The only thing better than discovering a new series of books is realising that the author is not going to make you wait too long for the next instalment.
Having been introduced to Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair novels earlier this year with Miles off Course, and then devouring books one and two with all the gusto of a confirmed historical fiction addict, I was pretty much ecstatic when I realised that book four, Paving the New Road, was due to be released in August this year. My reaction to this news was not quiet. It was not calm. It may have involved a spontaneous happy dance. Imagine a hyper active child being told that Christmas will be coming twice in one year and you might then begin to grasp my level of excitement.
Paving the New Road sees Rowland Sinclair and his band of bohemian eccentrics back in full force. For those unfamiliar with this series, Rowland “Rowly” Sinclair is Gentleman/Playboy Adventurer/Artist/Amateur Detective. Now, as of Paving the New Road he can also add “International Spy” to his already impressive list of accomplishments.
Wherever Rowly goes (in this instance, Nazi Germany) he is accompanied by his entourage – Clyde the landscape painter/staunch Communist, Milton the flamboyant poet and Edna the dazzlingly beautiful sculptress. Having been sent to Germany in the capacity of unofficial spies, Rowly and his friends soon find themselves knee deep in intrigue and subterfuge. The best part about all this is that none of them are even remotely qualified for the role of “secret agent”. They approach the mission almost as though it were a game and their unorthodox methods are both refreshingly original and highly entertaining. Together, Rowly and his friends take a ride on the Orient Express, masquerade as German soldiers, accidentally aid in the escape of a German Communist and become involved in an underground network of Anti Nazi activists. And at the heart of the mystery that slowly begins to unfold is a sad and fragile girl named Eva…
Much like the first three books in the series, Paving the New Road is a light and charming read full of adventure and humour. This book is pure fun. Better yet, it is consistently clever. One of the best aspects of this series is the imaginative way in which the author plays with the historical setting. Gentill is a master at seamlessly weaving real historical figures into her plot. This can be a dangerous conceit when not handled properly. The appearance of a well-known historical figure in a work of fiction can often be the kiss of death, breaking the spell of make-believe by pushing the reader’s credulity too far. Luckily, Gentill knows just how to blend fact and fiction together in a way that is not only completely believable but so delightfully inventive as to provide endless treats for history buffs.
Fans of television’s Underberlly: Razor will be tickled by cameo appearances from notorious Sydney madam Tilly Devine and gangster Phil “The Jew” Jeffs. Similarly, Rowly & Co. are flown to Germany by none other than famous Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith – a journey that takes an astonishing 14 days and sees them crossing paths with author William Somerset Maugham.
Other notable historical figures that play key roles in Paving the New Road include German Communist Party member Hans Beimler as well as notorious British aristocrat and Nazi sympathiser Unity “Lady Bobo” Mitford. Gentill is in top form when writing Mitford, who leaps off the page in all her horrifying glory. This is a woman who stalked Hitler like a crazed fan-girl before eventually becoming his mistress. Described by Rowly as “a lunatic, from what appeared to be a family of lunatics” Mitford only makes a few brief appearances in the novel, however, they are memorable for being almost as hilarious as they are disturbing.
By far my favourite guest star, however, is the indomitable Nancy Wake. Anyone who has not already read Wake’s memoir, The White Mouse,will be rushing for a copy after finishing Paving the New Road. The novel is set before the outbreak of WWII when Wake was working as a journalist, however, Gentill imbues her character with so much sparkling vim and vigour than one can easily see how she ends up becoming a kickass lady-spy, fighting Nazis with the French Resistance.
When all is said and done, I cannot recommend the Rowland Sinclair novels enough. Paving the New Road is the most entertaining instalment yet in what was already a great series. Anyone with a taste for classic crime writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh is bound to fall in love with Rowland Sinclair. And with the success of the recent television adaptation of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, I’m hoping (i.e. seriously considering starting an Internet petition) that it won’t be too long before we see a Rowland Sinclair miniseries.
In the meantime, I rest easy in the knowledge that Sulari Gentill is currently averaging two books a year and that it won’t be long before I find out what Rowly and his friends get up to next.
Review by Sarah McDuling