Sometimes a work of trash fiction comes along with such blatant pretensions that readers are lining up to be impressed by the eloquence with which they are entertained. And so it is with Winter Traffic, this entangled depiction of guys and girls, murders and mutated honours, set by sultry Sydney waters, with the humidity of a writer who wants you to know that he knows this kind of melodrama goes back to the Jacobeans.
What are we to do with a book whose chapter numbers go backwards and whose gradual clarifications are all retrospective light on great confusions of darkness?
The publishers assert Stephen Greenall is in the tradition of Peter Temple, but the real resemblance is to that mad dog of mayhem and murder James Ellroy, perhaps especially in American Tabloid. Ellroy is wont to say that he aims to be the Tolstoy of crime, and Greenall has his self-conscious joke about happy families as well as a hundred other snapping and crackling sounds of cultural corn in order to keep the highbrow slum-punters happy.
His style is nothing if not energised. It is slick with the sweat of its own throbbing enthusiasm and if the upshot sounds a bit young at times, it also has a fair bit of the charm that comes with the features of blown youth.
This is the world of murder or ambivalence seen so close-up you don’t know what you’re seeing, and it comes as a relief when a character steps out into the sunlight of sympathy because we finally realise who and what she is.
But Greenall has the conjurer’s gift – one of Ellroy’s mighty strengths – of mesmerising the reader with his own confusions so that we forgive the stumble and the rumble of the prose because you know it’s meant as a sort of heroic poetry, a bit like the wobbling camera in a Michael Mann film.
It’s cunning to hit on crime as his medium because it allows Greenall’s vulgarities a pretext and a rationale. We swallow the big-guy talk, the gleam of charisma in the gangster’s eye, the smell of sex between a girl’s legs, because this is a gamester’s caper of a novel. It’s clever, too, to make the difficulty of the book’s articulation and it’s allusive literary showoffishness at one with the wtf quality of its riddle and its status as – the old American genre term comes to mind – a mystery. QSS
Text, 416pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 4, 2017 as "Stephen Greenall, Winter Traffic". Subscribe here.