A may­hem of mur­der­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - GRAEME BLUN­DELL

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

for

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.

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