The Holiday Murders
We're in Melbourne in 1943. It's Christmas Eve, and two members of the newly formed local homicide squad have been called out to investigate a cruel and gruesome double murder.
When Inspector Titus Lambert and Detective Joe Sable arrive at the mansion of lawyer John Quinn, they find its owner in the bath with his brains blown out. Quinn's son, Xavier, is also dead; he is naked, has been tortured and is nailed like a crucified Christ to the drawing-room floor. An attempt has been made to make the crimes appear a murder-suicide, but Lambert and Sable aren't fooled. After searching the house, they discover what will prove to be significant clues - copies of an Australian periodical with an anti-Semitic bias, and a German nudist magazine.
Over the past few years, we've seen a real interest in home-grown historical mysteries, and Robert Gott's latest, The Holiday Murders, amply demonstrates why.
A number of the more noteworthy Australian crime novels published recently have been historical crime stories, but Gott's new book is as close to perfect as a mystery can be.
Unlike so many historical crime novels, The Holiday Murders has no jarring anachronisms, and Gott's excellent research has also brought to light some surprising facts.
It seems that information about what was happening to Jews in Europe, including details about the death camps, was actually available to the Australian public at that time, even though reports of these atrocities took a back seat in newspapers such as The Argus to stories about problems in our dairy industry.
The best thing about this first instalment in Gott's new series, though, is its dramatis personae. The (anti) hero of his previous books - an actor, amateur detective and a bit of a cad called William Power - was a memorable creation who resembled George MacDonald Fraser's lovable rogue, Flashman.
In The Holiday Murders, a police procedural, we have three main protagonists. Inspector Lambert and his happy home life is a refreshing change from all those lonely, angst-ridden coppers we're used to, while Detective Joe Sable, grappling with his Jewish heritage, is your classic outsider sleuth.
Then there's the psychologically most skilfully realised of the three, Constable Helen Lord. In hands less assured than Gott's, she might have ended up as yet another would-be feminist crime-fiction cliche. Here, however, we have a real character with whom we can empathise and about whom we are eager to learn more.