Captain Jack Robertson, ex-Military, Pilot and CIA Spy is kidnapped in-flight, picking up the latest shipment of opium that the CIA is using to fund covert operations in Asia. Discovering that he has been kidnapped by the deliciously over the top one-eyed, betel juice chewing minion of his disgraced comrade ex-Chinese Army officer Ching Wei is disconcerting enough. Ching Wei and Jack go back to 1942, when they were both pilots moving supplies from India into Chungking during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Ching Wei was rubbed out of the Chinese Army because of his drug-smuggling activities, and Jack was involved in the disclosure. But even more disconcerting is that Ching Wei has done very very well from the ongoing drug smuggling and he now does a great sideline in kidnapping white men (mostly) with particular skill sets and keeping them within the confines of his mountain lair to work for him.
DRAGON MOUNTAIN is Ching Wei's mountain stronghold. Deep in the Burmese jungle Dragon Mountain is a fortress outside, a luxurious resort inside. Part of the stronghold is a small Shan Village – the people of this village are part of Ching Wei's power base, providing him with accommodation and support for his white zoo and his stronghold. Ching Wei maintains control over his huge drug empire, his large army of soldiers and servants, and his white “zoo” with a brutal and cruel regime of torture; ritualistic murder; sex; enslavery of the local village and a liberal policy of free distribution of drugs to his minions. Jack must decide if he wants to stay in this bizarre jail paradise or fight for his freedom.
Think Fu-Manchu, aspects of (sans the genetic engineering) The Island of Dr Moreau (which isn't hard because that's the name of one of the character's), James Bond (without the gadgets), the movie Missing In Action and Dr Evil from Austin Powers and you're somewhere in the vicinity of DRAGON MOUNTAIN. That's not to say that DRAGON MOUNTAIN's not just a huge laugh, it's just that it's a totally, utterly and seemingly unashamedly over the top thriller.
DRAGON MOUNTAIN is also not a book for the politically correct amongst us. Probably unsurprisingly for a microcosm community built around drug smuggling, the drug taking is overt and quite clinical – one of the characters, Ching Wei's personal physician has a sideline in trying to find the perfect formula for the best drug known to man, whilst he also provides considered and careful diagnosis on how best to control some of the unpleasant side-effects of constant opium use. And the sex is, well, in your face. Each of the white men is originally billeted with a family in the village that supports DRAGON MOUNTAIN. The “tribal” consensus is that men having sex with wives and daughters is a compliment to the household, so it goes on – all over the place. Of course if one of the white men marries a woman from the village, Ching Wei will build them a house of their own and allow them to live with their family just outside the village confines. But opium does have a bad affect on libido so the sex goes on, outside marriage; outside houses; in gardens; in hammocks; during parties; after parties; and well, everywhere. (Fortunately you are spared most of the gory details of the sex scenes but I did wonder at one point whether you'd actually be able to walk around this village without falling over something or someone – what with the copulating bodies and opium smoking and/or drunken men wandering around, but I digress).
DRAGON MOUNTAIN brings back the good old days of the early thrillers. The baddies are horrendously bad; the goodies are brave and noble and true. Of course in this version the violence and bad behaviour are a darn sight more explicit than Fu Manchu would have appreciated. DRAGON MOUNTAIN is one of those silly, ludicrous, vaguely guilt inducing, Sunday afternoon, why not read something totally over the top sorts of books, and I think I may need help, because I liked it.
BIG SHOTS - Adam Shand
There's something - possibly it's car crash fascination - but ultimately there's something nigglingly alluring about True Crime books about the recent ructions in Melbourne's Underworld. Maybe it's the proximity of the goings on, maybe it's the sheer unbelievability of the world that people - who don't live a million miles away from me - live. It's a lifestyle that doesn't have any similarity with my own, yet it goes on in the same city that I live in. And Melbourne's not a humongous metropolis... it's Melbourne.
Adam Shand's Big Shots is, I guess, in that style that they call narrative non-fiction. It rolls out the story of the underworld war that led to a massive amount of publicity in the media, concern in the police, and frankly probably a lot of curiosity in other denizens of this city. As the bodies piled up and the ructions between the various camps increased Adam Shand, a finance journalist who seems to be openly admitting in this book was massively out of his depth, found himself with unexpected access to a number of central characters from both sides of the argument. Although the Carlton Crew were adamant that this was not a war of their making, and a considerable number of their members died, the war was more complicated and considerably more multi-faceated than just a war for territory. It seems to have been partially about territory, partially about long-held grudges, partially a lot of willy-waving and ultimately an exercise in power and what sort of mayhem bucket loads of money can buy you.
If you're even vaguely interested in the story behind the gangland wars - then this book is worth reading. It's certainly not glamorising either the events or the people involved, and it doesn't do a lot for talking up the life of a local gangster.
