Monday, November 06, 2006

Shane Maloney -- "Quintessentially Australian"

His sense of humor, that is, and that verdict comes from an Australian, so I'm allowed to repeat it. I'll fight off the ravages of an excellent vacation, a bad cold, and my company's current efforts to break and humiliate its employees, and I'll offer a few remarks on Maloney's novel The Big Ask, with more to come when I'm done with the book.

Maloney is five novels into his series about Murray Whelan, a political troubleshooter who eventually wins election to Australia's parliament. I've seen the books billed as comic thrillers. I'm not sure about the thriller part -- The Big Ask seems more like a straightforward crime story so far -- but the comic description is dead-on. A good comic novel is comic from the beginning. The Big Ask is comic even before its beginning. Here's Maloney's version of the customary disclaimer about similarity between the story and real life:

The author of this book, its setting and its characters are entirely fictitious. There is no such place as Melbourne. The Australian Labor Party exists only in the imagination of its members.

Whelan's profession is the second noticeable novelty. Politics, with its skullduggery, its negative research, and its dirty financial deeds, is a perfect forum for a crime story. I slap my forehead and wonder why no one had thought of writing a detective story with a political-operative protagonist before. (And the floor is open. Feel free to suggest any I have missed.)

Next is the dry humor. Whelan is the book's narrator as well its protagonist, and he relates often hilarious events without seeming to be aware of how hilarious they are. This sets him apart from, say, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. When he is aware, he pokes only gentle, deadpan fun. This dry and gentle wit is all the more impressive, coming as it does in a novel whose plot concerns that most ungentle of subjects, labor strife and violence.

Here's Whelan's boss, a beleaguered government minister, confronting a labor leader, as Whelan waits dutifully by his boss' side:

`You want to talk plans, Howard," said Agnelli, `you should drop in on the Minister for Planning. He's got plans coming out his arsehole. Isn't that right. Murray?'

`Arsehole,' I agreed.

And here's Whelan with an outnumbered group of union reformers:

Roscoe looked me up and down with new interest, then unbuttoned his denim jacket and displayed the slogan emblazoned across his chest. Vote Reform Group, it read, Stop the Sharpe Sellout.

`Reform Group?' I said. `Who's that?'

`Us,' said Donny. `Me, Roscoe and Len.'

A final note: Maloney has a sharp eye for headlinese, that sometimes weird compression of language that copy editors/sub-editors are forced into when writing headlines. "STUHL SLAMS GOVT COSTS," reads one of the novel's fictional headlines, and the pitch is perfect. I can see that sucker crammed into a single column, the copy editor flipping through his mental repertoire of short, monosyllabic verbs. As an employee of the dying American newspaper industry, I was especially impressed with this.

Another final note, to Australian readers: This novel is set in Melbourne. So are Garry Disher's Hal Challis novels. Does Melbourne occupy a special position in the imagination of Australian crime writers? Is it an Australian counterpart to New York, Chicago or San Francisco?

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Anonymous John Gooley said...

I've stolen this from the Peter Corris website:

"Peter Corris's first novel was published in 1980 and he has been a full time writer since 1982. Through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the Australian crime story was in the hands of writers producing mass market pulp novelettes, chief among them being Alan Yates (Carter Brown). Although written in Australia, these stories usually had pseudo American or British settings. Peter Corris is credited with reviving the fully-fledged Australian crime novel with local settings and reference points and with a series character firmly rooted in Australian culture - Cliff Hardy."

And Cliff Hardy is very firmly rooted in Sydney. And for me personally, Melbourne is a cold wet place down south where they play an odd brand of football. And that's really all I know about it.

November 06, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks; I'll look for that site. I've seen several mentions of Peter Corris but none that discussed his apparent importance in Australian crime fiction. Garry Disher mentions Corris in his story "My Brother Jack," for example.

Thanks, too, for that tutorial in Australian social geography. Sounds as if there's some rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. Football is a recurring motif in Peter Temple's Bad Debts. Old men sit around bars talking about it throughout the book.

November 06, 2006  
Anonymous Karen C said...

To paraphrase Shane Maloney at a recent Melbourne Writers Festival, in the middle of a significant spate of crime underworld killings here, when asked about the local goings on, I think by Mark Billingham: "We can finally hold our heads high in the world of crime". :)

But Sydney's that warmer wet place up in the middle somewhere with an Opera House and some Bay they are obsessed with :)

(And everyone plays an odd brand of football as far as I'm concerned).

