Thursday, October 04, 2007

A history lesson in an Australian crime novel?

Crime fiction from countries other than one’s own can offer lessons in contemporary and recent history, as well. Kel Robertson’s debut novel, Dead Set, offers a protagonist with an unusual and pertinent ethnicity (Chinese-Australian) and an addiction that stands out amid the legions of fictional detectives who consume dangerous substances: He’s hooked on painkillers.

In the novel’s early pages, he also pushes a murder investigation in a potentially explosive direction:

“People started to gather their papers but something irked me about the groups we’d been briefed on. Most of their members were, inevitably, unskilled, uneducated males – blokes in the edge of society. There wasn't a single group of coppers or ex-servicemen. There were no equivalents of General Blamey’s White Knights of the 1920s, Eric Campbell’s New Guard of the 1930s or Ted Serong’s more recent Aussie Freedom Scouts. ...

"`The groups listed here don't include the better organized ones – those made up of police and soldiers. Are you saying they no longer exist?'"

"Miller looked at Best."
I don’t know those groups, even whether they are real of fictional, but I suspect that the passage has introduced me to a phenomenon in Australian history with which some in the country might be uncomfortable.

So, a twofold question to readers this time: What role did these groups play in Australian history? What other crime fiction sheds light in a country’s recent or contemporary history?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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12 Comments:

Blogger Sam Grumont said...

The groups are real. The New Guard was a paramilitary organisation of the 1930's - a right wing group. The most famous incident was by a member, Captain Francis de Groot, who rode his horse through the crowd at the offical opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and slashed the ribbon.

October 05, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

I'd assumed that the White Knights reference meant the White Army which Blamey was head of, and Eric Campbell's New Guard was a 1930's Fascist Group - both of them were strongly opposed to / almost fanatical about the threat of Communism in Australia.

Ted Serong is more recent - dying in 2002 - he was basically an anti-communist / nationalist - best to check him out here probably: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Philip_(Ted)_Serong

It was an interesting comment to find in this book as it did draw attention to some of the more right-wing / shadowy organisations around here that are easy to forget (mind you - they aren't the only ones by any means).

I still maintain some of the best books for social commentary are the Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo series, perhaps less stridently / overtly the Simenon series as well. All of them say a lot about the society in which they are setting the stories.

October 05, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

Incidentally - before anyone gets excited - I take the "Fascist" reference for the New Guard from:

http://www.abc.net.au/gnt/history/Transcripts/s1202889.htm

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks to you both for the informative comments, and welcome to Detectives Beyond Borders, Sam. I hope you'll visit often.

I'm not far enough into Dead Set to see what Robertson makes of the references. Karen, you say the groups are easy to forget. Perhaps Robertson has Brad Chen bring them up as a reminder that they may survive in spirit. Perhaps he uses them as a red herring. Since Chen is of Chinese descent, I suspect that the specter of the long-ago right-wing groups is, at the very least, a mood-setter to create tension. The possibility of racial confrontation would do a good job of that.

In any case, the subject may hold special fascination for non-Australians. Australia has had such a high and positive profile in North America for years, a profile only enhanced by the Sydney Olympics. These shadowy groups add a richer, if darker touch to the image.
=================

I've just found this in an online article about Francis de Groot:

"De Groot's bookplate boasted, `The Sword is Mightier than the Scissors.'"

Even in such a grim, scary subject, there is a bit of humor, albeit grim and scary, too.

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Barbara said...

Can't add anything to the Australian history discussion (though I am learning things - thanks) - but I'm reminded of a book set in the US that deals with a similar shadowy racist organization from the past that is assumed to be long gone but turns out to be still active in the 1990s in Thomas Zigal's THE WHITE LEAGUE. Excellent book with a rich New Orleans setting and some of that history that we'd rather forget but which in some incarnation or other lives on.

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Even that title is chilling, Barbara. Dead Set has a grim but amusing passage in which the narrator muses about a list of key words that figure in the names of the Australian groups. With minor revisions, the list is accurate for the U.S., as well. It includes white, army, resistance, Australia, perhaps Aryan as well and the like. If memory serves, it also includes one especially thought-provoking word: people.

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I'd imagine there are some books already written or in the process of being written which are set in Sarajevo and other Balkan places in the 1990s. Whether the authors could be honest about the history is another question.

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I think Dan Fesperman has already written crime novels set amid the Balkan wars of the 1990s. I can't attest to the honesty of his views. He is or was a journalist and, I believe, a war correspondent, so I suspect that he concentrates on the situation "on the ground."

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Hmm. I'll look him up.

Close your italics tag at the bottom of this post, willya? ;)

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister, this is weird. I received a friendly e-mail with a complaint similar to yours about the italics in this post, though no such problem appeared when I viewed it. When I wrote back to tell him this, he replied that the post now looked fine to him, as well, even though I had made no change. I wonder if Blogger is having an italics-related problem that is visible only to some viewers.

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Dunno. It does look fine now, but everything was italicized below this post as of last night and again this morning. Even the entire sidebar was italicized. It's ok now as well.

Who knows?

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

The hand of Blogger works in mysterious ways. Thanks for letting me know about the problem, though.

October 05, 2007  

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