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Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Review: The Skull, Adam Shand (2009)

This book is about what makes a virtuous cop. It's set in another era, but that era is so close to ours that you wonder how much of this man called The Skull can still be found in some members of today's police force.

It's a thoughtful rendering of a more rudimentary era the less attractive elements of which have been erased from memory and replaced in retrospective consciousness with certain modes of dressing-up, select song lyrics, and a pulpy affection that coats the more jarring edges of the time with its smooth efflorescence. It is based on five years of interviews with the protagonist - Shand tells us in one of his personal appearances in the book. And while he often recoils from making explicit judgements there is, buried in the language, a distinct tone of approbation for a fairly rough and simple man.

When I met Adam at a school reunion recently, I told him that I had enjoyed his earlier book on the Melbourne gangland killings, Big Shots. That book is about how apparently ordinary people change - a lot - once they start to become involved in organised crime.

This thoughtfulness is also evident in the pace of the books. They are fast-paced, on occasion confusing as it will happen to the reader that Shand refers to a character who had been present earlier in the narrative but who has slipped his or her mind. But this is not a great failing. More important, I think, is that the rapidity of the narrative keeps you thinking. It is likely that some readers will come back later and re-read these books, as they contain more than can comfortably be assimilated in one go.

For Shand is being ambitious. In The Skull, there are many rough characters who do questionable things but underneath the violence lies an enduring need for virtue, for order and sanity, and for society to stay the way it always has always done. To be good at policing, you must needs be a conservative at heart. Enforcing the statutes requires you to be constantly on the lookout for the detail, the anomaly, the tell-tale sign of something afoot.

When we chatted briefly at the reunion, Shand told me about his love of Hunter S. Thompson, the American journalist whose fame is so great in our circles that his book titles have become a staple of the sub-editor's daily spiel. 'Fear and loathing' is a trope so well-used that the subs instinctively lunge for it whenever a headline is required to highlight some out-of-the-ordinary and paranoia-inducing scenario currently playing out in society.

Thompson was also a thoughtful man, despite the glaring surface of his writing. A screaming liberal, Thompson's fame is based on a style of writing developed - out of the profound desperation of the hungry freelancer - in order to grab the attention of the community. He also gravitated toward subjects of such perverse fascination - Hells Angels, San Francisco bohemians - that success became more likely than failure.

Shand has written two books about crime. Now crime is a popular subject, and a lucrative one. The shelves of mainstream bookstores are stuffed to their very edges with true tales of carnage that are wrapped in blood-spattered, garishly-embossed and -inked covers. But what is certain is that his books sit above the crowd in terms of their aspiration and also their execution. For this reason, if you buy The Skull and read it, I'm fairly sure that you will not regret the expense. Highly recommended.

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