Posts filed under ‘crime’


Firstly lets state the obvious – McEwen is a genius. His books are so easy to read and yet so complex, both the issues they address, and the complexity of the characters they create. Reading this book is like going to the best university you can imagine. Science, philosophy, politics, ethics, literature, psychology – its all here, seamlessly blended and beautifully presented.

He is a master of his art and i think he knows it. In this book he deliberately takes on two of the biggest names in the literary business – James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. Like their acknowledged classics, Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway respectively, Saturday takes place in one 24 hour span, and is largely comprised of internal mental dialogue. To me the blatant choice to use that form is a declaration – I’m as good as them, put me in that category. And as they say in basketball – it ain’t bragging if you can back it up. He does so in spades.

However, there are a couple of key differences from those books. Some things do happen in this one. Meaning there is a plot of sorts. And it is entirely from the perspective of one character, Henry Perowne.

He is a brain surgeon living London with his lawyer wife, and oddly – his jazz/blues guitarist son. They are expecting his left leaning poet daughter to arrive for dinner that evening. They are a little nervous because Henry’s elderly father in law, is coming. He is also a poet, well known, but drunk and egotistical. Last time he and his granddaughter met they had a major falling out. Perowne is hoping for a reconciliation over dinner.

The plot though is not driven by this family drama. Rather the purpose of these very carefully designed family members seems to be to provide Perowne, and McEwen, with excuses throughout the book for lengthy and erudite debates with himself about the merits of various writers, jazz and blues musicians, politics – especially the Iraq war of 2003, and many other issues. In every case McEwen not only shows off his scholarly grasp of these issues but his gift as a writer to show how Perowne’s positions on all these things are influenced by his personal experiences, and current events in his life and that of his family.

The book manages to blend the personal current events of its main character, with both global current affairs and the history of ideas, in a way i found uniquely insightful. For example at one point Henry is in a traffic jam

“He lowers his window to taste the scene in full, the bovine patience of a jam, the abrasive tang of icy fumes, the thunderous idling machinery in six lanes east and west, the yellow street lights bleaching colour from the body work, the jaunty thud from entertainment systems, and red tail lights stretching way ahead into the city, white headlights pouring out of it.”

This is a remarkable description but what makes it genius is what follows

He tries to see it or feel it in historical terms. This moment in the last decades of the petroleum age when a 19th-century device is brought to final perfection in the early years of the 21st. When the unprecedented wealth of masses at serious play in the unforgiving modern city makes for a sight no previous age can have imagined. Ordinary people. Rivers of light. He wants to make himself see it as Newton might – or his contemporaries Boyle, Hooke Wren Willis. Those clever, curious men of the English enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the Worlds science. Surely they would be awed. Mentally he shows it off to them. This is what we’ve done, this is commonplace in or time. All this teeming illumination would be wondrous if only he could see it through their eyes. But he can’t quite trick himself into it. He can’t feel his way past the iron weight of the actual to see beyond the boredom of a traffic tail back, or the delay to which he himself is contributing, or the drab commercial hopes of a parade of shops he’s been stuck beside for 15 minutes. He doesn’t have the lyric gift to see beyond it – he’s a realist, and can never escape. But then, perhaps two poets in the family enough.

To take the most ordinary moment – a traffic jam – and turn it into not only a brief history of ideas but also a piece of self help advice about how to remain positive is impressive enough. But to seamlessly conclude the thought by moving to a very personal reflective moment from the character, that ostensibly tells the reader something about the character, but really tells the reader about themself. That is the height of writing.

And there is much more. A great insight about what it was like as a boy to be raised without a father, which i know to be true. A very prescient description of our attitudes to media coverage of war and terrorism. A hot shower in which Perowne muses that this will be seen in future as the height of western achievement. A walk to his car that covers the history of ideas. It’s all beautifully done and nearly always seems to appear naturally from Perowne as a character, rather than McEwen as the show off author giving us lectures about this and that.

Stop now if you dont want spoilers

But the plot is not driven by Perownes musings or his family concerns. It is his encounter with a petty thug called Baxter following a minor traffic incident that keeps things moving. During the incident Baxter threatens and then punches Perowne. But it turns out Baxter has a rare genetic brain disease that Perowne can diagnose from looking at him. The disease will kill him over a period of some years. Perowne uses this knowledge on Baxter to save himself from getting further beaten up, and get out of the situation, but in the process humiliates Baxter in front of his underlings. Later there is a series of events involving Perowne and his family in which Baxter gets a brain injury and is taken to hospital. The hospital then calls in Perowne to operate on Baxter, not knowing of any background between the two.

Bookgroup had a lengthy discussion about whether it was appropriate for Perowne to operate after the night that he had had, including the trauma of a home invasion and quite a few drinks. Obviously the consensus view was that it was not appropriate. There was another view that this operation was an allegory for Western intervention in a Iraq in the sense that Perowne was intervening in this unknown land, the brain of Baxter, in his attempt to do good in this foreign land.

