When Tom Keneally chose the loaded title Corporal Hitler’s Pistol, he would have been well aware of Chekhov’s advice to writers that if a gun appears in the first act it must be fired in the second. Indeed, he fires his fictional pistol several times to dramatic effect in his 35th novel, a compelling blend of historical crime thriller and intricate portrait of an Australian rural community.
The gun has been lurking in Keneally’s imagination since the first act of his own life. His father, serving in the Middle East during the second world war, sent home souvenirs including a German Luger holster (not the pistol itself), which Keneally can still show visitors.
Nazi Germany and the world wars have inspired many of his rich narratives, most famously the Booker prize winner Schindler’s Ark. Corporal Hitler’s Pistol sits in the unstable peace between wars, when post-traumatic pain collided with the Great Depression and escalating tensions. The Japanese occupation of Manchuria leads a young man to speculate: “I hope I am wrong. But could we be seeing the opening to a second Great War?”
His familiarity with the town makes Kempsey crackle with commerce, gossip and class divisions from the opening pages
The action is focused in 1933, two years before Keneally’s birth, in the north-coast New South Wales town of Kempsey, where he spent his early childhood. He draws on experience and folklore, such as an old German-Australian said to possess a pistol that had belonged to Hitler.
His familiarity with the town makes Kempsey crackle with commerce, gossip and class divisions from the opening pages. Well-to-do Flo Honeywood walks through the streets, glimpsing other characters, and steeling herself to confront her husband, the respected master builder, about an Aboriginal boy from the camp outside town who looks just like him.
Always a first-rate storyteller of a traditional kind, Keneally displays his mastery of narrative technique in a series of cinematic set pieces that propel the story forward while intimately developing the characters. Some take place in the Victoria Theatre, the centre of social life, where Hollywood movies add glamour and dreams to ordinary existences.
Young Gertie Webber speaks with actorly exaggeration, and her brother Christian imagines dressing his mother “in the manner of Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express”. The Victoria simmers with the novel’s repressed eroticism. At a screening of Tabu, “Harper Quinlan, the projectionist, said you could hear the boys’ fly buttons popping all over the cinema”.
Chicken Dalton, the “effeminate and stylish” pianist who accompanies the Saturday night pictures, is the most theatrical of a lively ensemble. He sounds like a Dickensian dandy but is based on a real resident of the time and represents Keneally’s homage to the gay men of his youth.
“Kempsey’s pansy” finds sexual company with closeted homosexuals whose secrets are bound to blow up. Keneally inhabits gay, female and Indigenous characters with confidence and complexity, all of them observed in convincing detail from their fashion to their fears and desires.
A glimmer of social change begins with Flo Honeywood’s rebellion against her husband, which brings her into unexpected connections with Chicken and with the Aboriginal boy, Eddie Kelly. Her meeting with a group of Thunguddi women in Tsiros’s Refreshment Rooms is a finely drawn microcosm of multiracial Australia. But the might of power and prejudice lie waiting for vulnerable transgressors.
In the other main storyline, Bert Webber, a Lutheran dairy farmer, breaks down on seeing a newsreel about the new German Chancellor, “the man with the stupidly economical moustache”. Despite his German forebears, Bert fought with an Australian battalion in France and watched his friend shot dead by a “skinny, droop-moustached” German. The encounter will haunt him and the course of history.
While Bert relives his horror under electroconvulsive therapy and mesmerism, his unhappy wife, Anna, fills the void with one of the novel’s steamy sexual affairs. Further intrigue emerges with the mysterious past of Johnny Costigan, the Irishman who manages the Webber farm.
Keneally’s prose is robust (and sometimes humorous) with the language of Catholicism learned as a young man: “That sainted and cursed gun … equivalent of the nails that tore Christ’s hands.” “The hallway [of the convent] smelt of polish and virginity, and Flo thought it not a bad smell.” And in a sexual communion, “there was gravidness and erections to be attended to”.
Flashbacks to trench warfare in 1916 and to the Irish Civil War in 1922 dramatise the ambiguities of conflict. At times Keneally the historian is so keen to share his knowledge that he nudges aside Keneally the novelist and the pace slows. Yet these dark events are essential to understanding later motives.
Keneally deftly plaits together his disparate strands, far too canny to create predictable outcomes. Nothing goes as planned, even for those with noble intentions, keeping the plot taut right to the end. Corporal Hitler’s Pistol manages to be a rollicking, optimistic entertainment while mourning the human tragedies that shaped the 20th century and beyond.
Corporal Hitler’s Gun by Tom Keneally is out now through Penguin