A mayhem of murderers
POPULAR fiction is plagued by an epidemic of marauding serial killers in its many subdivisions. The latest features in Michael MacConnell ’s wonderfully lurid and melodramatic Maelstrom ( Hodder & Stoughton, 327pp, $ 32.95), which offers not one but two, or maybe more, signature murderers. There are also rogue special forces detachments, drug- dealing pederasts, sociopathic snipers and steely blonde FBI investigator Sarah Reilly.
With crime fiction demonstrating an overwhelming preference for female heroes, subverting and challenging male power in a violent display of new wave feminism, Reilly unfortunately lets the side down. But while she ’s unconvincing, moving through MacConnell ’ s hostile and unwelcoming places propelled only by cliches, it hardly matters.
He provides so much fun playing with the serial killer novel ’ s conventions that disbelief is easily suspended; the occasional self- reflexive meditations on the nature of human morbidness as a universal constant are clever too.
Dorothy Johnston is far more refined, her homicidal fantasies under greater control. Her Sandra Mahoney series has improved, its author now far more generically assured and confident.
In the first, The Trojan Dog, a passable amateur female sleuth novel, Johnston, a wellknown literary writer, simply underrated the genre ’ s prerequisite narrative fluidity. Not enough happened. But with her second, The White Tower , and now in Eden ( Wakefield Press, 217pp, $ 29.95), she has found her storytelling style with more surprises, twists and resonant craftiness.
A politician is found dead in a Canberra brothel in a flowered silk dress and blonde wig. Security consultant Mahoney is pulled into the investigation when a lobby group campaigning against internet censorship legislation asks her to check a company producing cyberspaceblocking technologies.
Johnston has matured into a class act, her meditative prose artfully structured by a swifter progress of character and relationships. Her prose provides a lovely, almost literary read too, unlike many newcomers who refuse to deviate from the Jonathan Kellerman school of onesentence paragraphs.
This is not a problem
first- timer Mark Abernethy, who also enjoys a full complement of sentences, though his intention is far more aggressive than Johnston ’s. His Golden Serpent ( Allen & Unwin, 435pp, $ 29.95) is the most accomplished commercial spy thriller we ’ ve seen locally, a discerning read, full of action and a kind of knowing wit.
His plot is complex and dense, involving tough, believable Aussie spy Alan McQueen on a quest to run down terrorist Abu Sabaya, a rogue CIA veteran, and deep corruption in Australian intelligence.
It reads as if Abernethy did his final edit without breathing, his tempo the same kind of march- jog the Special Forces he writes about have perfected, rate of fire constant, letting off the occasional flash grenade. He possesses a cluey ability to dramatise the technologies of war, both overt and covert, with just the right hard, technological edge.
But Abernethy never loses sight of the necessary generic elements of mystery, adventure and romance ( and, unlike many of his international colleagues, he never loses the reader in acronyms). As Raymond Chandler suggested, the trick in this kind of writing is to embellish melodrama in such a way as to suggest that the story, however unlikely, just might be true.
Emerging fully formed out of crime fiction ’ s heroic- altruism tradition, Abernethy conjures echoes of Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy and especially the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Child. A good thriller draws you in and makes you feel as if you ’re reading faster than the action is occurring on the page, ’’ Child said about his taut and brutal tales. Not an easy thing to do, but something Abernethy accomplishes with surprising dispatch.