In hindsight I think this discussion maybe missed the obvious motivation for the operation which was revenge. Effectively by operating skilfully Perowne knowingly condemned Baxter to a dreadful death from his pre-existing condition. This is perhaps the most devastating revenge one could take.

After the bookgroup discussion i felt overlooking this was comparable in many ways to the way we search for complicated, and less objectionable more rational, socio economic causes to explain various political phenomena. Often, simple basic offensive human drives like racism explain these phenomena much more coherently, but less comfortably.

However, at the end of the book Perowne denies he acted out of revenge. He even sets out a plan in his mind to get his family not to press charges so Baxter will end his foreshortened life in hospital not jail. He seems to be thinking he is acting humanely by planning in this way. But in the same stream of internal dialogue he also acknowledges that ‘by saving his life in the operating theatre, Henry has committed Baxter to his torture. Revenge enough’.

Whether you believe Perowne on this and whatever view you take on his other actions and motivations, it is a great tribute to McEwen that he has constructed a scenario that is so rich and complex that it can be read in so many ways.

It is a wonderful book and highly recommended.

For this book group many of us read other McEwen books – everyone raved about them all as we did when we read black dogs and the children act.


December 24, 2017 at 7:08 am Leave a comment


 We had a lot of fun doing a read through of this play at bookgroup. Reading it aloud to each other, with everyone taking a character, was such a different experience from reading it alone as a book. It was quite a revelation. The characters were more alive, they were funnier, the whole thing was a much more vibrant experience.

The book is a short play based on the real life character of tilly devine (see backstory and pics), a famous female underworld figure from the 30s to the 60s in sydney. Apparently Peter Kenna wrote, the “Slaughter of St Theresa’s day” in the front room of pete’s house. so obviously bookgroup was held there, which added to the appeal.

With the title and the subject matter i was expecting the usual collection of stuff about snappy, suits, sly grog and brothels, as portrayed in the recent TV series that dramatised her life. Surprisingly the story is actually more a study of a dysfunctional family. It takes place over one 24 hour period when the tilly character’s daughter arrives home from boarding school for her mum’s annual st theresa’s day party. unfortunately a young ‘jack the lad’ type character, recently out of jail and completely unreformed, also arrives. things go downhill from there.

However, the violence isn’t portrayed and its not at all clear that the deaths and so on are linked to gangland turf wars, or dodgy deals gone wrong. The play turns out not to be about any of that. It is much more about what it was like to live in a community of very impulsive, honour obsessed, irish descended catholics in mid 20th century sydney.

It felt like a window into a personality type, and a culture, that we middle class 21st century sydney bookgrouper’s dont see much any more, but haven’t quite forgotten. Perhaps it is also a window into the mindset that is still created today in males from some cultures, where honour and impulsiveness are still valued more highly than control and moderation and tolerance.

February 16, 2013 at 6:50 am Leave a comment


Truth by Peter Temple is the 2010 Miles Franklin Award Winner and a crime novel. These are two things that can rarely be said about 1 book, which suggests there might be something special about this work.

but if that’s the case, it eluded most bookgroupers, at least for the 1st half of the book. many of us struggled with the cliched, emotionless, tougher than tough exchanges, both between cops, and between the lead character and everyone else in his life.

Bookgroupers that were familiar with the genre said one of two things: either the work created nothing new in terms of the style of the genre, or the book was not typical of the genre. i’m not sure we resolved this seemingly irreconcilable difference of opinion.

despite these shortcomings, many of us did get into the book by the 2nd half. The upside that slowly drew me in to the book was partly the politics, partly the lead character and partly the multiple story lines.

As someone that gets to see the interaction between the bureaucracy and politics in state government i thought the portrayal of politics and the upper echelons of the police force really rang true.

Similarly, i loved the fact the lead character, vilani, was far from perfect. he was a workaholic, inexcusably absent father, which is what you have to be to get to the upper echelons of any big bureaucracy. i found that a welcome relief from the ridiculous – incorruptible tough guys with hearts of gold – that you usually see in hollywood, and tv, crime fiction. For me, this is where the title comes from. The book tells the truth about the lead protagonist, vilani, rather than painting him as some kind of stainless hero.

Bookgroupers familiar with the genre agreed on one point – the whodunnit issue was not the main focus of the novel. I think that is true, and might be why i liked book in the end. the crime aspect of the novel was more like the background and against which the real drama, the private life of vilani, took place. nevertheless, the crime story that was told did ring true, it wasnt overly glamourous or full of super-villains, it seemed very believable.

On the other hand, the ending was a bit saccharine and anything but believable. However, i was pleased with it because it was neat and fairly happy so it left me with a feeling of satisfaction about the experience of reading the book.

On balance i’d recommend it to crime fiction readers, but if, like me, you are not a crime fiction reader i’d say it does not justify a diversion in to unfamiliar territory.

March 20, 2011 at 5:51 am Leave a comment


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