In Praise of the New with Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee 

Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee share their latest discoveries.

April 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, April 05, 2017


I’ve just discovered Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, which began in 2007 with the highly acclaimed In The Woods ($20). The series can be read out of sequence and I began with The Secret Place ($20)—a boarding school mystery whose narrator, Stephen Moran, is marking time in Cold Cases when teenager Holly Mackey brings him a card with the legend I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM and a photo of young Chris Harper. Chris, a boarder at St Colm’s school, has in the previous year been found dead in the grounds of St Kilda’s, a posh all-girls school, with his head bashed in, four hyacinths strewn on his corpse and a condom in his pocket. Holly, known to Moran from a previous case, has found the card pinned up in the Secret Place, a notice board for anonymous postings at St Kilda’s, where she is one of the boarders. Moran teams up with abrasive colleague Antoinette Conway to solve this still cold case and the two go back to St Kilda’s to investigate further. Moran proves adept at coaxing information from the girls and by the end of the day has eight suspects, four close-knit friends in Holly’s dorm and four girls in a rival clique headed by Joanne Heffernan, a terrifyingly precocious queen bee with a penchant for casually humiliating opponents and supporters alike. The action takes place over just one day, with flashbacks to the year before Chris died. It’s part police-procedural and part psychological thriller; the characterisation is superb and the teenspeak pitch-perfect. (Faithful Place ($20), number three in the series, has the backstory of Holly Mackey and her dad Frank, the head of Undercover.)
Moran and Conway team up again in French’s latest, The Trespasser ($23, b format due 6.17). This time Conway is narrator, so that a different lens is run over the pair’s relationship. Conway, who is mixed-race and never knew her Brazilian father, has an elephant-sized chip on her shoulder, so is very unpopular with her colleagues, who do their darndest to set her up for failure. She and Moran are perfect together, with easy-going Moran often stopping Conway from blowing a fuse. They now have to investigate the death of Aislinn Murray, a young receptionist found with a battered head, dinner in the oven and a table set for two—and it’s made clear to our sleuths that a quick solve would be welcome, since it’s obvious that bookshop proprietor Rory Fallon must have done it in a lovers’ tiff gone wrong. When O’Kelly, the Squad’s gaffer, gets their know-all colleague Breslin to supervise the investigation, they come under extreme pressure to put Rory in the frame. Breslin, who has ‘winner’s dazzle, the gold glow that shouts to everyone within range that this dude is something special: smarter, faster, savvier, smoother’, is clearly someone you want to hate, if not at first sight, then certainly when Conway and Moran come to suspect that he’s bent. The Trespasser had me on the edge of my seat and guessing all the way through. Tana French studied drama at Trinity College, Dublin, then worked in theatre for ten years and it shows in her writing. All her cast are superb troupers. Conway and Moran, for instance, are brilliant role-players, taking subliminal cues from each other, skilfully alternating their good-cop/bad-cop routine and always asking the vital ‘innocent’ question at just the right moment.
In the Woods begins in the summer of 1984 when three twelve-year-olds go into the woods near Knocknaree; two are never seen again, the third appears in a catatonic state with blood in his sneakers and no memory of what happened. Twenty years later a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered at the same spot. Rob Ryan, the survivor of the first incident, is now a police Detective, and he finds himself in charge of the case. He knows he should recuse himself from the investigation but keeps his past a secret from everyone but Detective Cassie Maddox, his partner in Operation Vestal. Instead he has a slow psychological meltdown as shards of memory come to the surface. The murder plot is absolutely riveting but it is the relationship between the two detectives which held my interest until the shocking ending.
Sadly there will not be another Cliff Hardy story because his creator Peter Corris has eye problems, so we have to say goodbye to our favourite gumshoe in Win, Lose or Draw. Gerard Fonteyn is a rich guy whose daughter Juliana has gone missing and Cliff takes up the job of finding her. The trail takes him to Norfolk Island and the Gold Coast, where he runs into numerous unsavoury characters such as shady brothel owners and crooked cops. Any Cliff Hardy story slips down as smoothly as Cliff’s favourite malt and we’ll miss him from Sydney’s mean streets. Goodnight Cliff Hardy, good luck and thanks for the memories. Sonia Lee

In Praise of the New 

Margaret Drabble (one of my favourite authors of all time) said The Tidal Zone ($28) was one of her favourite novels of 2016, and as I hadn’t even heard of the author, Sarah Moss, I thought I would give it a go. Set now, in the English Midlands, the novel is narrated by Adam, a stay at home father of two daughters, and husband to a busy doctor. Very early in the piece, his eldest daughter Miriam is found unconscious on her school playing field, after an apparent cardiac arrest. What follows is a perfect rendition of a family thrown into a chaos of anxiety, while still getting on with the minutiae of daily life. Adam somehow manages to keep his family going—doing the laundry, cooking nutritious meals, organising his younger daughter and generally running the household while being plagued with anxiety bordering on fear, much like women everywhere. The frustration and sense of endless waiting that one experiences in the modern hospital system, is also very neatly described, as is the familiar sense of being patronised by hospital staff—Adam is frequently being called ‘Dad’ by all and sundry.
The narrative threads underlying the story give it a surprising beauty and resonance; Adam’s mother died unexpectedly when he was young, while ocean swimming, and his American father was left to bring him up. His father had rejected his own upbringing and had drifted across America, living on hippy communes—a way of life that seems to foreign now, and yet it wasn’t so long ago. Adam himself is man of hidden parts. He is a part time academic, an expert on the Arts and Crafts movement, and he is trying to write a thesis on the post war rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral—and this is a fascinating motif that runs through the book. I must also mention the cover of the book—the inside is illustrated with the extraordinary angels (designed by John Piper) in the stained glass windows of Coventry Cathedral, which Sarah Moss describes so vividly, and the front cover has a luminous portrait painting by English artist Michael Gaskell, the hyper reality of which is both unnerving and yet somehow reassuring.

Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald is an engrossing account of the English author whose books include the Booker Prize winner, Offshore (1978) and the brilliant The Blue Flower, a fictional account of the German Romanticist Novalis. Lee’s biography is long, detailed and dense, and succeeds in making the reader want to go back and read all Penelope Fitzgerald’s books. Her early life was much informed by her relatives, her father and uncles were the Knox brothers, four brilliant men who excelled in their given fields, her grandfathers were high up in the English clergy, and her aunt was the author, Winifred Peck. Fitzgerald was both prickly and critical of others, but could be very warm and engaging, and above all else, very brave. Her world fell into chaos through her husband’s misbehaviour, and it is fascinating to read how she managed to drag her family through disaster, and to eventually prevail. She wrote her first book much later in life, and eventually become a much lauded author. The book is engrossing in its detail, full of black and white photographs, and the author’s own drawings, it’s a very fitting tribute to its subject. Louise

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