Navigating the Mean Streets of post-war Melbourne: Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek and Peter Twhoig’s The Cartographer
Review by Robert Goodman
The crime genre is often used as an accessible vehicle for exploring the past. Two relatively recent Australian novels use the genre in very different ways to take readers on very distinct and fascinating trips through the mean streets of Melbourne in the late 1950s.
The more conventional of the two, in genre terms, is Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek. This is a sequel to McGeachin’s 2011 Ned Kelly Award-winning Diggers’ Rest Hotel and, while separated in time, both explore the way Australia changed in the aftermath of the Second World War. In Diggers Rest Hotel, McGeachin introduced police detective Charlie Berlin, ex-bomber pilot, ex-POW, just returned from the war and sent as a kind of punishment to investigate a series of payroll robberies in Northern Victoria. Blackwattle Creek jumps Berlin forward ten years to 1957, now living in the post-war constructed Melbourne suburbs with a wife and two children, never promoted and just scraping by on his policeman’s salary, and still haunted by his wartime experiences.
While on a break, Berlin is asked by his wife to look into why the husband of a friend of hers, a man who had died of cancer, might have had his leg removed before the burial. As with any good crime novel, this small, rather macabre investigation turns out to have much wider implications. Berlin is quickly embroiled with shadowy figures, threatened by the secret service and, of course, warned off investigating further by his superiors. And in the noir tradition, no amount of threat or danger can sidetrack his investigation.
The investigation itself provides a window into post-war Australia. It explores how people reacted to the ‘communist menace’ and what lengths people might have gone in the age of nuclear terror and mutual assured destruction. Every encounter Berlin has, whether it is with his superiors, the Hungarian émigré hearse driver he meets or his nemesis, all serve to illuminate the era, its fears and prejudices.
There’s not a lot of shading in this novel – there are good guys and there are bad guys and they are generally pretty easy to spot. And while Berlin is a damaged soul, even at his lowest moment he never really wavers from the path of the angels. But the central mystery is engaging, shocking, and scarily plausible. And as with his previous novel, much of the pleasure comes from the period detail, both in the setting but also the attitudes and behaviour of the characters. The cracking plot is just a bonus.
In another part of Melbourne in 1959, the eleven-year-old protagonist of The Cartographer, who is never named, roams the mean streets of Richmond, often on his own or with his canine companion. He is trying to make sense of the world and come to terms with the recent death of his twin brother. The Cartographer by Peter Twohig took the honours for best first crime fiction at the 2012 Ned Kelly Awards. It is incredibly assured, and is anything but a genre crime novel.
The Cartographer is set in that faraway past, before current-affairs fear campaigns and video games, when children roamed the streets much more freely. A freedom that is encouraged and portrayed as a positive, but also a risk. The narrator takes himself off on adventures around his suburb, seeing the world through a lens of comic book heroes and pulp fiction. After witnessing an actual murder on one of his journeys, the eleven-year-old narrator decides that if he becomes a hero called The Cartographer, and carefully maps out his world, he can continue to explore while avoiding further danger. There is a version of the map that he creates printed on the inside cover of the book, which helps orient those who are unfamiliar with the streets of Richmond, but it is nowhere near rich as the one described.
There is more than this crime that the narrator has to process. His twin brother’s death, his parent’s separation, and the shadowy criminal world of his grandfather all factor into this beguiling narrative. There are some genre elements around the investigation of the murder that he witnesses, but these stay very much in the background, emerging occasionally to provide a skeletal plot. This is much more about the narrator’s journeys in which he gets himself into some serious and dangerous scrapes, actually does some heroic things and discovers secrets about his family, his suburb and the people around him.
Not everything works in this novel – it tends to meander much like its protagonist, is sometimes hard to follow, and the resolution of the central mystery doesn’t quite work over the time-frame. But Twohig confidently walks the tightrope of the extremely unreliable young narrator and the real world. Much like Jonathon Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close, when it works The Cartographer is devastatingly effective and poignant.
The Cartographer provides a vivid portrait of Australian life, or more precisely lower-class Melbourne life, in the late 1950s. There is violence, corruption and poverty, but, seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old, it avoids some of the jaded weariness that sits beneath Blackwattle Creek. The hero of The Cartographer doesn’t have to worry, as Charlie Berlin does, about the fact that he can’t afford to repair the second-hand car as the nice lady on the tram lets him ride for free and even gives him old tickets for his collection. It is a charming, but by no means rose-tinted recollection, and you don’t have to read too far between the lines to see the struggle.
Harper Collins, 2011