Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 17, 2022

Below the Styx, by Michael Meehan

This is the last of my hoard of books by Michael Meehan.  Until I can source a copy of Deception, I must wait until the publication of his new novel for more.

Readers will be familiar with the symbolism of the Styx.  In Greek mythology, the Styx is the river between the world of the living and the Underworld.  Meehan’s narrator is below the Styx, in the underworld of the Melbourne Remand Centre.  He’s there because he’s been charged with murder. (That is a splash of blood on the cover, not carelessness with my coffee.)

But no, this is not a crime novel. (Well, David Whish-Wilson in his review includes it in his ‘broad church’ of crime fiction.)

This is the blurb:

Martin Frobisher has been beating close family members about the head with an epergne. [Click here to see the one on display in the Art Gallery of South Australia] Frobisher, successful publisher and community leader, is in the City Remand Centre, awaiting trial for murder. What shadow has fallen across the comfortable lives of Frobisher, his ambitious wife Coralie and her flaky sister Madeleine? What has led a cultivated and reflective man, known to shoo spiders and earwigs out of harm’s way, to such reckless acts of violence?
With the prospect of imprisonment for the Term of his Natural Life, can Frobisher and his research assistant Petra find guidance in the life and fortunes of a brilliant young Englishman, marooned in Australia, ‘the land of vulgarity and mob rule’ more than a century earlier, and obsessed with the darker moments in the nation’s history? Why does Frobisher appear to care more, in the end, about the life of Marcus Clarke than he does about his own?

Below the Styx is one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read this year.  It is, as the blurb goes on to say, fiendishly clever, wickedly funny, intriguing and constantly surprising.  

The narrator tells us that his wife’s death was an accident, and #NoSpoilers there are revelations in the final chapter that cast doubt on what the reader has been led to believe.  Maybe his entire story is a farrago of lies… and maybe it’s not…

Martin Frobisher (whose namesake was a 16th century privateer and a pirate) casts himself as another Richard Devine a.k.a. Rufus Dawes, the central character in Marcus Clarke’s (For the Term of) His Natural Life (1874).  A gentleman with an estate to inherit, Devine/Dawes really was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted: he pleaded guilty to protect his mother’s reputation, was transported to Tasmania as a convict, and victimised ever thereafter by an evil officer with a motive.  Martin is obsessed by Clarke’s novel, and he uses his time in remand to research it and Clarke’s other writings.  He has plenty of money so he is able to hire a young researcher called Petra (whose name means ‘rock or stone’ i.e. unshakeable and resilient).  She has her feet firmly on the ground and occasionally challenges Martin’s wilder assumptions about Clarke.  She is his only visitor apart from his brother-in-law Rollo who is a dour and reticent lawyer. (He married Madeleine, Coralie’s sister.)

Meehan has a light touch with the theme of wrongful justice via His Natural Life, but his Shakespearian allusions from Henry VI Pt 2, and Measure for Measure aren’t there just so that he can mock the legal profession with Dickensian satire.

Coralie and I recently went to a performance of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with Madeleine and Rollo.

A lawyer, I was, but only for a time—two dismal years of office work, two years under the lash of Bastard, Bastard & Bastard, stapling one form to another, opening up loopholes and closing down loopholes and learning all the inner tricks of genteel pinstriped bastardry.  And at the end of it all I was pushed aside by one of the younger Bastards, who’d managed after years of bad behaviour to bribe his way into an LLB from a dubious private college to the north, and had oiled his way back to Fawkner’s Town to elbow me aside and claim his birthright. (p.158)

The ‘dubious’ university is an allusion to Australia’s first private university, established and funded in the 1980s by the notorious businessman Alan Bond. It may have sandstone-plating, but it’s not one of the ‘sandstone universities’.

Measure for Measure offers a form of justice where people get what they deserve.

Weaving through the novel is the back story of Martin’s awful wife Coralie and the way ill-suited spouses get by.

Coralie and I went well, together in public.  People invited us.  We chirruped happily at the city’s dinner tables.  We did not complete one another’s sentences.  Rather, we developed the capacity, early on in our marriage, to listen intently to one another’s stories for the fiftieth time with no flicker of ennui.  We mastered the art of making other people feel interesting.  We looked good, even as the years wore on.  We could be relied upon to dress.  We were shipped in to one dinner table after another to assist in impressing international guests and local dignitaries.  Masters of no particular subject, we were passably well informed on most.  We could be relied upon to keep a conversation rolling, seasoned with small compliments, all of which contributed to an air of bonhomie and wellbeing.  For years, we sang for our supper in this way all over Fawkner’s Town. (p.108-9)

(Fawkner‘s Town is a dig at Melbourne’s claim to be free of the convict stain.)

But afterwards on the way home — the silence coming across us in slow stages and the conversations gradually thinning as we drove — the concerns of the next day would start to intrude, and the old distances start to grow again in the alarming privacy of the car. Coralie is ambitious, materialistic and ruthless, and together they make a killing in the short-lived video rental market, but for Martin, it’s all bad theatre.  Meehan skewers the greed and rapacity of the 1980s, in particular the cynical restructuring and downsizing, (chickens that came home to roost during the pandemic.)