STIFF - Shane Maloney
It falls to the few to sort out the messes made by the many. Murray Whelan, assistant and jack-of-all-trades for the Minister for Industry must regularly vet all comers and documents before they reach his time-poor boss, Charlene Wills. Fencing with other members of the Labor party is a daily occurrence - they may be technically all on the same side, but that doesn't mean they can't irritate the life out of each other in each and every interaction. Sent by party hopeful Angelo Agnelli to find out what's happening out at Pacific Pastoral meatworks, Murray isn't a happy man.
If this book can't raise a few snorts and belly-laughs from you, dear reader, there is something seriously wrong. With you. Truly. The adventures of Murray Whelan, proud member of the Australian Labor party, office worker, single parent and all around smart-arse all began here with STIFF. Reading this book thirteen years after it was written hasn't taken the edge off a work etched out with vinegar-dipped razor blades. Murray Whelan's wry observations can still be applied to how we Australians operate, politically, socially and any other "ly" we may hope to conquer. Smart and funny doesn't even begin to describe STIFF, but startlingly, monstrously accurate and ferociously funny would be approaching the right kind of fawning adoration that you can't imagine the author ever tolerating.
Perhaps we won't go as far as saying that STIFF could be your reading sorbet (totally stripping away all memories of other recent reads and freshening you up for newer challenges) so let's say instead it will be a welcome slap. As always, the first novel in a series has the tough job of establishing a character, making him dear enough to our fickle hearts so that we will seek him out in other works while also placing him at novel's conclusion at fascinating roads yet to be taken. Murray Whelan, master of the smart comeback and champion of the depressed (or as long as they remains interesting), on reflection, actually hasn't had that much time spent on his description. His character would seem to allow nothing less than a tardy remark on such things, and with a galloping narrative regularly taking on plot tangents made fascinating by their familiarity (political manoeuvres, rip-off merchants, bureaucratic tangles), it will take some concentration to
keep it all straight.
Perhaps thankfully, for some readers, the world of Murray Whelan isn't all sunshine. The tangled mess that was, and still is, the Australian political system on a small scale may prove a little frustrating at times and threaten to take the edge of pace but let's not be picky - this is a still just a short novel that manages to pack just so much in.
TOUCHED BY THE DEVIL - John Clarke and Andy Shea
Inside the mind of the Australian psychopath - John Clarke as told to Andy Shea.
Conversational style book about a decidedly non-conversational subject. This is an analysis of psychopathic behaviour with some briefly mentioned true cases as illustration.
The style makes it rather an odd read as the subject matter seems to clash somewhat with the style. Interesting analysis of psycopaths, their methodology and possible thought processes.
THE WALKER - Jane R Goodall
Detective Briony Williams is a rookie appointed to an all-male team investigating a bizarre murder at the Anatomy School of Gresham College in Bloomsbury, and her superiors constantly make her feel left out. But a killer obsessed with following Jack the Ripper soon changes that.
Jane Goodall's first book is The Walker, published originally in 2004 when it won the Ned Kelly for Best First Crime Novel.
Jane is a Brit, now living in Sydney and The Walker is based in London.
In 1967 a schoolgirl is the only witness to the killer, as they leave the train, having left behind an elderly woman's body, with her throat cut. Nell then moves to Australia with her parents, returning to London in 1971 as a University Student. She's been suffering panic attacks and required counselling ever since that day boarding the train.
In 1971 Detective Inspector Briony Williams is getting ahead in her career, seconded to the team tracking down a killer with a very theatrical streak. This killer arranges his victims' in twisted parodies of Hogarth's famous engravings, he sends body parts to the police with defiant messages and he's a very experienced anatomist. Shades of Jack the Ripper?
This is a very good book, particularly when you consider it's a first novel. It's got some good characters - both the female and male, a nicely paced plot and really interesting twists and turns. Very enjoyable.
SHOTGUN CITY - Paul Anderson
Another true crime novel, based around Melbourne's Gangland Killings from long serving crime reporter on the Herald Sun.
This one covers gangland killings in Melbourne from the original Painters and Dockers disputes back in the 1970's through to the brazen shooting of Lewis Moran in a Club in Brunswick Street in 2004.
Straight forward depiction of a considerable number of killings, presented on a timeline that gives the reader a very clear picture of what was going on - well as much as anyone in the public knows what was going on.
