For my contribution to the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme this week I’m taking a look at Australian author Gabrielle Lord‘s first novel Fortress, published in 1980. It tells the story of a small school in Sunny Flat NSW (about 500 kilometres west of Sydney) where the sole teacher, Sally Jones, and her 12 students are getting ready for a visit by an Inspector when they are kidnapped by men wearing cartoon character masks. Although neither the teacher nor any of the students are famous or from wealthy families they are held for $1 million ransom. The entire book takes place over the next 40-odd hours as Sally first comforts the children then develops an urge to escape and, ultimately, turn on her captors.
This book is interesting because over the years it has been classified as both adult fiction and young adult fiction and even now I’m not sure where it would belong. I did first read it when at high school but read it again about 10 years later and enjoyed it both times so perhaps it doesn’t really matter. However you classify it the strong psychological elements to the story and unexpected ending made it quite gripping. The students range from kindergarten age to mid-teenage which adds a complexity to the book that is also quite interesting although it doesn’t make it much like Lord of the Flies (despite the many reviews that say it does).
Lord uses real life events as the basis for her book (a 1972 kidnapping from outer Melbourne’s one-teacher Faraday School) although Fortress is far more sinister than the original story. This is an early demonstration of something that has always struck me about Lord’s work: the in-depth research that she puts in. Somehow she manages to strike the right balance between including enough realistic detail to make the story work but not too much as to bog it down unnecessarily. In Fortress the details of remote schooling in Australia are spot on as is the behaviour depicted of both kidnappers and victims.
Personally I think the more subtle elements of the book were lost in the film that was made in 1985 starring Rachel Ward as Sally Jones but, as is often the case, if you ignore the fact it was based on a book it’s not a bad movie in its own right.
Gabrielle Lord is quite prolific having written 10 standalone novels plus having two ongoing crime series and in 2010 she will add to her young adult work by releasing one thriller each month for the whole year in a project called Conspiracy 365. Over the years I think I’ve read most of her books and they certainly do become more polished in terms of writing and structure than Fortress however it’s a damned fine debut novel. Lord has gone from strength to strength since Fortress and her accolades include a Ned Kelly Award in 2002 (for Death Delights) and a Davitt Award in 2003 (for Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing).
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My earlier contributions to the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme