Local class war thrills
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Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, Ghostlines is rough cut, grainy and good.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.