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More book reviews:
“All The Tears in China” and

More light reads.

ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA, by Sulari Gentill

I found an Australian crime writer that has a series of books – 11 books – written about the character of Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Sydney artist. Sulari Gentill is the writer. Each book is centred in a different background. The one I read: ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA, is set in Shanghai in 1935.

Sinclair’s brother, Wilfred, runs the family business – a wool business and is unable to attend an important international negotiation meeting in Shanghai and seconds his younger brother, Rowland, to stand in for him despite his relative ignorance of how the machinations of business in the period context all works.Quickly instructed in the facts of the business and ordered not to agree to any offer from any of the participants – to stall every offer of negotiation – he travels to Shanghai with his three Sydney companions: Clyde, an artist; Middleton, a poet; Edna, a sculptress – it seems they are inseparable, a bit like the Secret Seven or the Famous Five or the Talley Ho gang, quaint, but nostalgic, inventions of dear Enid Blyton.

In the exotic realm of China’s international port filled with refugees from the revolution in Russia, the shady movers and shakers in the underground gangster ‘industries’ of this glamorous city with its taipans and tycoons and suspect police force, with the subtle but lethal pressure of the presence of Japanese invaders and their pursuit of economic and political power in China, in an unstable world of German, Italian and Spanish agitation for war, our Australian companions indulge in the sexual and drug hedonism of this exciting Eastern environment. On their first night Rowland and his friends brush up against the taxi girls in their luxurious hotel’s ballroom only to be plunged into a murder investigation which Rowland Sinclair becomes the principal suspect.

To unravel the crime to find the actual culprit, Gentill takes us through many landscapes of the city – rich, poor, desperate, celebratory – meeting a complex set of international characters that enliven the storytelling with well researched detail. Some 374 pages, it is a lively read although I found the principal characters superficial and cumulatively rather boring, maybe even objectionable asses of entitled wealth and preposterous derring-do. The catalyst character  provoking the big ‘turning point’ moment – a love besotted newspaper ‘madman’ – was for my taste too obvious a novelistic ploy – and was a very shallow psychological projection – to shift the storytelling into its final action. Hugely disappointing, and fairly banal.

But, then, there are 11 books and so the characters are a source of pleasure for many other readers. The Age is quoted as saying: “A sparkling crime series …Evelyn Waugh meets Agatha Christie …” . This is what, ultimately, persuaded me to pick it up, buy it.

Waugh and Christie – if only!!!!!

A TESTAMENT OF CHARACTER is the latest in the series. Perhaps I need to read another to confirm or reverse my reaction.

BELGRAVIA by Julian Fellowes

At the same time I picked up a new novel from the creator of DOWNTON ABBEY. I thought it would be an untaxing diversion to fill the Coronavirus vacuum of time. The book is BELGRAVIA, published in 2016. It is fruity in its world which is early Victorian – 1830’s – and is stuffed with the clambering rivalry between the dwindling power of the gentry and the new upwardly mobile trade successes of the period, with all of their different prejudices and well worn strivings.

Class, as usual, is under the scrutiny of this writer. But it is not the Upstairs Downstairs politics in a family house this time but a rubbing of the Ancestral shoulders of the old collapsing money peoples with the rising of the new money of the industrial tradies. If you want standing: marry into the gentry, if you want money to survive, accept and marry the rising status of the power of well earned money, even if it is blatantly of dirty ‘trade’ origin.

For me, there are too many caricatures written to spin the wheels of the plot into ‘violent’ activity. Too many of them are, in the writing, just thumb nail sketches of recognisable melodramatic types.

It begins in  Brussels on the evening of Duchess of Richmond’s ball – which 25 years later has become a legendary occasion – is interrupted by the news that Napoleon was gathering his forces on the fields of Waterloo. The young soldiers leave their dancing to prepare for battle. Some of them will never return. One of them, the young son of the Duchess, is one of those who never returns. But he has left behind a young woman who was fooled to give her virginity without marriage to him. The resultant child of this ‘fallen’ woman becomes the centre of the story. He is a secret that draws the Duchess and the Trade family, the Trenchards, into necessary interaction.

In the writing the characterisations are rather cloak and dagger caricatures serving the turn of the wheel of an obvious plot that sits in the shadow of say, Thackery’s VANITY FAIR, without any of its wit, sophisticated machinations, or relish of satire or irony.

At page 271 of the 411 pages of this book I discovered that a new television series of 6 episodes had been made to bring this book to a wider audience – I think it is now available on one of the many streaming platforms. Checking through the casting and watching a Trailer or two on Google, I deducted that the acting by a very competent cast of actors would more than likely provide ALL the characters with a complex internal life as well as the external actions of the storytelling of these intrigues. That the embodying of these characters by very good actors would do the work that Mr Fellowes does not do in this book, which may have been, now I think of it, been written as a very long winded ‘pitch’ for the filmmakers of our era. (Certainly, that is what I observed while watching the previews.) So, I gave up reading any further and decided to wait for the series to be screened.

I cannot imagine it necessary to read the book. And the script and acting of the series may be a more satisfactory experience of BELGRAVIA.

(I should report that I was right. The Series is much more palatable than the book.)