So, about a month ago I went to this writing conference at work. It dealt with writing in the public service and one of the guests was Shane Maloney. If you don’t live in either Melbourne or Australia you’ve probably never heard of Maloney. He’s the author of a series of crime/mystery novels involving Murray Whelan, a cynical, over-worked, under-paid public servant who for one reason or another gets roped into a number of murder mysteries.
Maloney was an absolute blast at the conference. As an ex-public servant himself, he knew how to talk the talk with us policy bozos in the audience. And based on that one performance alone, I thought I’d go and buy Stiff, the first Murray Whelan mystery.
It’s a fine book. Not brilliant. Not mind blowing. But for a first novel it’s a good piece of story-telling which does a successful job in making us like Murray despite and inspite of all his flaws.
The plot, for a mystery novel, is pretty linear. Murray gets involved in the death of an Eastern European meat-worker, his body found in a meat freezer. Murray’s not there to solve the murder, he’s more concerned with how the death might effect the re-election of his boss, Charlene Wills, the Victorian Labor Minister for Industry. It just so happens that in looking into the murder he gets dragged into a much larger conspiracy.
There’s the odd twist and turn, but to be fair to Maloney’s not trying to impress us with his plotting acrobatics. Murray is a public servant, and all credibility would be lost if the story involved him running around the back alleys of Melbourne, armed with a gun, capturing crooks and being betrayed by enigmatic, beautiful women wearing dark eye shadow. Too keep a sense of verisimilitude, the action is kept to a simmer, with more of a focus on Murray’s desperate attempts to juggle his job, the investigation, his hankering for a Turkish activist named Ayisha and making sure his house doesn’t collapse around him and his eight year old son. (The bit where Murray smashes his head through the roof his house to the theme of Doctor Who in the background is very funny).
What makes Stiff work so well is two things.
The first is Maloney’s take on the public service and specifically us poor slobs who do policy-related work. As a policy man myself, working at VicRoads, I really connected with Murray’s view on the job, especially his liaising with different parts of Government and other interested stakeholders. And then there’s the gibberish he uses when writing a policy paper. It’s like Maloney had sneaked into my office, rifled through the files and grabbed some of the worse phrasing and writing available. Hilarious, but very accurate, stuff.
And second, there Maloney’s obvious love for Melbourne. Like all good crime fiction, the environment not only adds atmosphere, but turns out to be a character all on its own. Stiff characterises a Melbourne of the early 1980s, but really not much has changed. A lot of the action takes place in the inner suburbs of Brunswick and Fitzroy and there are plenty of known landmarks such as Blyth Street where a certain matey of mine lives. (No, not his actual address just his street, though, it should be noted that the location of a mafia group is quite near his house. Hopefully they’ve moved in the last 20 years ;-)). Murray doesn’t visit the South Western suburbs of Melbourne where I live, but that’s OK, I have a soft spot for the areas he did traipse around in.
Stiff is not the best crime novel you’re ever likely to read. But it’s not very long, doesn’t outstay its welcome and introduces us to a wonderful new literary character in the form of Murray Whelan. I have no idea how David Whenam characterised him on the televised version of the novel, and a part of me doesn’t want to know. Because in my mind he’s like every other crabby, grouchy, cynical, ‘I’ve-seen-it-all’ public servant I’ve met in my few years at VicRoads. And that’s how I’d like him to stay.