The Old School
Penguin Books Aus
Read from my local library
It is Sydney in 1992 and the NSW Police Force and the general public are still reeling from the doings of Roger Rogerson and Arthur “Neddy” Smith. Young detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly works out of the Bankstown police station where her Vietnamese appearance was considered an asset in “liasing with the community”. Never mind the fact that Kelly was born in Australia, isn’t part of the local Vietnamese culture and doesn’t speak the language.
Some things have changed, but not all and Kelly still faces discrimination, racism and difficulty due to both her appearance and the fact that she’s a woman in what is still very much a man’s world. Her station and the local community is thrown into chaos when old bones are discovered in the foundations of a building that is being demolished to make way for a car park. The bones have been there for a couple of decades and it’s up to forensics to tease the information out of them: race, sex, identity, how they died.
But for Ned Kelly, this is going to be anything but a straight forward case. It stirs up the demons she has faced every day since her parents were murdered point blank in front of her when she was a small child. It calls into question the actions and character of her father, a Vietnam war veteran. Ned is distanced from the investigation as things become too close to home, both for her personally and also professionally. An ill-advised fling with an undercover officer also leads her into dangerous territory and Ned is beginning to wonder just who she can really trust around her. The bodies are going to uncover the darkest secrets of the police force and prove that the corruption and illegal activity of the previous decades has stretched far and wide.
Every now and then you read a book that makes you question why you don’t read more books of its type and The Old School was definitely one of these for me. I like crime novels but I don’t read very many of them – I don’t know why. Then every now and then I read a brilliant one which has me vowing to read more crime novels. I’ve heard good things about this one from other participants of the Australian Women Writers Challenge and given the next installment is coming out next month, I thought now was the time to check it out.
When the book opens Nhu “Ned” Kelly is participating in an undercover sting although ends up being the victim in many ways. A detective working in the cultural melting pot of Bankstown, Ned has had a difficult upbringing and seems restless, unsure of where she fits in, anywhere. She has difficulties relating to her sister, who doesn’t understand Ned’s demanding career. Their aunt, who raised the two girls (somewhat reluctantly) after the death of her brother, their Irish-Australian father and his Vietnamese-born wife is developing dementure and needs supervision and it will only be a matter of time until she requires 24 hour care. Ned seems to face judgement and preconceptions about her appearance every day with few people understanding that she identifies as Australian with no real connection or ties to her Vietnamese heritage.
The plot, centering around the discovery of the bodies, establishing their identity and trying to discover how they are connected and how they came to be in the foundations, is full of twists and turns and kept me guessing the entire way through, especially when it seemed like Ned’s father might somehow be involved, especially considering he was also murdered around the same time. I could understand to her need to know whether or not he was involved and what sort of a man he was. Ned’s memories are fuzzy and vague – she was only seven when her parents were killed. In contrast, her sister has a strong desire to not know, preferring to go with her heart and use it to define what kind of man their father was. The dynamic between the sisters was very interesting, especially when you took into consideration their aunt as well. A former performer who is slowly sliding into incoherence, she lives in a time long gone by, talking of memoirs and glory days.
I found myself really enjoying the enigmatic character of Detective Sergeant Sean Murphy, a notorious undercover operative that Ned becomes involved with. He’s in and out, he’s got his fingers in lots of pies, he knows things and he keeps cropping up in various points of various investigations until Ned really doesn’t know what is going on and she begins having horrible suspicions about him and what he might be involved in. Despite the fact that the more the book went on the dodgier he seemed to become there was something incredibly charismatic about him and how he always seemed to have all the right answers and provide all of the right assistance. There’s so much depth to him as well and I wanted to find out more about him but at the same time, I didn’t want to know anymore! I’m not sure if he’ll be in the next novel, which is called Beams Falling – but I kind of hope so. I’d like to see where he’s at.
I was engrossed in this book from the very first page and couldn’t wait for each twist to unfold and each new bit of information to present itself. I’m glad I waited until now to read this because I don’t have long to wait before I can tackle the next one but I also wish I’d read it sooner so I could mull it over a bit more. I like books that make me think and get me to investigate a little more. I was 10 at the time this book is set so I’ve done a bit of reading up on Roger Rogerson etc to pad out the vague stuff my brain digs up at the name to understand what it might’ve been liked to be a police officer after all of the stuff about Rogerson was revealed. The setting was brilliantly rendered and the writing didn’t waste a word. And now I must go and read more crime.
Book #7 of 2014