This debut novel by ex policewoman P M Newton made it to my shopping basket because I’m trying to read as much Aussie crime fiction as I can and because a crime fiction commentator I respect, Graeme Blundell, said the book “puts Newton in the company of Gabrielle Lord and Peter Temple“. After that I couldn’t resist.
It is 1992 and Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly is a relatively newly qualified Detective Constable in Sydney’s west. When two sets of bones are discovered in the foundations of a building being demolished Ned is drawn into the investigation both for professional and personal reasons. Determining who the people were and what happened to them unfolds within a wider context of social issues affecting the city both in the mid 1970’s, when the bodies were placed in the concrete foundations, and sixteen years later when they are discovered. The Aboriginal land rights movement, the treatment of soldiers returning from the Vietnam war, the absorption of different cultures into the sprawling city and the misappropriation of power by some within the police force are all woven into a complex but highly believable story.
Having lived on the fringes of the giant sprawl that is Sydney during the late 80’s and early 90’s the aspect of the book that stood out most strongly for me was that Newton has captured perfectly the things I loved about living there and the things that drove me away. The multitudes of cultures that rub along together, the endless traffic snarls, the dodgy politics, the chasm between haves and have nots are all to be found in this novel. Anchoring the book to its time are major real life events including the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s inquiry into corruption in the NSW Police Force. I can honestly attest that, just as in this book, ICAC wasn’t an acronym in Sydney in 1992: it was a word that everyone knew the meaning of and everyone was talking about. Another significant event that is used to great impact in The Old School is the speech given by our then Prime Minister (and written by one of Australia’s unsung political heroes) to launch the International Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
Born in Australia to a Vietnamese mother and an Irish-Australian father she carries not much more than her name to acknowledge the Vietnamese part of her heritage. And even there she prefers the Australian nickname that was inevitable with a surname like Kelly and an unpronounceable first name starting with N. There are reasons for Ned’s decisions and these are teased out beautifully in the story to provide depth to her character. She is surrounded by other intriguing people too. Her loving sister, her prejudiced Aunt, a range of colleagues with their own foibles and personal demons. All of these people are imperfect and often unlikable but they are all highly credible and the kind of people you want to read more about.
This book has all the ingredients of the top notch crime fiction. There are believable, interesting characters, a story that keeps readers guessing, a strong sense of its time and place and something to say about the human condition. Would police be so open to corruption if they were all paid enough to live comfortably in one of the most expensive cities to live in the world? Can we learn anything from our collective past or are we doomed to repeat the worst abuses of our fellow man over and over again? There is a slight over-reliance on coincidence and perhaps a thread or two too many woven into the plot but overall this is a highly readable and impressive debut and I look forward to reading the next installment of this series.
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My rating 4/5
Publisher Penguin ; ISBN 9780670074518; Length 363 pages
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The Old School has been reviewed at Mysteries in Paradise
You can listen to Paul Keating’s 1992 speech here (though only if you have IE or Firefox).