Allen & Unwin, March 2020, p/bk, ISBN: 9781 76052 963 5, RRP AUD$29.99
Death in the Ladies’ Goddess Club by Julian Leatherdale is set in Sydney in the 1930s and follows Joan Linderman, budding crime writer and amateur detective, and her friend and housemate Bernice Becker, writer, bohemian and erstwhile mother. Joan is a young woman who has moved to Kings Cross from Willoughby, where her parents and war-affected brother still live. Joan’s life is in the inner-city suburbs of Sydney, working for The Mirror, and socialising with fellow bohemians and her communist boyfriend, Hugh.
Bernice and Joan live in a converted, crumbling mansion, Bomora, the likes of which were once common in Sydney. Their friends are prostitutes, writers and artists, amongst them well-known people of the time, such as Zora Cross and Norman Lindsay. Joan and Bernice are part of an informal bohemian club, ‘I Felici, Letterati, Conoscenti e Lunatici’ (Happy, Wise, Literary and Mad), wittily shortened by Leatherdale to the ‘Evil Itchies’ (say “I Felici” out loud!). Through their association with the fringes of Sydney society, Joan and Bernice brush with Sydney’s criminal underworld, but when Bernice discovers the gory murder of a prostitute, friend and fellow Bomora resident Ellie, Joan and Bernice become increasingly entwined in real-life crime and investigation.
Linked to Ellie’s death is Joan’s rich aunt Olympia’s ‘Ladies’ Goddess Club’, a secret women’s sex and drug club, into which Joan and Bernice are initiated. In the background is the mystery of Joan’s other brother, James, who never returned from WWI. Their mother’s unwavering belief in his survival and return to Sydney threatens to become madness.
The story ends with a twist that isn’t entirely unexpected but is still somewhat of a surprise. Overall, it is a neat story that leaves all loose ends tied up, except one.
This novel is well-researched and conjures a vivid and authentic picture of Sydney and surrounds in the 1930s. Crumbling old boarding houses converted from once grand homes are equal characters with the people. The police detective, Lillian Armfield, was a real police sergeant at the time, and the lives of well-known Sydney crime figures merge with the fictional.
The book’s main themes are writing, authorship, feminism, class and war. The after-effects of WWI on Sydney society inform the novel, how it has affected women’s roles and the post-war battles between the haves and have-nots, and the New Guard versus the Communist Party.
Joan and her family are working class, while her aunt and uncle, Olympia and Gordon, represent Sydney’s wealthy elite. The author clearly chooses the side of the working class, and the novel links wealth with corruption, crime and unscrupulousness. Communism and the politics of the era are explored through the character of Joan’s boyfriend Hugh, a war hero and member of the Communist Party. Political figures of the era, Premier Jack Lang and Mrs Lang, Francis De Groot, Governor Philip and Lady Game all make an appearance towards the end of the novel when Joan and Hugh attend the opening ceremony of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The construction of the bridge and the joining of the arches is a backdrop to the novel; and the opening ceremony symbolises a turning point in the novel where Joan discovers a significant clue to the crimes committed.
Creative writing and authorship give the novel its structure. Joan is a wannabe crime writer, with the deadline for her first story approaching. Joan writes about the crimes and clues in her life and her own amateur investigations in her novel, from the perspective of her fictionalised (yet real in the novel) Sergeant Lillian Armfield, whom she admires. In the novel, Joan undertakes her own detective work which then feeds back into her writing. Leatherdale writes from Joan’s perspective:
‘How could she persist now that so much had changed, now that she, the writer, was so deeply entangled in the narrative, no longer the detached outsider but a character at the mercy of the story itself?’ (p. 282)
‘The challenge for Joan was to see herself as the woman police officer saw her…’ (p. 282)
Joan’s story writing is interspersed throughout the novel and serves to summarise the novel’s events. The reason for this is slightly unclear, perhaps a comment on authorship and authority or perhaps Leatherdale’s comment on women increasingly becoming the authors of their own lives.
Feminism is loud and clear in Leatherdale’s novel. On page 330, as Joan smashes the inside of Bomora, her former home and due for demolition, her thoughts run:
‘To change men’s minds and build another world for women would require destruction of one kind or another. Did any of the men she knew and loved truly respect her as an independent, capable person?’
These ideas form the backbone of the book. Joan rails against the idea of becoming a suburban wife and mother, like her own mother, and her best friend Bernice gave up her two sons to live the life of a bohemian writer. Joan and Bernice’s sexual exploits are peppered throughout the book, and whether or not they are accurate for young women in 1930s Sydney, they have a refreshing honesty, frankness and freedom to them.
The plot moves steadily and unfolds at an even pace. I would have liked more build-up and suspense in the threats to and attacks on Joan, in some places they seemed to come out of the blue. I also felt that in some parts of the book Leatherdale could have ‘shown’ rather than ‘told’, particularly in passages of dialogue. Overall, the book is a well-paced, light and enjoyable read evoking a long-gone Sydney. Leatherdale brings his characters and the city of Sydney to life. If you enjoy crime fiction or historical fiction, then this book is certainly worth a few hours of your time.
Reviewed by Shari Amery, March 2020
Head to the publisher’s website to order and for a preview of the book here.