OK, sure, a cut above plenty in this genre. McGahan catches that dry, Australian understatement typical of Peter Temple. His plotting is competent, pacing pretty assured (very much a mathematical build, with the gradient doubling every so often – slow first half, almost bumbling around, then up a notch, then two, then four etc.), dialogue plausible. It’s an interesting context to weave a story around – the distant fallout from a Brisbane before ‘the’ Inquiry. The writing is generally solid, and improves (particularly once he gets past the nasty, common, cheap technique he uses way too much in the first few chapters, of writing several long sentences to set up a climactic short one, which is meant to make it really sting. It doesn’t. More it distracts by how obvious a technique it is.). Much of the interweaving of timelines works to effectively mete out bits of the historical puzzle (although I was a bit over the constantly foregrounded Election Day (ba-doom, ba-doom) by the time we got there).
But much of the ride felt too contrived to me. I mean, good authors are all about contrivance – but not one the readers are aware of. I think what tipped me over the line was one too many ruminations on ‘Brisbane’, self-consciously trying to catch the spirit of place – like some other famous crime writers do for New York or Edinburgh or whatever. I think this would have been fine as something our character referenced once or twice, or maybe it could come out in some reminiscing dialogue as old friends come to some new awareness. It is an interesting observation, this picture of two Brisbanes living on top of each other, one blissfully ignorant of the other; and rather than lauding their separation, the illuminati relishing the secret nature of their exploitation and indulgence. But McGahan is openly bunting for profundity, so he returns to this motif too frequently, adding no further insight, but pushing us to take him more seriously because he’s devoting words to personifying a city instead of car chases, explosions and décolletage. Similarly he shows some craft in discussing and incorporating alcoholism into the story – it’s almost another character – but at times this theme seemed to be at the expense of character and plot. Maybe it just didn’t resonate with me because I’m not a drinker: I’d be interested to know whether drinkers felt this aspect plausible. The pages are so sodden, and it does work that you’ve pretty much got this BC/AD divide in Verney’s life, before and after drinking.
I didn’t find much in the way of characters to like in this book. Or even ones to enjoy. In some ways this is deliberate – hats off to McGahan for how George is consistently vacillating and ineffective, and never has his cliché magic moment of gritting his teeth and stepping up to uncharacteristically deck/shoot/outwit the bad guy (why would we like George even in those moments that he doesn’t like himself … although, ironically, in one sense this fallibility makes him more likeable). There are several idiosyncratic personalities, but I think McGahan labours the, “Well, you should have seen ‘em back in the day,” rather than creating gripping people now. This particularly for the goddess Maybellene. Her CV, for example, is amazing, but we never actually experience her youthful fiery intelligence and zeal, or her descent into compromise – we’re just told it was a stunning turnaround. Rather than having a backstory she pretty much *is* a backstory. Her repeatedly delayed entrance becomes comical, with every mention of her name meant to trigger massive internal reverb in the narrating voice inside your head. But unlike Sauron or Moriarty – who stay potent largely through absence – May doesn’t (couldn’t!) live up to her melodramatic billing when she finally enters. Moreover once she arrives so do several forced plot coincidences that made me wince a bit: she happens on Varney’s hotel door at just the right minute; she arrives in Highwood, kissing George, at the cataclysmically wrong one; and it’s the utterly contrived ‘stray’ bullet – in a by the numbers showdown setting – that makes the resolution/tragedy. But it would have been as tragic if it had have hit anyone, we hadn’t particularly invested in her.
This felt like someone producing a thoroughly worthy assignment more than them pursuing something that inspired them and gave them real pleasure.