Judges of good characters
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.’’