Monday, May 2, 2011

In The Spotlight: Kel Robertson's Smoke and Mirrors

G’day, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Australian crime fiction is a force to be reckoned with in the genre, and has contributed quite a lot to it. One of the nice things about crime fiction from Down Under is that it’s as diverse as the country is. Want to find out more of what I’m talking about? Visit Fair Dinkum Crime, a blog site devoted to reviews of Australian crime fiction, interviews with Aussie authors and a lot more. For today, though, let’s have a taste of fair dinkum Aussie crime fiction with a closer look at Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors.

As the novel begins, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman “Brad” Chen is lured back to police work after a leave of absence. In fact, he’s decided to go back to university and work on his Ph.D. He’s only now putting his life back together after being seriously wounded both physically and mentally while investigating another case (detailed in Robertson’s first novel Dead Set), and is not in a hurry to come back to the police. But this particular double murder is intriguing. Alec Dennet, a member of Australia’s 1972-1975 Gough Whitlam government, has been working on his memoirs at Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra. Also staying at Uriarra is Dennet’s editor Lorraine Starke. One night, both are murdered and their bodies found in Dennet’s cottage at the retreat. As it happens, Chen’s thesis has to do with Australia’s political history, and he’s met Dennet a few times. So he becomes interested in the case.

One of the first things Chen discovers as he begins to investigate is that Dennet’s manuscript is missing. It looks very much as though Dennet and Starke might have been killed for the manuscript, and that would make sense. It was said that in his memoirs, Dennet was going to reveal some secrets that would embarrass some important people and would reveal the truth about the alleged conspiracy that overthrew the Whitlam government.

Chen soon discovers that he’s not the only one interested in finding the missing manuscript. An unpleasant group of Russian mobsters, who may or may not once have been involved with the KGB, pay him a very threatening visit. Then Chen’s friend and fellow Ph.D. candidate Anna Malenkova disappears and it looks possible that she’s being held hostage in exchange for the manuscript. There’s also a group of South African gangsters after both Chen and the manuscript. As Chen tries to save his friend, solve the murders and avoid getting killed himself, he finds himself caught in the proverbial crossfire of international espionage and some very nasty criminals. In the end, Chen and his team get to the truth about the Dennet and Starke murders, but not before Chen nearly becomes another victim. And not before some surprising plot twists.

As with most well-written crime fiction, the main element in this story is the mystery. Although this isn’t a police procedural in the usual sense of that term, we do follow along as Chen and his team visit the murder scene, gather evidence and statements and track down clues. The killer isn’t obvious, but Robertson does “play fair” with the reader in that the clues and the background to the murders are there. The plot is focused on the murders and as the different pieces of the puzzle fall into place, we see how the threads of the story come together.

Another very important element in this novel is the teamwork and camaraderie among Brad Chen and his team-mates. They rely on each other and their friendship adds a layer of richness to the novel. We see that friendship from the very beginning as the team tries to support Chen’s return to work after his trauma, and it’s woven throughout the story as he faces more than one personal demon. It also adds some realism to the plot. In real life, few cases are solved by only one person, and a case like this one, with international implications, would almost surely not be solved by one person working alone. It’s interesting, too, because we see the connections among the team members not just in the way they help one another, but also in the banter among them. For instance, at one point, Chen and his new assistant Filipowski have spent a long night drinking. The next morning, they’re due to meet a team-mate, nicknamed “Talkative,” at Dennet’s home. When they arrive, Talkative is already there reading a newspaper:

“‘I thought I was going to have to read the finance section,’ he [Talkative] said, getting to his feet. ‘Your face is looking pretty ordinary.’

‘You ought to experience it from my side. What happened to Turner?’ [Chen]

‘He called in sick. Reckons he had a restless night.’

‘That’s not good,’ I said. ‘He’s a bloke who needs all the beauty sleep he can get.’…

‘The two of you aren’t in any position to throw stones….’

‘Filipowski fell in with a bad crowd after work and I felt honour bound to keep a fatherly eye on him. He drank. I watched. He drank for a long time. I watched for a long time. We are both very tired.’”

That conversation also shows another important element in this novel: a sense of humour. The team takes the investigation seriously, but there’s wit throughout the novel. For example, when Chen agrees to start working on the murder case, Talkative asks him,

“‘Do you want someone to collect you in the morning?’

‘No, if I get lost I’ll ask a policeman for directions.’”

The novel takes place in and near Canberra, and there is a strong sense of place in it. In fact, Smoke and Mirrors was a 2009 winner of the Ned Kelly Award for best Australian Crime Fiction. Throughout the novel, Robertson places the reader in Canberra through descriptions of the various places in the city (e.g. the University, the Belconnon Mall, etc). But it’s more than that. A major theme of the novel is Dennet’s manuscript, which discusses Australian political history. So we get a sense of the inner workings of Australian politics as Chen learns what was in the manuscript and why anyone would want it. Even some of the humour is distinctly Australian. For instance, just after Chen hears about the case, Talkative asks him to begin work:

“‘Welcome back,’ said Talkative. “let’s go and talk post-mortems.’

‘Nah, I’ll come back tomorrow,’ I said, ‘to read my way through things.’

‘Dr. Nick will be shattered, not seeing you.’

‘He’s a South Sydney supporter,’ I said. ‘They’re used to heartbreak.’”

The novel is told in the first person, from Chen’s perspective. Readers who prefer the third-person point of view may find this distracting, but to be honest, I didn’t. That perspective helps the reader understand Chen’s battle to return to mental and physical health, and builds the suspense as Chen investigates.

An intriguing mystery in a distinctly Australian context, Smoke and Mirrors combines humour and solid police work with politics and history. But what’s your view? Have you read Smoke and Mirrors? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Tuesday 10 May/Wednesday 11 May – Baltimore Blues – Laura Lippman

Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Whip Hand – Dick Francis

Monday 23 May/Tuesday 24 May – The Withdrawing Room – Charlotte MacLeod


  1. Thanks for the link to a new blog to check out, Margot! :) And for the review. I'm not familiar with "Smoke and Mirrors," so I'll have to find it and give it a read. I always think 1st person is tricky in crime novels, but this sounds like a great book with the POV done well.

  2. Elizabeth - I think you'll like Fair Dinkum Crime; it's an interesting and well-organized site, and I really like the reviews and interviews. You're quite right about how tricky first person POV can be; I admit I haven't tried it in my own novels. I think it can be successful, though, if it's done well.

  3. I have to read a novel from Australia and right now I have Moonlight Downs by Adrian Hyland. What would you suggest? That book or this book?

  4. Clarissa - What interesting timing!! Hmm... they are both good, good books. My personal preference is Moonlight Downs; I've become quite a Hyland fan. But I think Smoke and Mirrors gives a bit more information about the Australia that isn't in the Outback. In terms of quality, I think both are very well-done, though.

  5. Well then, I may go with Moonlight Downs but I'll have to read the other as well.