Crime Fiction Alphabet: F is for Fortress

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).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My earlier contributions to the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme

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9 Responses to Crime Fiction Alphabet: F is for Fortress

  1. Bernadette – I am so impressed at how well you’re sticking to your personal one-word-title goal! I am in awe.

    I agree that it’s so nice when an author does her or his homework and adds a solid realistic element to a novel without making it too heavy. It sounds as though Lord does that quite well in this novel. I like that about a lot of Ruth Rendell’s work, too. Thanks for sharing this one : )

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  2. Kerrie says:

    You are doing well with your contributions Bernadette. Gabrielle Lord talks about the fact that she puts huge amounts of efforts into her research and I think it certainly pays off. I haven’t read all her titles yet though. Must read another soon.

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  3. It feels so good that via Crime Fiction Alphabet I am getting to know new to me authors. I like that!

    You reviewed it well.

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: F post!

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  4. Maxine says:

    Good piece, Bernadette. Gabrielle Lord is not easy to get over here, though I believe (from Karen I think) that her YA books you mention will be coming out here too. You write that she gets better with time – which of her books do you think is the best, so far? (If I have to shell out a heap to get one from Abe books, which one is most worth it, in other words?!) Are they series or standalones?

    Looking forward to G !

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  5. bernadetteinoz says:

    Maxine I would suggest The Whipping Boy – it is a standalone and really quite powerful. It does touch on the subject of men who do nasty things to children but it focuses on the woman who is put in charge of the govt. inquiry into a child porn racket and really does delve into how these kinds of crimes go on for years and what has to happen for them to stop. It’s a standalone novel.

    I also really like the Gemma Lincoln series of four books which starts with FEEDING THE DEMONS (which I have a second hand copy of that you are welcome to).

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