Seriously though, there's a reasonable spread of crime fiction across the country, although Darwin and Perth are sorely under represented.

If you'd like to have a look at there's a Location option in the menu - this will show books by where the story is located. We've not bothered too much in locating the authors themselves :)

Robert G Barrett also has a lot of books set in Sydney / NSW in general - I guess for the want of a comparison, you'd say like Carl Hiaasen but I say that reservedly, and with apologies to either author if they take offence at the comparison :)

November 07, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. I had not seen that section of the austcrime site. I continue to be amazed by the devotion of Australian crime-fiction fans.

If Robert G. Barrett is like Carl Hiaasen, that could lend credence to a generalization that Australian crime writers have a predisposition to humor -- Shane Maloney, some of Garry Disher. But after seeing your imposingly long lists of Australian and New Zealand writers, I will refrain from such generalizations.

It's interesting to note why some cities become setting for crime fiction. In the U.S., it's easy to see why writers gravitated to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as settings. I think San Francisco owes its name as a crime-fiction setting to the circumstance of Dashiell Hammett's having lived there. I don't know the comparable explanations and reasons for how Australia's crime writers choose their settings. In the case of Perth and Darwin, for example, it would be easy to guess that because those areas may have been settled later than some others, they have not yet got around to developing a crime-fiction tradition. That's not to say the guess would be right, of course.

On the other hand, any place where two humans are placed on the same patch of ground is a potential site for a crime story.

November 07, 2006  
Anonymous Karen C said...

I don't know how much success you will have in tracking these down a they were very short lived and have even proven a tad tricky to find here, but...

David Owen's Detective Inspector Franz Heineken aka Pufferfish series of 4 books, set in Tasmania is an absolute gem in the dry humour stakes.

November 07, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

I did a few quick searches, and it appears that limited and availability are the key words here. And I figure you're right. Any series with a protagonist named Heineken a.k.a. Pufferfish has to have much going for it in the humor department.

I like this description of a pufferfish from a review of one of books:" An ugly, poisonous scavenger known to bloat in times of distress." Sounds worth looking into. Thanks.

November 08, 2006  
Anonymous Hamish said...

Shane Maloney is very Melbourne, where the people who matter – artists, writers, actors, journalist, academics in the humanities – are all slightly jaundiced left-wingers. His character, Murray Whelan, would not live in Sydney or Brisbane as a matter of principle. Maloney has done time as a stand-up comedian and is formidably quick on his feet, as audiences at the Harrogate crime festival in Britain have found out.

November 08, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

The heck with crime fiction; I'm enjoying these lessons in Australian society, the regional differences, the (friendly) jabs between Melbourne and Sydney.

Your remark about Melbourne and its jaundiced left-wingers tallies very nicely with that amusing disclaimer in The Big Ask that "the Australian Labor Party exists only in the imagination of its members."

What did he say at Harrogate? I see a festival announcement referred to "Shane Maloney’s Australian political slapstick." I'm not sure slapstick is quite the right word, but it's pretty close, a kind of deadpan slapstick, as if Murray Whelan were a mildly foul-mouthed Buster Keaton.

From about 100 pages of The Big Ask, I'd say he's a unique voice, all right.

November 08, 2006  
Anonymous Hamish said...

Slapstick is not the word for Maloney. He was invited to give a talk about writing at a Melbourne private school ( a school for rich kids) and devoted his speech to telling the students how their privileged lives impoverished them. He is dangerous, a subversive, all the more so because he makes you feel that he sees through the pretences of society. The problems writers like this pose for many Americans are: a) irony, b) flippancy, c) cynicism, d) anti-materialism.

In short, Maloney won't make the big time in the US. Sad, really.

November 08, 2006  
Anonymous Carl said...

Why do places have to be VERSIONS of American cities? Very arrogant assumption. The genre was not invented in America.

November 08, 2006  
Blogger colman said...

Bit of a whinge from a crime reader in the UK.....Garry Disher's Wyatt books have been talked up around several internet sites I have visited relating to Australian crime,why are they scarcer than rocking horse pooh ?
CROSSKILL....secondhand about £50 with postage to UK...if someone buys that the next cheapest is over £100.......two things if they are so good why are they so hard to find?why aren't they still in print and available a bit cheaper.
Dont know about anyone else but £50 seems to be a lot of money for a secondhand book of recent times,I bet if I bought and then tried to resell it I would struggle to get half that for it.
Other titles are similarly priced..FALLOUT(?),PORT VILA BLUES a bit cheaper.............why the scarcity ?
I have been fortunate to get about 10 BARRETT books cheapish, which I am waiting for from Australia,MALONEY has been published in the UK and is less difficult to come by.
I dont always want to read about good old blighty and US fiction all the while.
Might be worth hearing if anyone has any comments on PAUL THOMAS- DIRTY LAUNDRY,GUERILLA SEASON,INSIDE DOPE -blurbed as the down-under HIAASEN back in 98 when he was published in the UK.

