This week I’ve been thinking about the mystery novels I read and loved years ago. I hoovered up Dick Francis books as a teenager because I was obsessed with horses. I suspect that was also when my fascination for mysteries was born. As a consequence Francis holds a nostalgic place in my reading memory despite eventually coming to believe that horse racing should be banned. His novels were fast-paced easy reads full of muddy race tracks, crooked bookies, cheating jockeys and brutal owners.
Francis had himself been a jockey and horse trainer and all his novels revolved around the English race tracks. He wrote most, if not all, in collaboration with his wife, a former school teacher and expert researcher. Some people viewed him as the horse worlds Agatha Christie, but Francis was way more brutal than Agatha ever was in the way he physically and mentally tortured his protagonists.
One of my first jobs out of high school in the mid-eighties was as a track rider for a race horse trainer. The job reminded me of Francis’s tough masculine characters every day I went to work. I have one vivid memory of giving a young jockey a lift home and staring in horror when he leaned out of the car window, whip in hand, and cut a female cyclist across buttocks as we passed. When I threatened to turf him out of the car he just laughed. It could have been a scene from one of Francis’s novels.
When Dick Francis said he always tried to think of a dirty deed, and build a plot around it he captured the heart of the mystery. They open with some kind of disruption to the social order that creates a puzzle our hero must solve. Along the way they uncover secrets, are diverted by red herrings, meet unexpected surprises and have their physical and psychological limits tested. They always prevail and set the world to rights again enabling the reader to experience the tension vicariously and discover the hero within.
By the late nineties I had started to move on from horse riding as a profession and got what my parents called ‘a real job’ in a more politically leaning pursuit.
One of Dick Francis’s last novels, 10lb Penalty (1997), blended racing and politics and was the last of his books I read. Some time after that I discovered Shane Maloney who introduced me to the use of mysteries as a form of literary protest. Who wouldn’t be excited to find politicised crime fiction novels set in their own town?
Maloney set his novels in 1990’s Melbourne and bought our political and social fabric to life on the page. His public servant protagonist Murray Whelan shone a light on the absurdity of the political landscape that emerged in the Jeff Kennett era. He satirised Australian politics well before The Hollowmen and Utopia came to our screens. Though the latter have demonstrated that the world of politics continues to be ludicrous in a very frightening way.
Maloney’s books edge into the world of the subgenre ‘apparatchik lit’, some say he invented it. The term lends itself from the word used for bureaucrats in the Russian Communist Party and explores the intimate workings of politics, the machinery of government and lobby groups and how they impact the social fabric of the society they are set in. I love the way Maloney used suspicion, humour and play as a cover for more sinister events in his novels.
While some of the stories that emerge in this type of fiction (or tv series) appear beyond absurd, you’d be surprised how close to real life they can be. A friend who works in a government department once told me that the day after one episode of Utopia their Minister called the office demanding to know who had leaked information about an issue that had appeared on the program…
It’s fair to say that the arrogance of our politicians, their moral hypocrisy and power games continue to be ripe for the picking. You only have to turn to our own national political landscape for endless examples at the moment.
The novel I am currently working on is placed in Melbourne but draws on material from recent (mostly) national politics in an attempt to shine a light on some contemporary political absurdities.
If you have any suggestions for more Shane Maloney type novels, particularly if set in Australia – let me know.
Main image: Horses at Warnambool
Inset images in order: Horses at Warnambool; Parliament Drive, Canberra; Parliament House, Canberra.