Addressing both his readers and the persona of the judge hearing his case, Martin is wholly preoccupied with his defence, although it isn’t always immediately obvious.  He builds up his credentials as a reasonable man with hidden depths.

I once heard a professional colleague being dismissed as a ‘marshmallow man’.  We hear speak of human muffins and cream-puffs, and more notoriously in the Australian context, souffles*.  I see myself rather as a crème brûlée; the thin, brittle, shining surface, and the rich custard of deep contention murking below. (p.64-5.)

From page to page, there are all sorts of clever and funny allusions for the alert reader to enjoy.  This one about souffles recalls Prime Minister Paul Keating’s dismissive comment about the recycled Leader of the Opposition Andrew Peacock: ‘does a souffle rise twice?’.

Martin is at pains to show that Marcus Clarke was a man of hidden depths too.  Little is known about him, except from his prolific writing which took many forms.  His Natural Life — Ckarke’s most famous work — was instrumental, says Martin, in Australia’s choice to write up this land as a gulag, not as an Eden.  Quoting snippets and small slabs of texts, he shows us that ‘The Peripatetic Philosopher’ focussed in his journalism on Melbourne’s seedy streets and low-lifes, its opium dens, its brothels and its gambling houses.  He even had a Heart of Darkness view of the interior after a disastrous trek into outback Queensland in search of grazing land.

But surprisingly, Clarke also wrote a number of regular newspaper columns on food, restaurants and the ‘art of ingeniously guzzling — a wild mix of literary flights, gastrofiction and, in general, learned nonsense about the eating habits of English poets laureate. (Petra thinks that Clark made up most of it: he begins with Ben Johson but wrongly names Davenant as the next laureate and he includes a Rusden not named in the list at Wikipedia.)  He was, however, ahead of his time in promoting a café society and outdoor dining, and he waged war on ‘aesthetical death in the pot’ and the ‘be-Brigeted burnt chop and the boiled potato as the soggy emblem of imperial gastronomic subservience. 

It’s the digressions that make this book such fun while also offering food for thought.  There are musings on writing where he notes that tolerance, sympathy and kindness are the death of satire, and there’s a confessional take-down of the way Martin and Coralie project-managed their lives. For Richer and for Richer, and for Better and for Better. As the novel progresses, we see Martin laying the groundwork for a defence of provocation (which was still a defence to murder in Victoria at the time this novel was published) and rehearsing his strictly inadmissible defence before the reader as judge and jury.

Martin enlarges on Clarke’s admiration of Robinson Crusoe in which the castaway loses no time in creating possessions and fencing himself in, to characterise Australians as having either

  • the Crusoe complex , with ‘the bastion’ at its core:  The collection.  Material Possessions.  Our instinct, from the moment of the first Great Land Grab, was to gather along the edge of the coast, using our goods as a kind of barricade against the wilderness.  Clutter, accumulation, hoarding.
  • the Swaggie Syndrome.  Crossing the barricades and setting out into the wilderness, taking nothing but what one can carry on one’s back.  Nomadism, wanderlust, travel, a quest to be anywhere but here.

The life of the Peripatetic Philosopher can take many forms.  It can be cunningly disguised within the fringe benefits tax apparatus of modern professional life—the conferences, the weekends away, the leased cars, the rented executive apartments, the airports, the clubs, the restaurants.  Anything, anything, but home. (p.208)

(Clarke referring to himself as the Peripatetic Philosopher, BTW, comes from the way Aristotle taught his students, strolling through the peripatoi, the walkways of the Lyceum.  His followers were called Peripatetics. I learned this from reading Ross King’s The Bookseller of Florence, Ch 13, about which more in due course.)

Quite how this analysis of Martin’s marriage could be a defence to the charge of murder must remain for readers of the novel to find out. Petra interrogates Martin because she likes him and doesn’t want him to be guilty.

Or so he says.

Is he another Rufus Dawes?  Will there be ‘measure for measure’?

Highly recommended.  Below the Styx is out of print but Kindle editions are available.

Author: Michael Meehan
Title: Below the Styx
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2010
Cover design by Sandy Cull, gogoGingko
ISBN: 9781741757804, pbk., 277 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.

Image credit: The School of Athens, (cropped) by Raphael – Stitched together from vatican.va, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4406048


Responses

  1. My starting point will be ‘Deception’. I picked up a copy from the library this morning, and hope to read it during the next week.

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    • Today, my ARC of An Ungrateful Instrument arrived, and so did my secondhand copy of Deception! Which one shall I read first??

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      • Decisions! ‘Deception ‘ is my suggestion.

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        • Maybe you’ll have finished it by the time I’m finished my current novel (Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons) and we’ll know more about it…

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          • We will see. I have a couple of books to finish first …

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  2. […] Below the Styx | Michael Meehan (reviewed by Lisa @ANZLitLovers) […]

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  3. […] Below the Styx | Michael Meehan (reviewed by Lisa @ANZLitLovers) […]

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