Lo­cal class war thrills

Kathy Hunt

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IF the bar­ren field of ghost­writ­ing is where hacks go to die, Philip Trudeau is al­ready there. Once a re­spected Walk­ley award- winning in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist at The Busi­ness and Fi­nan­cial Re­view, he has been jailed for push­ing a story too far and di­vorced ex­pen­sively for the same thing.

Left with only his Selmer sax­o­phone and a long way from the longer lunches of Collins Street, Phil’s life across the West Gate Bridge con­sists of fil­ing 20 point­less but manda­tory sto­ries a week for The Mes­sen­ger, aka the Shit­kick­ers Gazette, and drink­ing an equal num­ber of bot­tles alone at night.

The messy death of young Michael Ma­her at a Yar­rav­ille level cross­ing doesn’t worry him at first, de­spite the blood on his hands. Five min­utes at the sta­tion and the story’s writ­ten. Un­usu­ally for a male jour­nal­ist, he car­ries a sup­ply of tis­sues and of­fers one to a weep­ing woman. She looks fa­mil­iar but Phil can’t place her. Back at the pa­per he finds an an­gle — ‘‘ Mayor ig­nored pleas on cross­ing of death’’ — and is sub­se­quently rep­ri­manded by Ron, an apoplec­tic car­bon copy of Clark Kent’s ed­i­tor, Perry White.

Two words ap­ply to Phil’s ten­ure at The Mes­sen­ger: bor­rowed and time. The op­po­si­tion rag, The Post, has dug deeper into the story and Ron wants more. ‘‘ Beat- ups,’’ says Phil, who is down but not out. ‘‘ Or else,’’ says Ron, and who­ever heard of an ed­i­tor los­ing the toss?

The 2007 win­ner of the Vic­to­rian Premier’s

Ghost­lines By Nick Gadd Scribe, 283pp, $ 29.95

Lit­er­ary Award for an un­pub­lished man­u­script, Ghost­lines is rough cut, grainy and good.

Orig­i­nally from York­shire, Gadd has not made the mis­take of try­ing too hard ar­tis­ti­cally, and while his por­trayal of a work­ing jour­nal­ist is su­per­fi­cial and dated — what is a Ri­zla pa­per? — his plot holds up thanks to the orig­i­nal­ity of al­most all the char­ac­ters.

Where this de­but novel dif­fers from other mys­tery thrillers, how­ever, is in its use of the para­nor­mal. Some­one is haunt­ing John Price, the crash­ing bore who hires Phil to write his mem­oir. In a nurs­ing home, the once fa­mous artist James West was see­ing things be­fore he died. The link, as Phil dis­cov­ers, is the Maribyrnong Group, ‘‘ a great bunch’’, ac­cord­ing to their acolyte Price.

A cross be­tween the lu­mi­nar­ies of Heide and the Hei­del­berg School, the group was led by West, the fa­ther of dodgy art dealer Ste­fan. Phil runs into Ste­fan at Price’s house. Not ex­actly au fait with the finer points of Aus­tralian art, Phil nev­er­the­less knows what he likes and he likes the strik­ing por­trait of a woman in Price’s col­lec­tion. Propped against a wall, it is dis­missed by Ste­fan as ‘‘ noth­ing spe­cial’’.

Phil is not so sure, but he is up against a proper es­tab­lish­ment bas­tard with a dar­ing and ruth­less agenda. Knighted af­ter mar­ry­ing way, way up in Eng­land, Sir James West is about to en­joy an­other vogue if Ste­fan has his wicked way. Oh yes, and his old school pal is Cal­lum Macken­zie, heir to the news­pa­per em­pire that just hap­pens to in­clude The Mes­sen­ger.

One of the re­fresh­ing things about Ghost­lines is its au­then­tic work­ing- class per­spec­tive, a nat­u­ral re­sult of Phil’s fall from grace and Gadd’s ac­tual ad­dress in the west­ern sub­urbs of Mel­bourne. Ste­fan, on the other hand, is very Map 58, one char­ac­ter’s code for Toorak.

Nicely bal­anced, th­ese class ten­sions act as en­zymes, stim­u­lat­ing re­ac­tions in the play­ers that give mo­men­tum and bal­last to the story.

In Aus­tralia, the theme of class dis­tinc­tion runs dan­ger­ously close to that of be­trayal, and Gadd’s novel is a clever if ac­ci­den­tal ex­am­ple. Not re­motely em­phatic, th­ese el­e­ments merge as forces for good and evil as Phil and Ste­fan go head to head in a bat­tle of, among other things, le­gal wills.

Earthy and ex­cit­ing, with a bluesy, wist­ful air, the book was ap­par­ently res­cued from the bot­tom of the pile by the judges of the premier’s awards, and good for them. Philip Trudeau is no Philip Mar­lowe, but he’s ours and he lives just across the bridge.

Kathy Hunt is a lit­er­ary critic based in Vic­to­ria.

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