Cu­ri­ous twists in gold rush mys­tery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Martin Shaw

The spa town of Dayles­ford in coun­try Vic­to­ria has long been a favourite get­away for Mel­bur­ni­ans in search of re­viv­i­fi­ca­tion. But sel­dom has it crossed any sort of lit­er­ary radar (al­though it boasts one of the na­tion’s most charm­ingly sit­u­ated sec­ond-hand book­shops). En­ter Dayles­ford lo­cal Greg Py­ers with a de­but crime fic­tion set in the gold rush era of the 1850s-60s.

And Py­ers has mined a rich vein of lo­cal history for this novel. His recre­ation of daily life in the early town­ship is evoca­tive, from the toils of the min­ers to the boun­ti­ful pub­lic houses of vary­ing re­pute, where bar­maids named Squeaky Betsy and Waxy Venus re­lieve the work­ing men of their hard-earned.

A wide cast of lo­cal char­ac­ters is in­tro­duced (all of whom are based on real peo­ple, we are told in an au­thor’s note), the rhythm of ev­ery­day life is painted with colour and verisimil­i­tude and there is an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the town’s ge­og­ra­phy, flora and sea­sons. The Un­for­tu­nate Vic­tim seems set, in its early chap­ters, to be an im­mer­sive mur­der mys­tery.

By sig­nalling when the crime is to oc­cur — chap­ter two is en­ti­tled ‘‘Wed­nes­day Evening 21 December, Seven Days be­fore the Mur­der’’ — a good deal of nar­ra­tive mo­men­tum is in­tro­duced as well. When it comes, the mur­der — of young, re­cently wed Mag­gie Stu­art — is dis­turb­ing in its vi­cious­ness, and puz­zling. There are in­di­ca­tions of a sex­ual as­sault, but who would have wanted to kill her?

Itin­er­ant farm­hand David Rose was seen camp­ing near her house in the days pre­ced­ing her death, so sus­pi­cion falls on him. But it also falls on Ital­ian trades­man Ser­afino Bonetti, whose swarthy ap­pear­ance fits an eye­wit­ness re­port of some­one with dark fea­tures spot­ted close by Mag­gie’s house that night.

From here the book en­ters a comic mode that re­minded me of the charm­ing his­tor­i­cal crime fic­tions of Mel­bourne’s Robert Gott, whom the au­thor thanks in his ac­knowl­edg­ments. The lo­cal con­stab­u­lary mounts an in­com­pe­tent search for Rose, des­per­ate for a re­sult to al­lay the pub­lic clam­our. They are also mo­ti­vated by the op­por­tu­nity to gain a slice of the con­sid­er­able re­ward up for grabs.

One of the con­sta­bles knows that Bonetti is cuck­old­ing him, so he keeps him locked up for weeks de­spite his man­i­fest in­no­cence. It takes the ar­rival of Otto Ber­liner, a one-time Dayles­ford de­tec­tive (now set­ting him­self up as a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor in Mel­bourne), to set things in or­der. Within days, us­ing the most ele­men­tary de­duc­tive rea­son­ing, Rose is duly ap­pre­hended.

But al­though it re­mains an en­joy­able yarn, prob­lems start to mount in the re­main­der of the novel. We tra­verse the de­tails of the day of the crime and the clues found at the crime scene too many times: first at an in­quest, then at Rose’s even­tual trial, then again when Ber­liner chooses to re-ex­am­ine the case once more, in­ter­ro­gat­ing Rose’s in­ept de­fence lawyer and study­ing the pho­to­graphs of the crime scene taken by lo­cal por­trait artist Tom Chuck.

There is also the mat­ter of the his­tor­i­cal oc­clud­ing the fic­tional tale. We are told the book is based on a true story — a mur­der com­mit­ted in Dayles­ford in 1864 — and that all the char­ac­ters are based on real peo­ple. But we aren’t of­fered any in­for­ma­tion about whether any of the events has been tweaked or to what ex­tent.

The iden­tity, mo­ti­va­tion and fate of the mur­derer, for in­stance, are re­vealed to­wards the end in some sur­pris­ing, some­what im­prob­a­ble twists. Was it re­ally this way? It’s at this point one yearns for the real story; a ‘‘note on sources’’ in an af­ter­word might have suf­ficed. As it stands, the reader is left won­der­ing whether this is a drama­ti­sa­tion of real events, or the real events are just a spring­board for a plot of the au­thor’s own de­vis­ing.

On the other hand, Py­ers has alighted on an in­trigu­ing his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter in Ber­liner, who made quite a name for him­self at the time, be­ing in­volved in the cause cele­bre that was the Tich­borne case, and ap­par­ently solv­ing sev­eral mur­ders. He was clearly an en­ter­pris­ing de­tec­tive who didn’t suf­fer fools (that is, the po­lice!) gladly, and the por­trait of him here is a fond one. He was per­haps rather a dandy and a touch pompous, but at least a pro­fes­sional in a time that badly needed them.

The story of David Rose (real name David Young), mean­while, is a sober­ing one: an ex­con­vict, trans­ported at 16, he was ef­fec­tively branded for life by his lack of education and low so­cial sta­tion. He was des­tined to be scape­goated if he was ever in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Un­for­tu­nate Vic­tim be­comes a lit­tle stuck in the honey pot of its fas­ci­nat­ing gold­fields his­tor­i­cal un­der­pin­nings to suc­ceed fully on fic­tional terms. Py­ers, though, is a most able word­smith, and the novel will be en­joyed par­tic­u­larly by those fa­mil­iar with the town and cu­ri­ous about its colour­ful past. is a for­mer Mel­bourne book­seller now based in Leipzig.

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