August 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Bright Air’ by Barry Maitland

By Barry Jones

Bright Air is Barry Maitland's tenth novel and the first with a local setting. His earlier novels, all police procedurals, feature Detective Chief Inspector David Brock, worldly wise and edging towards retirement, and his aspiring assistant, Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla, working with the Serious Crime Branch at Scotland Yard. This may sound deeply clichéd, but Maitland disarms criticism with his sparkling writing, penetrating psychological insights and powerful story-lines. Each novel deals with a particular milieu: stamp forgery, international architecture, health farms, shopping malls, genome research, Caribbean gang wars, the art world.

In Bright Air, Maitland takes a new direction: his subject is the relationship of six friends from Sydney, all flawed characters, and their intense, even fanatical commitment to mountaineering - pushing themselves, and each other, to the limit. Lucy Corcoran dies in a climbing accident on Lord Howe Island; two young men suffer fatal injuries in New Zealand. It is an exciting story, with outstanding descriptions of the terrors of mountaineering. Maitland also ruminates about risk and contingency, and there are curious parallels with Tim Winton's Breath in the exploration of extreme demands on physical and moral courage. 

Unlike the Brock-Kolla series, Bright Air has a first-person narrator, Josh Ambler, one of the friends. The book's structure places him in a variety of roles - failed lover, failed banker, failed mountaineer and de-facto investigator of Lucy's death - but he is not interesting enough to succeed on all counts. He is observer, commentator and participant, and this weakens the book's impact. Marcus Fenn, arch manipulator and whited sepulchre, a guru for the ill-fated six, lives in a Walter Burley Griffin house in Castlecrag; he is overdrawn and his enthusiasm for Rudolf Steiner seems curiously dated. Maitland's dialogue is strong, though, and he makes Lord Howe and its surrounding islets irresistibly attractive. (The island's tourist industry should build a monument to him.) I learned more about climbing than I would have thought possible. He is also very knowledgeable about birds.

Georges Simenon and Graham Greene both wrote in two genres: Simenon, with his ‘policiers' and short, disturbing psychological novels; and  Greene, with his ‘entertainments' and serious novels about torment and belief. With this exploration of inner conflicts in a challenging environment, Maitland, one of Australia's leading crime writers, heralds his own pursuit of a second genre.

Cover: August 2008

August 2008

From the front page


The artistic revival at Papunya Tjupi Arts

Women painters are bringing the focus back to the birthplace of the Western Desert movement

The Wentworth blame game

After an epic defeat, the Liberals appear to have learnt nothing

The Senate’s state of error

It started as theatre of the absurd, but by the end the “it’s OK to be white” episode had become an improbable fairytale.

At the gateway to Cape Fear

After the storm, North Carolina is a glimpse into a climate-changed future

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Isabel Letham & Duke Kahanamoku

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The wanderer

‘The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age’ by David Okuefuna

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On the edge

More in Arts & Letters

Detail of a painting of Barron Field

Barron Field and the myth of terra nullius

How a minor poet made a major historical error

Still from Christopher Robin

A man and his bear: Marc Forster’s ‘Christopher Robin’

Adults will find this new tale of Winnie the Pooh surprisingly moving

Image of Cher in 1979

Eternally Cher

The queen of reinvention turns her attention to the works of ABBA

Image of Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: show tunes and symphonies

Centenary celebrations highlight the composer’s broad ambitions and appeal

More in Noted

Cover of ‘The End’

‘The End’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The ‘My Struggle’ series arrives at a typically exhausting conclusion

Cover of ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk

Offbeat intrigue from a Booker Prize winner

‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton

A social affairs reporter turns the pen on himself

Image of Ancestral Spirit Beings Collecting Honey, 1985-87

‘John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New’ at the MCA, Sydney

The celebrated bark painter’s ethos guides this retrospective exhibition

Read on

The Senate’s state of error

It started as theatre of the absurd, but by the end the “it’s OK to be white” episode had become an improbable fairytale.

Image from ‘The Insult’

The personal is political in ‘The Insult’

Ziad Doueiri’s tense film excavates Lebanon’s violent past

Image from ‘A Star Is Born’

Lady Gaga mesmerises in the uneven ‘A Star Is Born’

After a beguiling first act, director Bradley Cooper struggles to maintain momentum

Image of ‘The Arsonist’ by Chloe Hooper

The Detectives

Inside the hunt for the Black Saturday arsonist – an extract