LAST THOUGHT..........any generous soul in the US or AUS or NZ that wants to loan me some DISHER/DOYLE or BARRETT books,I promise to cover postage and send them back as soon as I am done along with some UK fiction you feel similarly deprived of wherever you are,
Cheers Colman

November 08, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Carl, you're right about version, of course. I am Canadian, and I remember once being similarly annoyed when I read a reference to the Grey Cup, Canada's football championship, as "the Canadian version of the Super Bowl." I am especially embarrassed because I had intended to use counterpart to when I wrote the post. I don't know why I used version of instead. I have amended the post. Thanks.

November 08, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Colman, I don’t know enough about publishing to speculate about why the Wyatt books are so hard to find. I compare the situation to that of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, which are certifiable high points, some of them classics, of American crime literature.

Most of the pre-1975 Parkers have been reissued or are available secondhand at reasonable prices. Three, however, are generally to be found only at high prices, two of them at rates more extravagant than the ones you cited for the rare Disher. Why those three in particular? Why has no publisher reissued them? I have no idea. In Disher’s case, I ordered a copy of Kickback on for about $20 US. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the rarity of the Wyatts once I’ve read it. I could send you two of Disher’s Hal Challis novels – Snapshot and Kittyhawk Down – when I’m done with them, but I don’t think those two are that hard to find.

Hamish, there is a niche for irony and flippancy in the U.S. Anti-materialism and cynicism are more questionable. I won’t presume to guess which non-U.S. writers might or might or might not find success in the U.S. I’ll reserve judgment until I’m done reading The Big Ask, possibly tonight. So far, though, what has surprised me most about the novel is not the author’s attitudes but rather that deadpan style that I’ve mentioned a few times.

I’ve seen Carl Hiaasen invoked in discussions of Shane Maloney. I haven’t read Hiaasen, but I think he is pretty flippant about how politics and business work, at least in Florida, and I know that the opening scene of at least one of his novels is a fair piece of slapstick. As I wrote, I’m not sure slapstick is the word for Maloney. It’s certainly not the word that comes to me as I read The Big Ask.. But slapstick can be a vehicle for serious, perhaps even subversive commentary.

November 08, 2006  
Anonymous Karen C said...

Paul Thomas - now there's a bloke that can write!

Dirty Laundry was a fabulous book, The Empty Bed was a completely different style, so it was a bit of a surprise. I've still to read 3 others of his - too many books, not enough days :)

The issue of the availability of Australian books overseas is really frustrating - I think that in the past publishers have been loathe to pick up many of our authors and in some cases there's been some seriously dreadful attempts at "translation". Ultimately I suspect there is some concern that "Australian" won't translate / will be unfathomable. Text Publishing are definitely working to change that and I can only suggest that everyone supports their activities in getting rights for Australian authors sold overseas - as is / no translation.

Of the bookshops around here Kill City in Melbourne city does sell via ABEBooks so you might be able to get some joy that way - certainly I got all my Paul Thomas books from their bricks and mortar shop, as well as the last of the Pufferfish books I'd been increasingly desperately searching for.

November 08, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Karen: Thanks yet again for adding to my ever-growing list of books to read. The Pufferfish books sound like the first in this latest batch that I'll want to look for. Maybe it would be easier for me to take a vacation in Australia provided I still have a job to take a vacation from after my company’s new owners complete their scorched-earth campaign.

Regarding overseas availability of Australian crime fiction, I noticed that the two Shane Maloney novels I bought in London had been published in the U.K. On the other hand, Maxim Jakubowski noted here
that Murder One in London stocks Garry Disher and Peter Temple in paperback -- in U.S. imports. I guess this means that overseas availability of Australian crime fiction is an iffy proposition.

Tell me more about these “dreadful” translation attempts.

November 08, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Karen, I forgot to mention Bitter Lemon's planned May 2007 publication of Garry Disher's The Dragon Man in the U.K. It has to be encouraging that that excellent imprint believes Australian crime fiction can travel well.

