‘The Holiday Murders’ by Robert Gott

‘The Holiday Murders’ starts on Christmas Eve but that’s really its only link to the Christmas season. This isn’t a cosy Christmas Crime story with snowbound country houses, locked room mysteries and a brilliant but eccentric amateur detective. This is a hard-hitting historical police procedural, investigating sadistic, graphically violent murders.

It is set in Melbourne in 1943 and begins with the discovery of two dead bodies, on Christmas Eve. One of the dead appears to have been tortured before being killed, The other, his father, has been arranged, rather unconvincingly, to be seen as a suicide.

Despite this gruesome start, I found my attention being snagged mainly by the historical details that Robert Gott so deftly incorporate in the story. I knew nothing about the Australian history that provides the context for the crimes. I was surprised to find that the Australian government had imposed an austerity regime that effectively banned Christmas or that they were directly allocating civilians to jobs. It seemed as though the Australian version of the English ‘Don’t You Know There’s A War On?’ attitude was much more authoritarian and left me wondering whether it was necessary or was just a sort of macho response to being at war. I’d also never heard of the Australia First Movement, although I was aware of its American and English counterparts.

Once I settled in to the historical period, my attention was taken up by the police team investigating the crimes. I thought the characters were well-drawn and provide an ensemble cast that could sustain a series. We have Inspector Titus Lambert, experienced but still young to have been appointed to lead the newly formed and dramatically understaffed Homicide Division. He has a too-modern-for-his-times view of women that seemed a little bit of a stretch at first, but his personality and his relationship with his wife made them plausibly personal rather than anachronistic. We have new-to-the-job Detective Sargeant Joe Sable, a non-practising Jew, whose heart murmur has prevented him from enlisting, Finally, we have Constable Helen Lord, bright, insightful and combative. She has had eight frustrating years on the job and has mostly been treated as a secretary by her colleagues but who Inspector Lamber seconds onto his team because he sees her potential.

The driving force of the plot is Ptolemy Jones, a viciously violent man with an ambition to bring the Australian people the benefits of National Socialism and who is ready to crush anyone who stands in his way. Jones is a vivid and deeply disturbing creation. He’s a man driven by hate: for the communists, for the degenerates and homosexuals and especially for Jews. He’s a charismatic, physically intimidating man who revels in causing pain. I found him very easy to believe in. His actions in the book and the things he gets others to do are brutal. The book doesn’t glamourise him but it does acknowledge the power that his passion, focus and unhesitating use of violence give him.

I admired Robert Gott’s storytelling style. The pacing works, moving the multiple storylines along in a way that kept me interested and made me speculate on how they would come together. Events are described in a slightly detached way that keeps the brutality from being glorified but still produces lots of tension edged with fear.

The plot is enriched by the involvement of Australian Military Intelligence and complicated by the slightly bizarre familial relationships of the first murder victims. There are several surprises along the way, mainly to do with obscured motivations and hidden relationships. I found the final reveal very convincing, even though I hadn’t seen it coming.

I’ve already downloaded ‘The Port Fairy Murders’, the next book in the series.

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