Afloat with its thrilling legacy

Times Staff Writer

YOU don’t have to know the history of detective fiction to enjoy Australian writer Michael Robotham’s vibrant and utterly contemporary new mystery, “The Night Ferry,” which is how it should be.

On the other hand, Robotham is a writer who plays so knowingly and enthusiastically with the genre’s conventions that a bit of appreciation for his bravura display of craft definitely enhances the experience of this third in what can only be called a “semi-series” of novels.

Stories of detection are one of the 19th century’s enduring contributions to literary entertainment. All of today’s detective protagonists are, in some sense, the descendants of Edgar Allan Poe’s private investigator, C. Auguste Dupin, of Emile Gaboriau’s policeman, Monsieur Lecoq, and, of course, of Charles Dickens’ Inspector Burkett and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff. However, the creative DNA that most decisively sets the shape of contemporary detective fiction is that of Arthur Conan Doyle’s incomparable Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Their stories decisively established the paradox that has remained at the center of mystery writing ever since: While a successful mystery story ought to be all about plot, those that readers love best are all about character.


They’re also about the character’s storytelling voice. No less an authority than John le Carre made that point in his elegant introduction to Leslie S. Klinger’s magisterial 2005 annotated edition of the complete Holmes.

“No amount of academic study, thank Heaven, no earnest dissertations from the literary bureaucracy, will ever explain why we love one writer’s voice above another’s,” George Smiley’s creator wrote. “Partly it has to do with trust, partly with the good or bad manners of the narrator, partly with his authority or lack of it. And a little also with beauty, though not as much as we might like to think. As a reader, I insist on being beguiled early or not at all, which is why a lot of the books on my shelves remain mysteriously unread after page 20. But once I submit to the author’s thrall, he can do me no wrong.”

There’s probably no better description of the pull that a particular fictional detective’s stories have exerted on readers, volume after volume, down to the present day. Le Carre goes on to locate Conan Doyle’s particular genius in his authorial decision to tell Holmes’ stories in Watson’s voice, one that “talks to you, with Edwardian courtesy across a glowing fire. His voice has no barriers or affectations.”

Robotham, 47, is from a small town in Australia. He took up journalism at age 19. By the early 1990s he was a star feature writer for Britain’s Mail on Sunday and in 1993 he gave up journalism for a highly successful career as a ghostwriter of pseudo-autobiographies for various British celebrities, including one of the Spice Girls.

Along the way, he clearly found the time for a good bit of shrewd close reading, and, since returning to Australia, he has turned out three superior detective thrillers: “The Suspect,” “Lost” (which won his country’s prestigious Ned Kelly Award in 2005) and now “The Night Ferry.”

One of the author’s ingenious conceits is to pay homage to the genre’s series tradition of introducing a strong secondary character in each novel and making that person the protagonist of the subsequent volume. Thus the protagonist of “The Suspect,” London psychologist Joe O'Loughlin, is assisted by Inspector Vincent Ruiz of the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), who becomes the focus of “Lost.” His driver, Detective Constable Alisha “Ali” Barba is the protagonist and first-person narrator of “The Night Ferry.”

Here we enter convincingly into the new, multicultural Britain, where other voices speak alongside Watson’s tweedy Edwardian diction. Ruiz, who also plays a secondary role in this new novel, is of Gypsy origin. Ali is a Sikh, still crucially attached to her nicely, but not cloyingly, realized immigrant family in London’s East End. (Think “Bend It Like Beckham” with a darker twist.) She’s an athlete, a runner, still recovering from the surgeries that followed a terrible spinal injury she suffered in “Lost.”

A letter arrives from an estranged friend, imploring Ali to attend their secondary school reunion. Cate, the friend, is pregnant and in need of Ali’s help because: “They want to take my baby. They can’t. You have to stop them.”

Cate and her husband, Felix, are run down and killed as they’re leaving the reunion, and Ali soon discovers that her friend wasn’t pregnant at all -- or was she? Robotham’s propulsive but never preposterous narrative soon has Ali and Ruiz pursuing various sorts of human traffickers -- immigrant smugglers and an international ring that deals in babies and that takes them by ferry to Amsterdam’s notorious red-light district. Along the way, the plot never flags, and Ali changes and grows through experience and introspection in a way few mystery protagonists ever are allowed to do.

That’s one of the many pleasures of Robotham’s psychologically sophisticated thriller, along with its allusive meditations on such contemporary preoccupations as fertility, police power and equal justice, globalized economics and the reduction of human beings to commodities distributed as part of the consumer society. If that seems a weighty burden for a thriller to bear, “The Night Ferry” is up to the task because its heroine is so compelling and her creator singularly free of the impulse to put sermons in her mouth.

In part, what sets Ali -- and Robotham -- apart is a visceral concern for real children, as opposed to an accouterment called “parenthood,” which nowadays drives so many to what can only be termed acquisitive extremes. That concern lends this novel a kind of moral spine every bit as steely as the surgically implanted rod that holds Ali erect.

It doesn’t hurt that Robotham has the formal chutzpah to let Ali tell readers her story in an urgent first-person that never flags throughout this engrossing and complex narration. He’s also a writer knowing enough to get away with this first paragraph:

“It was Graham Greene who said a story has no beginning or end. The author simply chooses a moment, an arbitrary point, and looks either forward or back. That moment is now -- an October morning -- when the clang of a metallic letter flap heralds the first post.”

Now there’s a paragraph that unflinchingly assumes the burden of several strands of literary history -- and it is satisfyingly recalled, when Ali’s story reaches an unexpected and gratifying conclusion.

“The Night Ferry” is an altogether superior thriller: intelligent, morally concerned, skillfully told and deeply respectful of both its readers and its characters. It is what Graham Greene used to call “an entertainment,” which is a fairly serious compliment.