KITTYHAWK DOWN - Garry Disher
Second in the Hal Challis series, Kittyhawk Down is an extremely busy book. Firstly there's the upper class sort of "gated" housing area, the farming area and the housing estates. There's a sinister South African living in one of those big gated houses. There's Monroe, the farmer, who is under increasing financial pressure and a bit of a hot head. There's a local busybody who spends his life reporting people to the relevant authorities and writing snippy letters to the local paper, earning himself the nickname of The Meddler. There's the unemployed, drug using sisters with their deadbeat boyfriends - one boyfriend suspected of being behind the disappearance of one of the sister's toddler daughter. There's the lawyer that acted for the farmer. Then there is the fellow pilot, sometime aerial photographer who hangs out at the same airfield as Challis and her reclusive, internet stock dealing husband. Finally there's the editor of the local paper and her on / off relationship with Challis.
Add to that Pam Murphy, Constable at the Waterloo police station getting herself into a spot of bother, John Tankard (another Constable) still lurking around not doing anything terribly well, Ellen Destry with her family problems and Hal's crazy, jailed, soon to be ex-wife and things start to get messy. Even more messy when the farmer does a runner on the local police, shotgun in hand, and people start turning up dead from shotgun wounds and everybody automatically assumes that Monroe is settling some old scores.
This complicated cast of characters and events does add a certain level of excitement and tension to the book, although it also means that things can get pretty complicated pretty quickly. It certainly adds a level of reality as I'm not sure that police stations anywhere just deal with one crime at a time.
There are a couple of minor quibbles with police procedure and the reasons for Hal being on the spot as a Homicide Investigator, there are some loose ends and weird things in the resolutions, and there's a more than large dollop of personal story woven into the actual crimes.
For some reason best known to the author the location for these books is the real place of the Mornington Peninsula that he then liberally sprinkles with fictitious towns and locations. Only they are only fictitious to a certain point and it's not too tricky to pinpoint possible "role models" for these locations. This does mean that for a reader who knows that location, I do spend a lot of my time mentally trying to orientate myself. Now why I do this with these books I've no idea, I think possibly because of the obvious juxtaposition of the fictitious into the real - I don't think I'd mind so much if he's swapped Rosebud and Mt Martha around or stuck them totally in the wrong location, but masquerading Rosebud as Waterloo really stumps me. It's me I know it's me, I don't know why I'm doing this.
THE BROTHERHOODS - Arthur Veno
'If it's a good ride, there's nothing like it ... you and the machine become one ... It gets to the point on the edge of a hard ride where there is a balance between taking your machine further and a fear of dying. Managing that space is real freedom.'
Riding like there's no tomorrow on the open road, the wind in your face, handling a powerful and responsive machine - you can't get that sort of freedom in a car. Bikies consider themselves 'the last free people in society', unconstrained by the regulations that rule ordinary citizens. And they guard their privacy jealously.
This book is sub-titled "Inside the Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs" and it reads as written by somebody who has sort of got inside the Outlaw Motorcycle clubs but isn't really. The author is an academic who has made a reputation studying Outlaw Motorcyle Clubs and as an "official" observer of their activities. He has performed this role as "official" observer on a number of major motorcyle runs - reporting on both the bikies and police activities.
Interesting as an observational report both from the point of view of the policing strategies used in various locations, and from the clubs who started out as on the fringes of "society" and now finding themselves increasing less influential as Outlaws.
UNDERBELLY 6 - Andrew Rule and John Silvester
I'm overdosing on the Underbelly series a bit at the moment, using them as fillers between some hefty Crime Fiction tomes, and why not. In Underbelly 6 the authors take you thought the disappearance of a wife, mother and ex-TV game show model, a bit about the stitch up of the Mickelberg brothers, the slow poisoning death of a husband in Bendigo, the inexplicable death of a policeman and a range of other snippets. The tongue in cheek style of the authors just appeals.
DEATH IN DREAM TIME - S H Courtier
Death in Dreamtime was published by Wakefield Crime Classics in 1993. Originally published in 1959, S H Courtier is one of the classic crime fiction authors in Australia who is little known / commented on. Which is a pity.
In Death in Dreamtime Jock Corless ends up at Ungimillia, home of The Alchera or Dream Time Land - a sort of "theme park" of Aboriginal mythology. He's travelled through to New South Wales in response to a very cryptic letter from his cousin who, as Jock arrives, is found dead on the road.
Death in Dreamtime certainly reads like a novel from 1959 with a turn of phrase that comes directly from that era. Some of the characterisations are to be expected, Inspector 'Digger' Haig reminds you a bit of your returned soldier grandfather in his mannerisms and his language. There are two main female characters who are not as cliched as is often the case from books of this era, and best of all, there is a stagey but relatively sympathetic discussion of Aboriginal mythology and history which actually doesn't make you squirm from embarrassment.
Interestingly enough for me, living in the Dandenong Ranges, there is a central character in the park who seemed to me to remind me very strongly of William Ricketts and the famous William Ricketts sanctuary - not so far from where I live. The editors who bought these writers to Wakefield made the same observation in a short essay at the back of the book describing the circumstances around the book.