AWW 2012 – Review – A Few Right Thinking Men (Sulari Gentill)

This is my first book and review for the AWW 2012 Challege. I must admit to never having heard of Sulari Gentill until I started digging around for recs and lists for the reading challenge late last year.

The reasons why I was interested in, and got excited by, Gentill (besides her being Australian and a woman):

1. Reviews spoke about her meticulous approach to the history in her crime fiction,
2. She was born in Sri Lanka, and
3. The main character, Rowland Sinclair, was not a PI or police officer but an artist, aristocrat, and amateur sleuth (I love an amateur sleuth).

When I first started reading A Few Right Thinking Men (AFRTM), I had to adjust my pacing expectations. I’d just been reading some contemporary crime novels where the pacing was very fast and content deliberately shocking. Gentill’s work is more considered and takes the reader on a mellower ride. She evokes the 1930s Sydney arts scene and various suburban traits subtly, and captures the events that caught the popular imagination in a compelling way (e.g. the controversy of building the Sydney Harbour Bridge and its subsequent opening).

I enjoyed getting to know the protagonists, their politics, and the broader context of Australia during the Depression (of which I was woefully ignorant). Gentill has an adept touch with the historical flourishes and weaves them into the narrative arc well. In clumsier hands, this kind of material can be difficult to wade through. Too much setting up of the context means to me that the author isn’t paying attention to the mode they’re writing in; after all, it’s not a textbook. The complicated politics and factions of the time, which make Left and Right politics today seem incredibly mediocre, are fascinating.

Gentill’s writing brought forth this sociopolitical context and tone, and she populated the story with well-crafted examples of the extreme characters to be found on all sides of the political public sphere. I particularly liked the range of class details the story contained, and the fact that Rowland wasn’t above being critiqued by his friends. His extremely pampered position in society enables much of the plot, and Gentill is careful to present him as eccentric for his class (i.e. happy to ‘slum it’ with hedonistic creative sorts) but not a superhero (e.g. the close encounter Rowland had at the 50-50 club with a member of the sensational ‘razor gangs’). The nuanced way Gentill writes Wilfred (Rowland’s conservative older brother) is also indicative of the character complexity she achieves.

For the most part, the narrative suspense was well retained. There were only a couple of points that stumbled for me: one was guessing the ‘mistake’ that was made with regard to the murder (while the novel’s characters were still talking me through possibilities), and the other was the denouement where Rowland’s unconventional artist friend, Edna Higgins, seemed to slip out of character.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed reading AFRTM and will be seeking out the others in the Rowland Sinclair series: A Decline in Prophets (released July 2011) and Miles Off Course (Feb 2012). A fourth book is also planned for 2012 release.


15 thoughts on “AWW 2012 – Review – A Few Right Thinking Men (Sulari Gentill)

  1. bernadetteinoz 16/01/2012 / 8:45 pm

    Glad you liked it. I count Sulari and this series as one of my ‘finds’ of the last couple of years. I read a lot of crime fiction which is at the darker end of the spectrum but sometimes it is nice to read something lighter that still treats readers with intelligence and doesn’t fill the whole thing up with ridiculous gimmicks. I’m in the middle of MILES OFF COURSE right now and think it might be the best one yet.

    • Tseen Khoo 16/01/2012 / 10:06 pm

      Thanks for reading + commenting, Bernadette. I agree that it’s great to have a smart novel that doesn’t try hard to be too hip’n happening. I must admit to being a bit over ‘quirky’ right now. Very much looking forward to reading more of her work!

  2. Sulari Gentill 17/01/2012 / 7:41 am

    Dear Tseen,

    Thank you. I’m really pleased that you enjoyed a AFRTM. I, like most people, knew very little of the 1930s before I started writing Rowland Sinclair, and now I’m almost addicted to the politics of the era. You’re right – there was a colour and contrast that we don’t see today. Anyway, thank you so much for the review.

