After devouring Sulari Gentill’s Miles Off Course in a whirlwind reading session – a reading session interrupted only by a quick break to jump online and purchase A Few Right Thinking Men and A Decline in Prophets (being the previous two installments in the Rowland Sinclair series), I knew that Sulari Gentill had made it onto my list of top ten crime writers.
Set in Australia in 1933, Miles Off Course is a lively and consistently action-packed Historical Crime novel. It could also be classified as a rollicking Outback Adventure or thrilling Spy Drama, or even a witty “fish-out-of-water” comedy, plucking a set of fashionable dilettantes from a bohemian art scene and dropping them in the rugged, rural countryside of the Snowy Mountains.
Gentill opens with the line, “Norman Lindsay is a complete and utter bastard!” and things only get better from there on in. The plot dances inventively around actual historical events and there is more than one cameo appearance made by famous Australian historical figures, one of which remains cleverly incognito until their true identity is revealed in the epilogue. Meanwhile, the historical Australian setting makes for a fascinating backdrop and will appeal to fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels.
Like all the best crime writers, Gentill has created a brilliantly idiosyncratic protagonist in Rowland Sinclair. Fans of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn will be bound to appreciate a character like Rowland Sinclair.
A well-bred and wealthy Australian gent from a privileged background, Sinclair is somewhat the black sheep of his family. A renowned painter of naked ladies (gasp!), considered by some as a protégé of Norman Lindsay, he has an unfailing talent for causing scandals and landing himself in life-threatening situations. It is this delightful combination of different roles – Gentleman, Artist, Amateur-Detective and Adventurer – that makes Rowland Sinclair such an entertaining leading man.
Like any self-respecting, wealthy eccentric, Sinclair is accompanied wherever he goes by his very own entourage of equally eccentric fellow artists – condemned by Sinclair’s older brother as a “troupe of unemployed hangers-on.”
Sinclair’s entourage is made up of three companions. Milton Isaacs – a flamboyant poet and arbiter of fashion, Edna Higgins – a beautiful and independent sculptress and Clyde Watson Jones – a painter who honed his craft as something of a wandering vagabond.
The aforementioned older brother, Wilfred Sinclair, is an influential businessman with conservative, right-wing sensibilities who cannot help but disapprove of his younger brother’s less-than-respectable lifestyle. The relationship between the two brothers is rather touching in that while they continually disagree and disappoint each other they are nevertheless very loyal and protective towards each other.
The plot opens with the disappearance of Harry Simpson, an aboriginal stock-hand who has been employed by the Sinclair family since he was a child. Both the Sinclair brothers are convinced that there is something sinister about Harry’s sudden disappearance, despite the fact that his co-workers believe he has simply gone “walkabout”. Harry is more than just an employee to the Sinclair brothers, however, and they are determined to find out what really happened to him. And so Sinclair and his entourage pile into his beloved yellow Mercedes Benz and head for the Snowy Mountains to investigate.
What follows is a madcap adventure of murder, betrayal, abduction, theft, political intrigue and a dash of romance. And just in case that doesn’t sound exciting enough to capture your interest, there is also a Communist spy conspiracy and a hunt for bushranger’s treasure.
The plot of Miles Off Course is a brightly splashed canvas, one that Gentill takes obvious delight in painting. This is the kind of book that is so fun to read that one can’t help but feel that the author must have gotten a real kick out of writing it. Little wonder then that she should write so quickly. Between the Rowland Sinclair series and her YA fantasy/adventure series, The Hero Trilogy, Gentill is releasing an average of two books a year. Which means that by far the best part about having read Miles Off Course and discovering a new favorite author is that I can now go and devour her earlier novels, safe in the knowledge that there will be many more Rowland Sinclair adventures to come.
Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling