REVIEW: Miles off Course by Sulari Gentill (Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling)

Posted on January 28, 2012 by John Purcell, The Booktopia Book Guru

There are few things more gratifying than discovering an author whose books seem so perfectly suited to your tastes as a reader that it feels as though they may have been written especially for you.

After devouring Sulari Gentill’s Miles Off Course in a whirlwind reading session – a reading session interrupted only by a quick break to jump online and purchase A Few Right Thinking Men and A Decline in Prophets (being the previous two installments in the Rowland Sinclair series), I knew that Sulari Gentill had made it onto my list of top ten crime writers.

Set in Australia in 1933, Miles Off Course is a lively and consistently action-packed Historical Crime novel. It could also be classified as a rollicking Outback Adventure or thrilling Spy Drama, or even a witty “fish-out-of-water” comedy, plucking a set of fashionable dilettantes from a bohemian art scene and dropping them in the rugged, rural countryside of the Snowy Mountains.

Gentill opens with the line, “Norman Lindsay is a complete and utter bastard!” and things only get better from there on in. The plot dances inventively around actual historical events and there is more than one cameo appearance made by famous Australian historical figures, one of which remains cleverly incognito until their true identity is revealed in the epilogue. Meanwhile, the historical Australian setting makes for a fascinating backdrop and will appeal to fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels.

Like all the best crime writers, Gentill has created a brilliantly idiosyncratic protagonist in Rowland Sinclair. Fans of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn will be bound to appreciate a character like Rowland Sinclair.

A well-bred and wealthy Australian gent from a privileged background, Sinclair is somewhat the black sheep of his family. A renowned painter of naked ladies (gasp!), considered by some as a protégé of Norman Lindsay, he has an unfailing talent for causing scandals and landing himself in life-threatening situations. It is this delightful combination of different roles – Gentleman, Artist, Amateur-Detective and Adventurer – that makes Rowland Sinclair such an entertaining leading man.

Like any self-respecting, wealthy eccentric, Sinclair is accompanied wherever he goes by his very own entourage of equally eccentric fellow artists – condemned by Sinclair’s older brother as a “troupe of unemployed hangers-on.”

Sinclair’s entourage is made up of three companions. Milton Isaacs – a flamboyant poet and arbiter of fashion, Edna Higgins – a beautiful and independent sculptress and Clyde Watson Jones – a painter who honed his craft as something of a wandering vagabond.

The aforementioned older brother, Wilfred Sinclair, is an influential businessman with conservative, right-wing sensibilities who cannot help but disapprove of his younger brother’s less-than-respectable lifestyle. The relationship between the two brothers is rather touching in that while they continually disagree and disappoint each other they are nevertheless very loyal and protective towards each other.

The plot opens with the disappearance of Harry Simpson, an aboriginal stock-hand who has been employed by the Sinclair family since he was a child. Both the Sinclair brothers are convinced that there is something sinister about Harry’s sudden disappearance, despite the fact that his co-workers believe he has simply gone “walkabout”. Harry is more than just an employee to the Sinclair brothers, however, and they are determined to find out what really happened to him. And so Sinclair and his entourage pile into his beloved yellow Mercedes Benz and head for the Snowy Mountains to investigate.

What follows is a madcap adventure of murder, betrayal, abduction, theft, political intrigue and a dash of romance. And just in case that doesn’t sound exciting enough to capture your interest, there is also a Communist spy conspiracy and a hunt for bushranger’s treasure.

The plot of Miles Off Course is a brightly splashed canvas, one that Gentill takes obvious delight in painting. This is the kind of book that is so fun to read that one can’t help but feel that the author must have gotten a real kick out of writing it. Little wonder then that she should write so quickly. Between the Rowland Sinclair series and her YA fantasy/adventure series, The Hero Trilogy, Gentill is releasing an average of two books a year. Which means that by far the best part about having read Miles Off Course and discovering a new favorite author is that I can now go and devour her earlier novels, safe in the knowledge that there will be many more Rowland Sinclair adventures to come.

Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling

One Response

  1. Bernadette, on January 30, 2012 at 8:21 am said:

I agree this is a wonderful, happiness-inducing book, and I’ve read the earlier two as well so can assure you’ll enjoy them just as much.


Australian Women's Weekly             The Melbourne Age


Review: MILES OFF COURSE by Sulari Gentill

Posted on January 29, 2012 by  (Fair Dinkum Crime)

MILES OFF COURSE is the third book in a series set in 1930’s Australia featuring Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, painter and reluctant amateur sleuth. Rowly is the youngest son of a wealthy pastoralist family which allows him to fund a reasonably lavish lifestyle for himself and his less well-off friends Edna (a sculptress), Milt (a poet and Communist) and Clyde (a painter like Rowly but of landscapes rather than the portraits Rowly prefers). Rowly is once again in danger as he is the subject of an unsuccessful kidnap attempt in Sydney before his brother Wilfred asks him to head into the NSW high country to look for their head stockman Harry Simpson who, it has been reported, has walked off the job. But the Sinclair brothers have known Harry since they were young boys and neither believes he would just walk away, even though everyone repeats it’s what ‘they’ (Aboriginal people) do.

What’s not to like about this delightful book? The historical setting offers the perfect mixture of interesting details of day-to-day life and real life people in minor roles for an added air of authenticity. For example a very famous name from Australian literature makes a pseudonymous appearance which is just credible enough to make you wonder if it’s based on fact and at least one real political figure and an artist make cameo appearances too. These tantalising titbits are scattered throughout a tale that sees Rowly and his friends in all manner of scenarios from a fancy society party to some rough and ready bush camping as they try to discover what happened to the Sinclair’s stockman. The mystery is satisfyingly complex, offering a new twist whenever the solution seems clear cut, and the ultimate resolution came as a surprise to me.

I don’t know how many people of Rowly’s class would really have mixed as comfortably with people from all walks of life as he does, but Gentill has developed him into a very believable and sympathetic character. He’s a good friend and dutiful family member even when he and his brother are at odds. In fact the relationship between the two brothers is a highlight of the novel as it mixes an innate brotherly love with a disconnect between two people who have vastly different goals in life. The clashes between them are credible and add some nice character depth to the novel. There’s no doubt that Rowly’s ability to operate at all levels of society helps add variety to the stories and scope to the tales of adventure but it never feels as forced or unrealistic as it might if these events were taking place in a country less blasé about issues of class.

The four friends provide an interesting twist to the standard character sets of crime fiction and it’s terrific to see good old-fashioned friendship being depicted in fiction for adults. In MILES OFF COURSE the character of Clyde plays a larger role than in past novels as the gang head into the part of the country where he grew up and where everyone knows him. The scene where they visit Clyde’s family home, a working-class place which is a far cry from the wealthy surroundings that Rowly is used to, had an authentic feel with Clyde’s mum being slightly awkward in the presence of Rowly but still well in charge of her domain.

Reading this book reminded me of the family movies that used to air on the Sunday nights of my childhood when the whole household would sit down to watch because they offered something for everyone to enjoy. In MILES OFF COURSE there’s a bit of politics, a bit of romance, a whodunit and some narrowly escaped near-death experiences for the hero and his friends. Along the way there are plenty of laughs, some nuggets of historical information that will make you look smart when you drop them into conversation at your next dinner party and there’s even a lovable dog. It is an intelligent, amusing, happiness-inducing book that sits proudly at the lighter end of the crime fiction spectrum. Highly recommended.





Not sure what's weirder, talking to fictional characters, or the feeling that you actually know those fictional characters... Either way, you have to think it's quite a feat for a writer to get you to the stage where you're more than happy to regard her characters as real people. MILES OFF COURSE is now the third book from Sulari Gentill featuring Rowland Sinclair and his band of supporters - Edna, Milton and Clyde and that feeling of connection, of reality and authenticity continues ... in spades.

The connection is probably helped by the way that Gentill sets her characters and her stories in differing, and frequently real settings. Whilst MILES OFF COURSE starts out at the luxury Hydro Majestic Hotel and spa, it ends up deep in the High Country, often in significantly less luxurious circumstances, although one property owner's pride in the running water and other mod cons was particularly illustrative of the difference in times (this book is set in 1933 after all). But the move to the High Country and the Tumut valley in particular comes as Rowly's brother Wilfred despatches him in search of their missing foreman, Wiradjuri man Harry Simpson, a long time and much trusted employee of the Sinclair family who has disappeared in highly unsatisfactory circumstances. As Rowly, and his entourage move into this environment, it's very obvious that we're in a part of the world that the author knows and loves. The sense of place becomes almost palpable and there's a real feeling for how the High Country looks, feels and grows into and around the story.

I have been a fan of these books since the first one was released, but intriguingly in MILES OFF COURSE I think I see a little deepening of character, a few glimpses of, maybe not so much internal crisis, as conflicts. Not surprising really as Gentill's light touch with the storytelling should not be misread as light-weight. Whilst there is humour and a certain insouciance that seems to fit with the born to wealth and privilege background of Rowly, there were points at which something deeper revealed. Whether it was the internal bored playboy peeking out from under the mantle of social conscience, or whether it was deeper, private passions more starkly drawn, Rowly is not everything he seems. Nor is his brother Wilfred quite the stuffed shirt he seems; Milton as shallow; Edna as assured or Clyde as confident about his choices in life.

Given that this is now the third book in the series, to be honest I can't make a definitive statement about whether or not you would be better to read the earlier ones first. Whilst there is ongoing character development, and you will get more from the series understanding the relationships between Rowly and his family, and his entourage the books would work on their own. But if you haven't read the earlier books in the series, you really should. Gentill's combination of factual events and places, built around the fictional undertakings of her cast of characters help to give the books a fantastic grounding, and a firm sense of place. Done, mind you, with the lightest of touches, and with the flair of a real storyteller, the books "feel" right and real and authentic, the stories are fast paced, nuanced, often funny, frequently insightful and just flat out darned good yarns.