The story is a mix of two first person narratives and follows the style of many epistolary murder mysteries of the 19th and early 20th century. As Hamilton narrates the bulk of the story interspersed are reminisces of letters Carruthers wrote and sent to his friend when Hamilton was living and working in New Guinea. So we have Hamilton in the present revisiting the past via Carruthers’ first-hand accounts in the letters. There is some detection on Hamilton’s part as he digs and rakes through the five year old debris at the site of the fire. But ingeniously many of the clues to the multiple mysteries are to be found in Carruthers’ letters which are filled with richly detailed anecdotes and intensive character studies and psychological probing. Carruthers, who worked as a schoolteacher at the station school, we learn was fascinated with the people he met and lived with and was something of an armchair detective of the soul.
The book gives some insight into how Australian ranches – or stations in the local parlance – are run highlighting the advanced firefighting methods and various escape plans always hovering in the minds of people who live with the threat of wildfire on a daily basis. But was this vast and destructive conflagration really a wildfire? As the story progresses more and more evidence turns up to suggest that the fire was set intentionally. Hamilton is sure he knows the identity of the arsonist but the real mystery, besides what happened to the bodies of Wallace Shelton and Saul Leguier, is why the fire was necessary. He begins to formulate theories and comes up with several conspiracies dominated by an overarching conspiracy of silence about why the fire was set and what happened to the missing men.
A running theme of the book is “Sheltonian madness” a phrase used to describe the eccentric and wild thinking of Wallace Shelton who owned one of the stations. Apparently all the Sheltons had a tinge of madness in them which leads many of the survivors Hamilton talks with to believe that Shelton destroyed his own property. Subplots involve arranged marriages in the Shelton family; crazed criminal Rory Corbett, the local pariah and a scourge on the community; and naïvely flirtatious Lothario, Billy Chad, who has been handing out cheap jewelry with juvenile inscriptions of love to various women. All these stories and people complicate the main plot and lead Hamilton in various directions as he searches for a motive for the arson.
As much as this bizarre touch was completely unexpected and a little over-the-top it made for a truly thrilling finale. And the ultimate surprise reveal of the lone survivor of the fire who has been living underground for years was the icing on the cake. I was not only led down the garden path by Courtier and his expertise in employing dual narrators I was more than pleased that the Gothic excesses ultimately all made sense and explained almost all the mysteries that Hamilton uncovered during his dredging up of the past.
The recurring motif of “Sheltonian madness” also comes to dominate the story. We learn that the madness is both figurative and literal and affects several of the characters, not just Wallace Shelton. If the reader is wise enough to read everything in the book (as I repeatedly mention one ought to do with any book) ) then the Acknowledgment that serves as a brief foreword to the novel will have prepared the reader for an unusual plot element towards the hair-raising finale. I did read the two sentences that precede the story, but had almost forgotten about it by the end. And then I remembered and muttered to myself, “Oh, there was supposed to be something about insects in this!”debut detective novel The Glass Spear (1950) was previously reviewed here back in 2014 and is very much deserving of a reprint. Murder’s Burning, written 17 years later, is just as good for a variety of reasons, but it does have a rather slow burn until Hamilton discovers the secret passageway. Then it kicks into high gear and makes the trip to the end all the more exciting. I have more reviews of Courtier’s books coming in the fall. I think his books surpass Arthur Upfield’s as some of the best of Australian crime writing in giving readers unfamiliar with the land Down Under excellent insight into Australian culture, climate, geography and sociology.
TRIVIA: Oh! one final note that only true book collectors and rabid mystery fans like me will appreciate. My paperback copy was previously owned by Edgar award winning American mystery writer Joe Gores (1931-2011). He signed the book and dated it (see photo at right). The SF, I surmise, means San Francisco where he bought the book. He also lived there much of his life and that noir drenched city of both fiction and real life is where his own private eye character Dan Kearney lived and worked.
Looking for more about Courtier on the 'net, there seem to be quite a few German translations and the only Wikipedia entry is in German.ReplyDelete
Hmm…. I found much more than that: Oxford Guide to Australian Writers, a listing with all his relatives on a genealogy site, and a Dutch website. All of it in English. I wasn’t interested in adding a profile on his life and other books because I thought he was fairly well known. Two of his books were reprinted back in the 2000s and he had a blurb on the publisher’s site. Though the books are now out of print his bio may still be at Wakefield Press.Delete
I found similar info eventually - but it's interesting how neglected writers in English can retain their popularity translated into other languages. I've seen it with other writers and other languages. I don't think anything similar happens with writers translated into English - at least, I haven't noticed any.Delete
As a fan of Upfield who has only read Courtier's The Glass Spear and Death in Dream Time, I have to agree Courtier was probably the better writer. Courtier is not only as good, if not better, in his evocative, colorful depiction of Australia and Australian culture/history (Death in Dream Time), but also appears to have had a much tighter grasp on his plots (The Glass Spear). So look forward to your upcoming reviews, because they might actually lead to some long overdue reprints!ReplyDelete
By the way, if you ever want to marvel and understand the truly bizarre, otherworldly, but completely natural, quality of the Australian detective story, you have to read Ellery Queen's And on the Eighth Day and Upfield's Man of Two Tribes back-to-back. Just marvel at how naturally Upfield succeeded where Queen only half succeeded.
Albeit that particular EQ novel was work for hire for the brilliant Avram Davidson (who could tire in the writing of novels wholly his own) from a Dannay outline. So, neither writer at their best, which particularly for Davidson could be very impressive indeed.Delete
As an Australian I guess I really will have to make a point of seeking out Courtier's books. I must confess I hadn't heard of him.ReplyDelete
I've known of THE GLASS SPEAR and his name, but haven't taken the opportunity as yet. I'm sold.ReplyDelete