pieces — difficult to sell in the financial restraint of the times. "Who bought it?"
"Some academic friend of Papa's ... I had to discount it a little."
Rowland saw the flicker in her eyes. "I wouldn't fret about that, Ed. Most of us aren't selling anything at all these days." He groaned as he looked back at his landscape, "Obviously, the buying public recognises true talent."
Edna dismissed the last. Rowland Sinclair was by no means untalented, but painters were susceptible to self-doubt. Edna created art in clay and bronze. Her mother had been a French artist, of some acclaim in her own country. Before she died, she imbued in her daughter a determination, a belief in her own artistic destiny, and a certain European disregard for the social expectations of conservative Sydney, whose elite still clung to the Empire.
"I don't know why you spend so much time trying to paint trees," she said, as Rowland pushed his easel into a corner. "You're not very good at it ... and you capture people so beautifully."
"Trees don't complain quite so much," he replied, taking to the chair beside her. He took up his notebook and began to sketch her face, glancing up occasionally with intense blue eyes that observed every contour and movement, each nuance of expression. She ignored it, accustomed to being the subject of his scribbling. He drew her often.
"Rowly, do you remember Archie Greenwood?"
"Yes, you do. He was at Ashton's when you first started there."
"If you say so." Rowland remained focussed on his notebook.
The Ashton Art School was where he had first encountered Edna. It had been the twenties, a time of thrilling optimism, a time when crashing markets had been unthinkable. Rowland had been barely twenty-three and not long returned from Oxford.
"You must remember Archie — he had that dreadful lisp, but talked all the time anyway. Considered himself the next Picasso."
Rowland looked at her blankly. In truth, he hadn't noticed much at Ashton's after Edna, and he had noticed her immediately — how could he not? She was enchanting. Her face was mesmerising, as open as a child's, yet full of passion and an unshakable sense of self. Her hair was that glorious fiery shade that featured time and again in the works of the great masters. A spirited, laughing muse, she had captivated and mystified him. Still, their association had not started well.
"Come on Rowly," Edna insisted. "Archie used to paint those appalling pictures of erotic fruit."
"Oh, him! He had an interesting way with bananas." Archie Greenwood and his lewd still life paintings came back to him.
To his recollection, the Ashton school overflowed with odd characters; and yet, it was Rowland Sinclair whom Edna had seemed to find ridiculous, somehow trivial. She had often left him feeling so. Admittedly, he had not been typical of the students there.
"I saw Archie today."
"What's he doing?"
"Oh, Rowly." Edna wrapped her arms around a cushion and hugged it under her chin. "He was picking up cigarette butts from the platform. I think he may be sleeping at Happy Valley." She shuddered. The unemployed camp out at La Perouse was a desperate, violent place — the refuge of those without any other choice.
Rowland stilled his pencil. "He wouldn't come with you?" he asked, knowing Edna would have tried to bring him back to Woodlands House.
The Woollahra mansion, the Sydney residence of the Sinclairs, had for some time hosted a succession of artists, writers and poets. Some stayed a short time, others longer. Some came to live and work in an atmosphere of creativity; others because they had nowhere else. Edna had been there two years.
She stood, frowning as she thought of the broken man who had once dreamt of artistic triumph. "He would barely talk to me. He was so embarrassed."
"Greenwood knows how to find us?"
Edna nodded. "I gave him my card."
"Do you know how to find him?"
"No, I ran into him by chance."
"Not much we can do, Ed. He knows his own mind, and a man has his pride if nothing else."
"Not just men," she murmured. Edna leant against the back of the armchair, which Rowland's late father had imported from London. "I wonder when things will get better."
Rowland glanced up. The life-sized portrait of Henry Sinclair glared down at them from the wall behind Edna, as if he disapproved of her being anywhere remotely near his chair, or his son. For that moment, Rowland's choices were silhouetted against his background. His father had presided over a rural fiefdom — vast pastoral holdings near Yass, in the west. His sons were born into a world of extraordinary privilege and conservative tradition. The Sinclair boys had been raised as gentlemen: New South Welshmen, but British nonetheless.
And yet, Rowland had been drawn to the world of Edna, who had been raised among the city's intelligentsia, in salons rich in thought and debate. Through her father, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney, she had developed a sympathy for the ideas of the left and, with it, a suspicion of the almost incomprehensible wealth of those in the great houses of Woollahra.
Despite her initial misgivings, Edna had come to like Rowland Sinclair. He had surprised her with his willingness to absorb the ways of her world, his interest in her politics, her friends and her causes. She knew that he was in love with her — on some level at least — but he had never asked that his feelings be reciprocated. Indeed, he called her "Ed", as if she were one of his mates. Edna liked that. To her, their relationship was clear; they were the best of friends — they would storm the world together with their art and their ideas.
