Review: A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

An ultra-rich painter becomes embroiled in the polarised politics of 1930s Sydney in this spry murder mystery. The novel opens with news of the murder of one Rowland Sinclair in December 1931, of the Sinclair family, a well-respected member of Sydney’s social elite. We then skip backwards five days to meet Rowland Sinclair, the youngest of his pastoralist family. Having avoided the Great War due to his youth, he is now shirking respectability by being a painter and hosting at his family’s mansion in Woollahra his three friends: the poet Milton, painter Clyde, and sculptress Edna. We soon find out that these Rowland Sinclairs are different people, and that it is the elder, our protoganist’s uncle, who has come to the untimely end. It is a fitting opening for a novel that is full of doubling, mirrors, disguise and mistaken identity.

The police drag their feet on the murder. They’re rather occupied keeping a lid on tensions between fascists and the communists who Rowland and his friends are aligned with much to the concern of Rowland’s older brother Wilfred. Rowland soon discovers rumours that his uncle was attacked by shadowy, cloaked figures. With the police unwilling to intervene, the artist and his friends take up the investigation themselves. The plot is driven less by the mystery of who killed the senior Sinclair than the tension of whether the younger will be caught out, with some amusing plots and hijinks.

A Few Right Thinking Men introduces one of Australia’s flirtations with Fascism. It takes its title from the “right thinking men” who were members of the Old and New Guard, anti-communist paramilitary groups that operated in New South Wales during the decade, or as Rowland describes them, a “secret, Fascist army”. These were a reaction against the government of Labor Premier Jack Lang, who was ultimately dismissed by the Governor after a dispute over the state’s finances. These real events frame Gentill’s novel through the real newspaper clippings, the dates slightly adjusted to fit the narrative, that begin many of the chapters.

The novel delights in the madness of the times. In an author’s Q&A at the end Gentill describes her bemusement that “this might be the only country in the world where thousands of armed men can gather for revolution and in the end just decide to go home”. Gentill sees madness on both ends of the political spectrum, denouncing the extremes over what might now be called the “sensible centre”, a kind of pragmatic maturity that is part of what makes good statespeople. This feels a little like an inversion of the both-sides-ism that saw Trump note that there are “fine people” on both sides of clashes between far right and anti-fascist protestors. Of course, it’s also correct, people across political spectrums are capable of violence. But squishing of politics to individuals is exactly the problem here.

There’s no way around it, Australia’s fascists of the 1930s dreamed of a white ethnostate, a nation of a superior Aryan race. Interestingly, this battle of ideas played out in the art of the times, between the eugenicist ideals depicted in Max Dupain’s photography and the new “degenerate” Modern art that was capturing the uncomfortable realities of poverty and modernity, so it feels odd that this novel’s community of artists aren’t engaged in it. Jane Rawson’s more recent A History Of Dreams also subjects fascists to ridicule but exposes the ideas that make fascism so abhorrent and dangerous.

Because of course none of this can be safely packaged away in historical crime fiction, when Nazis gather in national parks and show up to support anti-trans speakers. In the US, whose politics certain people in Australia seem determined to import, far right speakers have called for the eradication of “transgenderism” (Maddison Stoff has brilliantly articulated why trans people upset Nazis so much). The ideas are alive and sick. Gentill couldn’t have foreseen the latest resurgence of the far right, and later would make the link between her novels’ themes and treatment of asylum seekers, but it’s also true that many of those ideas were circulating in the years before this novel was published in 2010, such as the NT Intervention, the Pacific Solution, or the rise of Pauline Hansen’s One Nation (whose re-elected NSW upper house member Mark Latham recently issued a spray of seriously vintage homophobia). To not take the battle to the beliefs and ideas that these people held and still hold feels like a sanitised version of history.

Gay rating: 1/5 for brief mention of a man who might be more into the protagonist than women.


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