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.

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