She had introduced him into her circles, artists and intellectuals who fraternised across the class lines that segregated polite society from the rest. In time, Rowland was accepted among them, forgiven for the absurd opulence of his background.
Rowland looked over as the housekeeper entered the room. Mary Brown had been in his family's employ since before he was born. She managed the day-to-day running of Woodlands House, supervising the domestic staff, including the gardener and the chauffeur. A solid woman of formidable disposition, Mary sighed audibly as she surveyed the drawing room. She pulled a cloth from her apron and pointedly rubbed the drops of paint from the lacquered sideboard. She sighed again.
Rowland winked at Edna. Mary Brown had an entire language of sighs.
At one time, when Mary had still been the downstairs maid, the Sinclairs had spent much of the year in Woodlands House. Then in 1914, Britain declared war on Germany, and Australia fell enthusiastically into step. Rowland's brothers joined up, eager to fight for the Empire's cause. He was only ten when he waved them off on the troop ships bound for Egypt. Wilfred had been twenty-four, Aubrey just nineteen, and the three of them had been friends, despite the years between them.
Aubrey was killed in action a year later. Mrs. Sinclair deserted the whirl of Sydney society to mourn her son in the seclusion of their country property. She never returned. She had never been the same.
Wilfred eventually came back from the war, but he was changed. He too retreated to Oaklea and Mary Brown became keeper of an empty house.
Sent to school in England soon after the war ended, Rowland remained there for over eight years. Through all that time, there were no Sinclairs in Woodlands House, though Mary Brown ensured it was ready for the family to walk back in at any time.
"Will you be dining in tonight, Master Rowly?" she asked, addressing him as she had since he was a child.
Rowland glanced at Edna. "I think so, Mary," he replied. "But we should wait for Milton and Clyde. Ed, do you know where they are?"
"I think they went to the pub," she said. "Clyde's been struggling with his commission, and Milton ... well he just likes to drink."
Rowland smiled. "It might be a while, Mary," he said.
She nodded and left the room, her face set and unreadable. Mr. Sinclair would not have approved of his son's friends; of that, she was sure. He certainly would not have been happy that his home had become a shelter for all manner of shiftless artists and Communists. To Mary Brown, the terms were synonymous. Still, she had known Rowland since he was a baby. He had been a quiet, sensitive child, but she had thought him a good boy. She hoped he would see the error of his ways. In any case, it was not her place to say.
"What are you doing tomorrow, Rowly?" Edna asked suddenly.
"Lunch with my uncle, at his club," he replied, wondering what else she had in mind.
"Sounds frightful," she said.
Rowland grinned. Edna objected to gentlemen's clubs on principle. "Uncle Rowland likes it," he said. "It's not that bad."
His Uncle Rowland, his namesake, was his father's younger brother. He had never married and had spent much of his life travelling. An unrepentant and flamboyant hedonist, the elder Rowland Sinclair worked diligently at indulging in all the pleasures of life, with hardly a thought for anything else. It was not that he was unkind or intentionally indifferent. He just seemed to assume everyone had the same resources as he.
"He's rather taken with you," Rowland said, cringing a little as he remembered how outrageously his uncle had flirted with Edna on the few occasions they'd met. She could easily have been offended, but the sculptress had taken it in her stride, telling the elderly rogue that if she ever did decide to take up with a Sinclair, it would indeed be an old one.
"He's a character," Edna said, smiling. "You know, he doesn't seem to be the least bit bothered about us all." She could not imagine any of Rowland's other relatives being so at ease with the manner in which he had turned their grand home into a luxurious artists' commune.
"I think he's rather tickled that there's someone else disgracing the family name," Rowland replied.
"You'll be finished by three, won't you?" Edna ventured. "Even your uncle can't eat for more than three hours ..." She had become resigned to the fact that Rowland occasionally had to return to the world to which he was born.
"I can be finished by three," he said. "What do you need me for?"
"There's a meeting tomorrow afternoon. At the Domain. We should go."
Rowland knew she meant a meeting of the Communist Party. He was not a Communist, neither was Edna, at least not officially. "Why?" he asked.
"Morris is speaking," she replied. "He's very nervous — I'm sure he'd appreciate it if we were there."
