PAVING THE NEW ROAD by Sulari Gentill 

Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press, 2018, $15.95 in trade paperback, $6.99 in ebook.

Australian writer Sulari Gentill gave up the law to write award-winning mystery novels starring gentleman-painter Rowland Sinclair and his merry and unorthodox band of artistic friends. Her first “Rowly” mystery-cum-adventure, A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN, dealt with right-wing Australian politics. It was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for first Best Book. A DECLINE IN PROPHETS, the second in the series, won the Davitt Award for Best Adult Crime Fiction. The fourth, PAVING THE NEW ROAD, which returns to the theme of Fascist politics, was short-listed for the Davitt Award.

(Since 2001, the Davitt awards have been given by Sisters in Crime Australia for the best mystery fiction by Australian women. They are named for Ellen Davitt, who penned Australia’s first mystery novel in 1865.)

There are four other Sinclair novels, the latest one just published in Australia by Pantera Press. In the United States, Poisoned Pen Press has so far released the first four. One hopes it will publish all of them and continue to use the glorious covers commissioned by Pantera. 

The cover for PAVING THE NEW ROAD is bold, but shadowed, in its design and colors. In the foreground, an SS officer’s back is turned to the viewer. Who is this ominous person? The faceless woman standing bright against a darkening background, could be Germany as Adolph Hitler’s Nazi reich takes over and begins to implement its murderous rule. Or is it Australia? Eric Campbell, leader of the Australian New Guard, went to Germany in 1933 to observe, to learn, and, above all, receive Hitler’s blessing.

The Old Guard, however, has no interest in allowing Campbell to receive that imprimatur. Although hard right themselves and as equally opposed to the now out-of-power Prime Minister Jack Lang as the New Guard, the Old Guard still has their raison d’être—King and Country—and men actually in government. Eric Campbell and the New Guard are seen as a threat to that cause. The Old Guard has placed a man, Peter Bothwell, in Germany to thwart Campbell’s desires for recognition. When Bothwell dies under mysterious circumstances, the Old Guard turns to Rowland Sinclair, a man not at all reliable in their prim, proper, conservative eyes. Although a gentleman and brother to one of their own, Rowland Sinclair is damned eccentric, at best, in their eyes—a painter and a Leftist with a wild bunch of friends (Clyde, another painter; Milton, a poet and a Jew; and Edna, a liberated woman and sculptor) and a ragged-eared dog named Lenin. Sinclair offends the Old Guard’s sensibilities at every level; however, he is capable—and expendable.

When Senator Charles Hardy presents the situation and the mission to go to Germany to prevent Campbell meeting Hitler, Sinclair agrees. He accepts that he’s less valuable than his older brother. What follows from that acceptance has all the air of a lark, a madcap adventure. Rowly’s friends insist on going with him. Under the cover of art collectors on a a purchasing tour in Europe, they are off on their adventures which takes them by aeroplane to Singapore. (They stick it to the Old Guard by buying Surrealists and Dadaist art, to the increasing fury of their paymasters.) They meet W. Somerset Maugham, the British author and spy, who knew Bothwell. His seriousness is one of the first pinpricks that let the air out of the lark balloon. Once they reach Munich, Sinclair has a British control who is as unhelpful as he is disagreeable. 

Although taken in by a protective old tailor smitten with Edna, It becomes increasingly clear they had no true idea what they were getting into—union offices demolished, Communists driven underground and hunted, Jews publicly humiliated, the SA (the Brownshirts) everywhere bullying everyone, and the SA’s eventual replacements, the SS, making an ominous appearance. (The Night of Long Knives is about a year in the future.) There is also some genuine wackiness and improvisation to add to the sense of the surreal for Sinclair and his friends—Albert Goering, anything but a Nazi despite his brother; Unity Mitford, a British aristocrat, thorough-going Nazi, and Hitler groupie waiting for her man, and Eva Braun, a shop assistant engaged in an illicit affair with an apparently married man. These cameo appearances of real, historical persons, are usually necessary to advance the plot, but there is a certain, forced quality to the sheer number of them that will grate on some readers.

Although the cameos suggest too much going on in this novel, it is an easy and engaging read full of likable characters and a very strong sense of time and place. The collective naïveté of Sinclair and his friends—thinking the Nazis are clowns—is gradually replaced by a more realistic understanding that the Nazi are dangerous and destructive. (A salutary warning in these modern times.) If the improvisations and play-acting and failure to the live the legends completely strike a reader as amateurish, one needs to remember that espionage was not the sophisticated, technological, and professionalized undertaking it is today. It is the British agents who have the most experience and who undertake the training of the innocent, straight-forward Australians. (The British likewise had to teach the Americans, for good and ill, as well.) Furthermore, World War II and the following Cold War had much more to do with that transition.

That said, the reader will be forgiven for thinking this more a spy yarn than a murder mystery. There is a murder investigation here, but it feels distinctly like an afterthought. Stopping Campbell comes first, and, once that is accomplished, then Sinclair and his friends need to get out of Germany. The reader will suspect the murderer long before Sinclair and friends do though it is an unpleasant revelation. The reasons for the murder are as sordid as ever, even if the clues supporting the deductions are sparse. Worse, the confrontation with the murderer, though a tight spot for Rowly, has a rather anti-climactic, unsatisfying feel to it.

These sizable quibbles aside, PAVING THE NEW ROAD (the very title of Eric Campbell’s real, Fascist manifesto), is worth the reader’s time, providing an enjoyable interlude while gently suggesting real danger. One does not need to read the previous Rowland Sinclair novels; one can jump right in and enjoy this one on its own merits, as I did. Chances are excellent that one will wish to read the others. The real attraction is Rowland Sinclair, a gentleman one wishes to meet and go adventuring with again and again.

Received from Netgallery

Copyright KG Whitehurst