Christmas cracker: Robert Gott on ‘The Holiday Murders’
Described as a compelling page-turner that is also ‘a little grisly’, Robert Gott’s novel The Holiday Murders (Scribe) follows a 1943 homicide investigation through the streets of Melbourne. The author spoke to Pip Newling. You can read Newling’s review of The Holiday Murders here.
The Holiday Murders is a crime novel that takes place in Melbourne over Christmas in 1943, and draws on real people and events in the city’s history. Why focus on this particular period? And why Melbourne?
Wartime Australia, and wartime Melbourne in particular, is a fascinating period in Australian history. For a writer it offers a period that is sufficiently distant to appear strange and faintly exotic and, paradoxically, sufficiently close to appear recognisable and familiar. In terms of research, there are still lots of people with vivid memories of the city and the period, and there is a wealth of easily accessible material in archives. Newspapers are a particularly rich source of information and provide a sense of immediacy that is exciting. Whenever I’m feeling a bit stuck or uncertain I go back to simply reading the papers of the day, and it’s amazing how that re-energises the writing. I chose 1943 because that was the year that the homicide squad became a discrete unit in the Victorian police force.
What are particularly interesting to me about this period are the rather frightening undercurrents of anti-Semitism, and the frank admiration of some for the regime in Germany. This went further than the flirtation with fascism that characterises the movements of the 30s. There were actually individuals who were wedded to Nazi ideology. They were never a large group but they existed, and they’ve rarely been written about in crime fiction. A magazine such as the Publicist, which was the magazine of the Australia First Movement, is quite shocking to read today, largely because of its rabid anti-Semitism. I wondered, as I read various editions, how it was greeted in its day. There must have been people who thought its position perfectly reasonable, and I wanted to write a story that had these people at its centre. It isn’t difficult to see parallels in the antipathy shown towards Jewish refugees in the 30s and the 40s, and the ways in which they were demonised, and the reporting of refugees today.
The crimes are particularly grisly, the killer particularly cruel. Are the fictional crimes you depict drawn from real crimes or did you create them from scratch?
The crimes depicted in the novel are entirely fictional, and the killer is really unpleasant because Nazism was a kind of derangement, and its propagation depended at bottom on people sufficiently deranged or deluded or dysfunctional to enforce its tenets with violence and terror. Not all the Australian Nazis in the novel are actively brutal. There is a distinction made between the drawing room Nazi and the field Nazi. The killer is definitely a field Nazi, and he has contempt for the soft, self-indulgent, middle class Hitler-ites, for whom National Socialism is more about aesthetics than politics. In my research, I haven’t come across anyone as extreme as my killer, but you don’t have to look far among the European Nazis to find his equal.
Is it tough writing the grisly scenes?
It’s odd. I can’t bear violence in the cinema, and I don’t like it on the page either. I’m aware that there are a couple of unpleasant scenes in this book, but the mechanics of writing them dulled any visceral response. Consequently, I don’t think they’re actually that violent or grisly at all. If you deconstruct one of those scenes, there is more suggested than expressed.
By the end of the book I was quite attached to the main characters and I wanted to spend more time with them. Is this the start of a series?
Yes. I’ve started writing the second one, which picks up where The Holiday Murders left off. There are a couple of loose ends that need tying up, and I have a murder for the team to investigate that has a great red herring at its centre. It’s based on a real murder that my father told me about. The murder took place in Bundaberg, but I’m shifting it to Melbourne. I think the female police officer, Helen Lord, will play a bigger part in this one. Life in the force wasn’t easy for policewomen, and I think that’s worth exploring.
What was the last book you read and loved?
The last book I read and loved was Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. I also loved its predecessor Wolf Hall (both Fourth Estate). I admire Mantel’s ability to slip the reader so easily into the incredibly complex world of Tudor England. She leads us through it with such sure-footedness that we never lose our way. I think these two books are master classes in the writing of historical fiction.