Rowland had now met many Communists, Morris among them. The returned serviceman was sincere in his conviction and committed to his ideology, but he was no orator. The crowds at the Domain had grown during the harsh Depression years. The exchanges between the rousing speakers and the equally fervent hecklers were often so entertaining, that those who could no longer afford shows flocked there for amusement, if not enlightenment. As far as Rowland could tell, the local Communist Party had nothing to fill its agenda except for the impassioned speeches by its members. To date, Morris had avoided the duty, but with the Depression dragging on, and more people turning out, every Party member was required to do their bit to rally the masses.
"Come on, Rowly," Edna pleaded, as she poured him a drink. "We can clap and cheer at the right times, and hopefully he won't have to stand up for very long."
"Yes, why not," Rowland replied as he put down his pencil and took the glass of sherry.
"Good." Edna smiled satisfied. "We'll meet you there at about quarter past."
"We? Who else have you drafted?"
"Just Milt and Clyde. Morris will be very grateful," she added earnestly.
"He needn't be." Rowland picked up his pencil once again.
(BY A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT)
SYDNEY, Sunday The new Masonic Club building is in accord with the recent progress of the city. It rises to 150ft yet seems even taller. A view of North Head and the Pacific beyond may be obtained from the roof.
The building was made possible by activity in the real estate market. The former premises were disposed of at a surprising profit. The club purchased a block of land running from Castlereagh Street to Pitt Street between Market and Park Streets, and it soon sold the Pitt Street half at a price which gave it a site free with a large sum of money to go toward the cost of the building. The present value of the property is about £180,000.
The Argus, December 7, 1931
The grand dining room of the Masonic Club, an establishment of reputation and elegance, was removed from the bleak hardship of those walking the streets in search of work outside its thick cedar doors. The murmur of polite voices was deep, for the patrons were exclusively male. The club was a dominion of impeccably-dressed and well- connected men. They dined with each other under elaborate chandeliers that hung from high ornate ceilings, trimmed with intricate cornices and plaster roses. Rowland had become a member at his brother's insistence, but he generally used the club only on his uncle's invitation.
The elder Rowland Sinclair was already seated at the table. He was a large man whose body and features spoke of years of indulgence. His hair was thick, swept back from his face. It had once been as dark as his nephew's — now it was white. His eyes had, with age, become a little weak, but they were still the distinct blue that marked all the Sinclair men.
"Rowly, my boy!" he said as he stood to welcome him, moving his substantial girth with some difficulty and catching the table.
"Hello, Uncle. Have you been waiting long?" Rowland lunged to save the near empty bottle of wine which wobbled precariously on the table's edge.
"Not that long — there may still be a drop left for you." He resumed his seat and, and taking the bottle from Rowland, drained its remnants into a glass. Rowland sat down.
"So how are you, my boy? I haven't heard much of you for a while. I had hoped I could rely on you for at least the odd minor scandal ... but there has been nothing! When I was your age I would not have allowed myself to become so respectable! It's tremendously uninteresting."
Excerpted from "A Few Right Thinking Men"
Copyright © 2017 Sulari Gentill.
Excerpted by permission of Pantera Press Pty Limited.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Originally published in 2010, this is a re-release by Pantera Press in paperback format. Written by Sulari Gentill and set in 1930s Australia, it's beautifully written and redolent of classic golden age detective fiction. The series is written around real life history, with verifiable political and news stories of the time seamlessly interwoven into the narrative. I have been most impressed with Ms. Gentill's ability to place her characters peripheral to real history and really allow the reader to feel like they're there. This is the first book in the series and introduces the dashing (and charmingly egalitarian) Rowland Sinclair and an ensemble cast of friends and associates along with a beautifully drawn depression-era Australia. Having read the series (and looking forward to new installments), one thing that has impressed me very much is the author's facility with a really well planned and executed story arc. I can't imagine how many books ahead she had planned when writing the first book, but there are foreshadowings in this book which play out in book 8 in the series. In addition, each book is complete in itself. Honestly, I read them out of order when I could find them, and never felt lost or cheated. They're really well written enjoyable books. The dialogue is pitch perfect, the characters and setting are stellar, the writing is great, and the plot adheres to the 10 commandments of detective fiction (the reader gets all the info to 'solve' the crime, no hidden perpetrators, no 'evil twins' etc etc). Other reviewers have done a good job of describing the plot, so I've concentrated on the books as a series. I did review book 8 on this blog here. I've seen this series compared to Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher books, but apart from the setting (depression era Australia), I don't see it. Both series are fun, but while Phryne's sort of a fantasy cozy, the Sinclair books have a lot more in common with Ngaio Marsh than Kerry Greenwood. Well written, solid from this, the first, book, beautifully plotted. 323 pages, but I never found my interest flagging. Well worth a read. Four solid stars Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.