November 09, 2006  
Blogger colman said...

Re DISHER......I forgot to check with Murder One about what they might have......DOH !
DRAGON MAN and KITTYHAWK DOWN-I have ordered and are hopefully on the way.SNAPSHOT're right is not too expensive on the wallet,so I will sort at some point.

I have done some searching on DAVID OWEN and his pufferfish books look to be right up my street.
He has written books earlier than this series....EDEN, COPING WITH PLEASURE, VENTER & SON, BITTERS END, SOUTH ARM........anyone have any info on subject matter/genre ?
Some of these are about on amazon website but theres not much history on book content though it says that EDEN is a novella set in South Africa/Zimbabwe(? not too sure which.) and is an "apartheid" tale..........does the crime setting switch from AUS back to AFRICA ?(PETER TEMPLE was from South Africa originally and DAVID OWEN is from Zimbabwe)

PAUL THOMAS not yet read FINAL CUT or EMPTY BED,but the first three about a detective whose name escapes me are based around WELLINGTON,NZ.......cant remember too much about them,but I'm gonna reread them soon.
Anything else worthy of mention in NZ ?

November 09, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Colman, I've just ordered two of the Pufferfish novels from Australia via AbeBooks.

For information on subject matter or genre of Australian or New Zealand crime novels, you probably need look no further than my links list for AustCrime at or Crime Down Under at

November 09, 2006  
Anonymous Karen C said...

Peter, in terms of translation issues - there have been attempts in the past to tone down the irony and the slang - there's a form of rhyming slang in Australia which is similar in style to Cockney, but can be very specific (squiz for a look as an example (Squizzy Taylor = early 1900's gangster in Melbourne = crook = look). A lot of that stuff is difficult, but the dry laid back sense of humour and irony is the really difficult thing.

colman - a lot of David Owen's recent writing isn't crime fiction - the books you mention, for example, are not all classified as "crime". We've not yet had time to add anything about those books to our site.

In terms of NZ, then I'd recommend you have a look at a new writer Paul Cleave - not to everyone's taste but I thought a really interesting debut novel.

If you're into Golden Age (aka Agatha Christie / Dorothy Sayers) then Ngaio Marsh fits right into that category.

Rose Beecham's series is interesting, and personally, I'd like to track down some books by Laurie Mantell but so far no joy here.

November 09, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Karen, I had a feeling you meant something like that regarding translation. I find it shocking that a publisher would do something like that to a book, though. At most, an edition aimed at English-language readers outside Australia should include an occasional footnote or maybe a brief introduction about Australian slang. And how the hell does one tone down irony? It’s hard to comment without knowing specific instances, but that sounds like a terrible practice. I do remember seeing an example of something very much like Cockney rhyming slang in The Big Ask.

Interesting to see that David Owen writes books other than crime fiction. Garry Disher does the same. Is this a coincidence, just quirks and preferences of these two writers? And did you see in the comment right above yours that I’ve ordered two of the Pufferfish novels (The Devil Taker and X and Y?

November 09, 2006  
Anonymous Karen C said...

I did see your comments about the Pufferfish books - I do hope you enjoy them. Alas there's only been the 4 of them. is my recent comment on Pig's Head including a definition of a Pufferfish.

A number of authors here do things other than just crime - it's probably commercial reality - it's a very small market here and it's hard to survive on crime alone, especially with the lack of overseas publishing deals - or at least that's what I'm surmising. It's feasible that the other books are also something that the authors love to do - I suspect (but don't know for sure) that that is the case with Garry Disher.

David Owen's Pufferfish series came and went in the 1990's pretty quickly - I think somebody mentioned a while ago that he simply couldn't get a deal for more of the books - but that's hearsay - I don't know for sure.

I had some specific references for difficulties in getting interest in Australian authors overseas a while ago, but now can't for the life of me find them. I'll keep digging around in the detritus of my reference notes to see if I can track them down.

November 09, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

I had a feeling money and commercial realities might account for that versatility. I suspect you’re right about Garry Disher, too. I seem to recall reading an interview in which he talked about the different types of books he writes and why he likes writing each, with no hint that the size of the domestic crime-fiction marked played a role.

I just looked up that definition of pufferfish. It’s the second definition I’ve seen, and both are delightful incentives to reading the books.

Regarding crime fiction in smaller markets, I wonder what Finnish crime writers do. I’ve read that Finland’s crime-fiction scene thrives -– impressive in a pretty small country with a language little translated or understood outside the country.

November 09, 2006  

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