Gritty and gripping. I was sitting in my car in a tree-lined street in the Sydney beach-side suburb of Mona Vale, immersed in the book I was reading. Detective Constable 'Ned' Kelly was on the job in inner Sydney, "one street back from the concrete brutalism of the new Sydney Police Centre". The passenger door of my car opened and reluctantly I had to drag myself away from the book. "I didn't even get to finish the chapter" I complained to myself.
I haven't read crime fiction since I was fourteen and had not given this genre a second thought until I attended the Women's College Writers' Festival last year at the University of Sydney. There I heard Pam Newton talk about her new book, The Old School. She and fellow panelist and crime writer, Lenny Bartulin, re-awakened my interest in crime fiction. When looking for fiction written by an Australian female writer, I remembered their discussion. Fortunately, my local library did not disappoint and I eagerly delved into The Old School.
This book is a 'whodunnit', as all crime fiction should be, and is a compelling read. I began reading at the pace with which I had read all those Agatha Christie books as a teenager. The approach towards reading crime fiction that I had developed from reading those books was to race to the end spotting 'clues', along the way without thinking about much else. But this book is vastly different to reading Agatha Christie. Unfortunately the compulsion to classify books brings genre stereotypes into play and initially I fell into the speed reading trap. I was expecting good narrative drive with mystery and twists and turns along the way, not anything terribly deep and meaningful.
Very quickly I realised that I should slow down and enjoy the journey rather than sprinting to the end. I flipped back to the beginning and started reading in a manner more befitting to this book.
What caused me to change my attitude? Initially it was Newton's wonderful use of language. Her prose is a delight. It fits her characters and her stage. Newton is dealing with characters who day in, day out need to cut through the dross that obscures the evidence they need. Newton's language reflects this, being terse at times, but expansive enough for the reader to feel intimate with each scene.
Detective 'Ned' Kelly works at the Bankstown police station. Her mother was Vietnamese, her father was Irish-Australian, and yes, she is female. She is the kind of person we expect police to be, but Newton has created a character, not a caricature. When we discover that the murder investigation Ned is working on relates to painful events from her childhood we have a chance to go beyond the police facade and learn more about her as a person.
She didn't feel any more part-Vietnamese than she did part-Irish. In fact, she didn't feel part-anything, just herself. Born and bred in Sydney, she reckoned she belonged in it anywhere she bloody well wanted.
This book is not just about solving a crime. Newton explores the modern issues of identity and belonging throughout the book. Detective Kelly has to deal with the fact that many people thought her face announced that she could speak Vietnamese even though she was firmly monolingual. It is not only through Kelly that Newton explores issues of identity; Newton enmeshes her entire story in the eclectic fabric of Sydney, where cross-cultural engagement is an everyday part of life. The narrative pace is maintained throughout the book as it should be in any crime fiction novel, but I still read it with care. Narrative is much maligned but the purpose of writing books is to have them read and narrative is necessary in order to achieve this.
I agree with Elizabeth Lhuede that narrative can act like a drug to readers, causing their critical faculties to switch off while they are racing towards the exciting end. My reading of Newton's book challenges this view. I read it slowly, pondering the author’s comments on identity. The writer, Walter Mason, has also dug underneath the narrative and considered the political issues that this book examines. The book’s narrative drive did not obscure these issues.
A feature of this book is Newton’s strong sense of place and time. It is very much about ‘telling it as it is’ – no romanticism intrudes when she describes Sydney in the 1990s. I like the honesty, it makes the place more believable. The Harbour is there but it is incorporated as part of Ned’s life, rather than as a disconnected tourist attraction. I love the way this book collapses time. The Vietnam War and the early encounters between the early settlers and Aborigines are integral to Newton’s tale of a detective’s life in the 1990s and seamlessly enter the tale. Newton declares her conception of place and time at the end of her Acknowledgements:
To Sydney – all those who lived here once, those who live here still, and all who love this concrete midden by the sea.
This book is about Sydney and recognises how the city today is the accumulated result of the efforts and lives of past generations. “IT’S SUMMER” shrilled the cicadas through my car window back in Mona Vale. Summer is ever-present in The Old School but it is not the glamorous, cool summer of the coast.
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