    Kind regards


    • Tseen Khoo 17/01/2012 / 9:48 am

      Thanks so much for dropping by, Sulari! Can totally understand being addicted to the era; that interwar period is so rich with societal change and political intensity. Australia’s increasing connections with American culture, too, are interesting to me. I wrote an article about wartime fundraising by Chinese Australians (with Rodney Noonan), and that gave me a window into the 1930s context of nationalism and international relations (e.g. cultivating China + China as ally…yet everyday mis-recognition of Asians in general in Australian society).

      A Decline in Prophets next! 🙂

      • Sulari Gentill 17/01/2012 / 2:59 pm

        Me again Tseen,

        There’s a book that I think you might enjoy – other than all of mine of course 🙂

        Have you come across Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver? The book is set in NZ from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s…the story of an interracial love affair between a white woman and Chinese man and the social and personal ramifications of the same. I found it quite moving and beautifully written. I think Alison is an Australian living in Melbourne now.

        I’ll must track down your article ….I intend to write Rowland Siinclair into WWII and the gamut of Australia’s emerging national identity is something I find fascinating.

        I hope you enjoy A Decline in Prophets.



        • Tseen Khoo 18/01/2012 / 9:25 am

          Hi Sulari

          A writing friend of mine from Western Australia recommended Alison Wong’s book to me a while back (my buddy had interviewed her when they were both in NZ), and I’ve been meaning to get around to reading it. Thank you for your rec, which has pushed it into the spotlight for me again!

          The full ref of the article I wrote with Rodney is in this post (on my blog) about the special issue of Australian Historical Studies in which it appeared:

          Let me know if you have trouble sourcing it. I’m now anxious that you (with 10x the knowledge about that period of Oz history) will find the piece a bit thin… 😉

  3. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out 18/01/2012 / 4:28 pm

    I continue to be intrigued and hope to read this during the year. Thanks for sharing your review!

    • Tseen Khoo 19/01/2012 / 9:44 am

      Thanks for reading + commenting, Shelley! Much appreciated. 🙂

  4. Jenny Schwartz (@Jenny_Schwartz) 19/01/2012 / 10:08 am

    “A Few Right Thinking Men” is on my #AWW2012 list. Now, I want to cheat and nudge it up the list. I love 1930s mysteries … to read one set in Oz and with modern sensibilities, perfect!

    (and yeah, I know with #AWW2012 we’re meant to read outside our normal reading…I’m stretching the guidelines a tad)

    • Tseen Khoo 19/01/2012 / 11:39 am

      Thanks for dropping by, Jenny! It’s a book I’d recommend, and I’m keen to get started on the next one. Only thing is, though, that all this commenting and reading of reviews = even more books for Mt TBR (to-be-read)!

  5. VeganYANerds 22/01/2012 / 9:36 am

    I completely understand about changing pace when switching between different genres, depending on my mood, I often find it difficult to get into a book that is a different genre from what I’m used to reading.

    I haven’t heard of this author or her books but I think I might add it to my to-read list.

    And thank you for the comment on our blog, I hope you love the Lumatere Chronicles when you read them 🙂


    • Tseen Khoo 23/01/2012 / 9:42 am

      Thanks, Mands! Was lovely to discover your blog + read some of the posts. Always nice to find savvy folk on the interwebs. 😉

      Yes, v. much looking forward to the Lumatere Chronicles, and reading more of Marchetta’s work in general. My TBR list is getting ever longer, though, so I may need to work on how all this reading’s going to fit into my life…! (same as it ever was for everyone, I think)

  6. perkinsy 01/02/2012 / 10:04 pm

    Thanks for your comments. I’ve just read P M Newton’s, The Old School The Old School and it too has depth and therefore proceeds at a more measured pace (but the story still zips along well). When I read a book I like to enjoy the ride as well as finding out what happens in the end. You have piqued my interest in Sulari Gentill’s book!

    • Tseen Khoo 01/02/2012 / 10:46 pm

      Wow – excellent review of Newton’s book! Thanks for the heads-up. I tend to binge once in a while on the fast-paced procedurals, then end up feeling a bit like I’ve had too much junk food.

      My to-be-read pile is getting ridiculously long. Getting onto goodreads was an extremely effective way to blow out my reading list. So many books I want to get to, so few hours.

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