Judges of good char­ac­ters

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

The Only Case By Ian Cal­li­nan Ar­ca­dia Press, 252pp, $29.95 Rooms in the City By Ni­cholas Hasluck Ar­ca­dia Press, 241pp, $29.99

THE lat­est and im­pres­sive ad­di­tions to the Ar­ca­dia Press On Se­ries fic­tion list (founded by Michael Wild­ing and Phillip Edmonds) are two dis­tin­guished men of the law. Ian Cal­li­nan be­came a jus­tice of the High Court in 1998, the year after the pub­li­ca­tion of his first novel, The Lawyer and the Lib­er­tine: A Novel of Pas­sion and Re­venge. Ni­cholas Hasluck was ap­pointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Western Aus­tralia in 2000. His lit­er­ary ca­reer had be­gun long be­fore. Both his novel, Quar­an­tine, and short­story col­lec­tion, The Hat on the Let­ter “O’’ and Other Sto­ries, were pub­lished in 1978.

The two au­thors are back in print, Cal­li­nan with a crime cum le­gal pro­ce­dural novel, The Only Case, and Hasluck with Rooms in the City, a tale of mur­der and es­pi­onage set dur­ing the Great War, in Novem­ber 1915, in Athens and Gal­lipoli. Each brings sharp in­tel­li­gence and sen­si­tiv­ity to morally am­bigu­ous mat­ters in th­ese ur­bane and re­ward­ing works. They are part of a long, ec­cen­tric tra­di­tion of lawyers tak­ing to lit­er­a­ture in Aus­tralia that stretches back to poet and solic­i­tor James Lionel Michael, who drowned him­self in the Clarence River in 1868.

The Only Case be­gins with Forsythe, founder of a Syd­ney le­gal firm from whose avarice and self-pro­mo­tion he is in­creas­ingly es­tranged. The daily pa­per in­forms him of a lurid crime. Aus­tralia’s most dis­tin­guished ar­chi­tect, Nor­ton Aspers, for whom Forsythe has acted in the past, has been charged with the mur­ders of a vi­o­lent drug dealer, Don­ald Lox­ter, and Linda Keats, a gifted young de­signer em­ployed by Aspers.

Aspers was found, blood­stained, in the squalid flat where the bod­ies lay. His sis­ter im­por­tunes Forsythe to act and re­luc­tantly (for nei­ther he nor the firm takes on crim­i­nal cases) he agrees to do so, en­list­ing the bril­liant prop­erty lawyer Fay All­well to as­sist. Also part of the team faced with mount­ing what they feel likely to be a fruit­less de­fence is psy­chi­a­trist Roderick Sil­ver. How the case un­folds, with its com­pli­ca­tions and con­flicts of in­ter­est, is only part of Cal­li­nan’s project. This is a crime thriller, but also a dis­sec­tion of pro­fes­sional life in mod­ern Aus­tralia.

More par­tic­u­larly, his fo­cus is on the de­cay of prin­ci­ple and con­vic­tion in the pro­fes­sions of ar­chi­tec­ture, law, medicine and academe. Cal­li­nan takes time to give us long and in­trigu­ing back­sto­ries for the main char­ac­ters — of Forsythe’s war ser­vice in the RAAF with Fay’s fa­ther, and the cause of the men’s es­trange­ment; of Fay’s pro­fes­sional suc­cess and dam­aged re­la­tion­ships; and of the three for­mer wives of Sil­ver, and how he lost them. No doubt many true sto­ries that came to Cal­li­nan’s no­tice in his long le­gal ca­reer are em­bed­ded in this fic­tion.

Cal­li­nan’s own sense of a fall­ing away of stan­dards seems to im­bue the despair and con­tempt with which a se­nior part­ner is de­scribed by Forsythe: ‘‘his forte was de­sign­ing new forms of time sheet, ar­rang­ing sem­i­nars in billing, and steal­ing other firms’ clients’’. Then Aspers: ‘‘the work that pays best is repet­i­tive work. De­sign­ing city tow­ers for ex­am­ple’’; and Sil­ver, on gen­eral prac­ti­tion­ers who now were ‘‘shed­ding their ve­neers of pro­fes­sional cour­tesy and openly com­pet­ing in the sub­urbs’’. Thus The Only Case, while it builds with sus­pense to its shock cli­max, is also a lament for the loss of a more civil and re­spon­si­ble Aus­tralia.

Hav­ing writ­ten a Fed­er­a­tion Ode that was read at the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the Com­mon­wealth of Aus­tralia, dropped out of Ox­ford and then imag­ined be­com­ing a By­ronic wan­derer around the Mediter­ranean, Robert Kaub was re­cruited be­cause of his lan­guage skills to the ‘‘in­tel­li­gence ser­vices housed in the pine-scented premises of the Bri­tish School of Hel­lenic Stud­ies’’ in Athens. Hasluck’s novel opens with Kaub’s disin­gen­u­ously sim­ple remark: “At that time we had var­i­ous rooms in the city that were suited to the un­usual na­ture of our work.’’

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