On a hot day I am enjoying the aircon in my big truck, driving down town. I cross the brown, sluggish river, looking at the banks where the old quays and warehouses are being cleared and the new commercial centre is rising. Behind me the art galleries, museums and cultural centres have their stainless steel gleaming in the sun. If I drove through the city I would eventually find that the old farm has been cleared and is now a housing development. This state capital is big and it goes a long way in more ways than one.
Last week I was sweating in Florida with the latest Carl Hiaason, BASKET CASE, this week I have been dripping with the man who could be his Australian cousin. THE BRUSH-OFF is one of Shane Maloney's four Murray Whelan novels, but only the first to be published here. It's worth spending a little time getting to know him.
When you read Carl Hiaason you have to make an initial leap of faith that Floridian society is as corrupt as he describes (then you read his journalism and discover he's not making it up); with Shane Maloney there is something similar in Australia it is the incestuous interplay of the trades unions, pension funds, political parties and businessmen. Businessmen in themselves are dubious, and so are property developers wherever they are in the world. Murray and his Melbourne chums have a past more closely linked with the Christian Brothers than in many parts of the world; though, again, psychopathic teachers who've screwed you up for life are there in most people's experience. You may not recognise things like Mu Mus and Gelatis, but you'll get the idea pretty quickly.
Murray Whelan is hanging on as a political advisor to Angelo Agnelli, hoping he'll move with Angelo when the big man moves ministries in the Victoria state government. Murray's personal life is up the creek, his wife has left him and he only sees his son on rare occasions. If he can't help Angelo cut it in his new ministry then there will be no job.
Okay, so there are the really big boys everyone has heard of Kerry Packer, Robert Holmes a Court, Rupert Murdoch. Then you have the big boys the ones who are reconstructing cities such as Melbourne men such as Max Karlin and Lloyd Eastlake. Not only are they keen to get planning permissions on a big scale, they might be willing to fill the coffers of the state Labour Party, and they are also keen to emphasize their full Australian credentials. Everyone, from Murray and his mates to the millionaires, has shaken off the cultural cringe, so how better should everyone get together than a preview of the state's latest acquisition the late Victor Szabo's painting Man With Lawn-Mower?
Changing ministries, from Ethnic Affairs to Arts and Water (Angelo is been given both), Murray has suddenly to learn about art which, quite reasonably, is why the book starts with him rolling about the sward of the Botanic Gardens with Salina Fleet who knows about such things. Murray, though, did not expect to leave the Gardens and walk back to his wine glass to find said young lady's boyfriend being retrieved from the Art Centre moat, not when the young man has been making statements about art in the city, and not now when the young man is dead. Next day Murray, as little as he knows about art, knows enough to be surprised to find another copy of the painting in the dead man's studio. Things go downhill from there on.
Death, as Jimi Hendrix once said, can be a great career move for an artist. At least it increased the value of Victor Szabo's estate providing more copies don't keep appearing. It also means that the recognised experts on the artist's work can find themselves a nice little earner writing the standard catalogue, locating and selling, authenticating work, or in the case of svelte Fiona Lambert, marking up the prices to a surprising degree.
For a man with Murray's level of self-deprecation, he does quite well, even if he fails to work out everything at once, and even if he goes through most of the book with one or two unattractive and smelly handicaps. Naturally there are very few arrests and fewer convictions Murray is not dealing with the sort of people who want even their lawful dealings out in the open, but most people come close to getting their just deserts. You'd be surprised who they are, though that's one of the things I liked about THE BRUSH-OFF, not to mention why and where. There must be a lot more of Melbourne to explore I hope Canongate give us all the chance to do it with Murray Whelan.
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