The Scobie Malone series written by Jon Cleary is probably Australia's best known and most popular police procedural series. Certainly it is the longest running series with this first book, The High Commissioner having been published in 1966 and has continued on to the latest book to date being published in 2004.
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The first Scobie Malone book introduces us to a young, slightly raw Detective Sergeant who is about to be taken from his comfortable environment in Sydney, Australia and placed in a more unfamiliar locale in London.
The job assigned to Scobie is a daunting one, particularly for a guy who has never been far from home for any length of time. He is to quietly slip in to London and arrest the Australian High Commissioner for murder. The arrest is to be done quickly and with as little fuss as possible for fear of tarnishing Australia's reputation in the eyes of foreign dignitaries.
The reason for the need to arrest the High Commissioner is that it has been discovered that he is wanted, under his original name, for the murder of his first wife. Thanks to the confusion caused by the end of the Second World War he was able to evade authorities, change his name and build up a successful political career. At least, that's what the charges will be.
So Scobie arrives in London and decides to strike quickly, get the job over and done with and head home with as little fuss as possible to ensure that he doesn't become emotionally involved with the case. It's a good plan in theory but doomed in practice. When he meets John Quenton, the Australian High Commissioner, he is immediately struck by what a personable man he is, instantly likable with a friendly nature and good at his job. Remaining emotionally uninvolved is going to be difficult to say the least.
Further complicating his task is Quenton's involvement in a conference that is currently in progress to try to broker peace in Vietnam. John Quenton is seen as the only chance to deliver a peaceful compromise and his attendance at the conference is paramount. He asks Scobie to hold off on the arrest for a week until the conference has concluded. A request that Scobie feels compelled to agree to.
To cap things off, a plot to assassinate Quenton is being hatched and is about to be put into operation by some people who want to ensure that the war in Vietnam continues. Scobie's finely tuned policeman's instincts are brought into play to protect the man he is there to arrest
on more than one occasion.
If there is a weakness in the story, it is in regard to the whole assassination attempt and the team who are trying to pull it off. The evil assassin employing a group of bumbling fools as henchmen results in very cliched scenes rather reminiscent of the Kaos agents from Get Smart, only not nearly as amusing.
The strength of The High Commissioner is the character of Scobie Malone, an unassuming, likable man with a canny detective's nose. It was easy to feel for him as he was thrown into the unfamiliar world of international politics. A clear picture of his ideals and beliefs is assembled during the book through his conversations with Quenton and his wife ensuring that he is a character that I would like to read more of. In fact, with the exception mentioned above, Cleary does an excellent job of depicting all of his characters, giving them all solid backgrounds, making them real and believable.
This is a taut thriller that starts with what appears to be a straightforward, if somewhat daunting task, and slowly progresses in complexity. The obstacles placed in Malone's path display his flair for adapting to his surroundings and his ability to make the most of difficult situations. His simple arrest turns into a longer than anticipated lesson in diplomacy.
The pace is sedate as befits a story filled with political intrigue, built around insightful conversations and the almost unnoticed gathering of facts by Malone. But it is also relentless with occasional flashes of extreme excitement thanks to the assassination attempts. It culminates in a terrific ending that is both unexpected as well as satisfying.
The High Commissioner is a strong opening to the Scobie Malone series, revealing just enough of the detective to whet the appetite to find out more. If he is this effective so far from his home patch in Sydney, Id like to find out just what he can achieve when he gets home.
More Scobie Malone books to try:
Helgas Web (1970)
Dragons At the Party (1987)
Now and Then, Amen (1988)
Babylon South (1989)
Murder Song (1990)
Pride's Harvest (1991)
Dark Summer (1992)
Bleak Spring (1993)
Autumn Maze (1994)
Winter Chill (1995)
A Different Turf (1996)
Five-Ring Circus (1999)
The Bear Pit (2000)
Yesterday's Shadow (2001)
The Easy Sin (2002)
Degrees of Connection (2004)
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