Shane Maloney -- "Quintessentially Australian"
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
Australian crime fiction
humorous crime fiction