Tasmania’s Wild West

Review of Lenny Bartulin, Infamy

Sydney Morning Herald / The Age, October 26, 2013

PIRATE HUNTER WILLIAM BURR has a decent life in British Honduras. There are brigands to capture, beautiful women and plenty of booze. After a hard day’s work killing mahogany thieves he can sit ”out the evening until the rain … stream[s] down, and the rum la[ys] thick golden sediment in [his] limbs”. But the job has its hazards. After a particularly violent clash on a jungle river, Burr welcomes a letter from his old friend and employer, Major John McQuillan, now chief magistrate of Tasmania (it’s a distraction, after all, from the navy surgeon dragging arrows from his hide). ”I pray, laddie, this letter finds you among the living … One thousand acres of prime grazing pasture on the Coal River, Van Diemen’s Land, if you want it. Reward from our old friend Lieutenant Governor Arthur (Colonel Holier Than Thou), who appears thwarted in his ability to capture an escaped felon.”

The felon is Brown George Coyne, a well-educated, unhinged outlaw who has slipped a chain gang in Van Diemen’s Land. He spends his time terrorising rich settlers and delighting the poor with a series of raids on farms accompanied by Robin Hoodish notes (although not the cash). He’s a particular thorn in the side of Lieutenant Governor George Arthur – upright, God-fearing and intent on keeping order at the bottom of the world. But the governor’s old army buddy, McQuillan, has a solution: Burr is the man to catch Brown George and bring him in, dead or alive (preferably dead).

As soon as Burr steps off the boat in Hobart Town, he finds himself riding to the rescue of Ellen Vaughan, the neglected, beautiful wife of McQuillan’s junior officer. Brown George has sent men to kidnap her, and Burr is off on a brumby in hot pursuit. Wounded, thrown from his horse after a clash that doesn’t save the lady, he licks his wounds and plots to find her. Happily, rescuing Ellen coincides with Governor Arthur’s plans for Burr vis-a-vis throwing old Brown George in a gibbet.

But Brown George Coyne isn’t the governor’s only problem. Rebellion foments in Hobart Town; convicts and settlers alike flout the law, and the governor hangs bodies in the street to keep the peace. When Brown George declares himself the rightful ”King” of Tasmania, and a suspicious gentleman arrives from England with a converted warship, the very core of the colony is threatened. William Burr, packing flintlock pistols, a cutlass and a manly grin, might be the only one to save it.

Lenny Bartulin typically writes crime novels. In Infamy he has written a rip-snorting, swashbuckling Aussie western set in the early part of the nation’s history. He evokes the hardness and the grimness of colonial life, taking us through the slums and rum-houses, the criminal dens and stinking penal hulks, ”The saltwater and rot, the spilt liquor and smoke and rancid fat of kangaroo meat”.

Bartulin gives a visceral sense of the place, of the heat and isolation that bubbles up through savage drinking binges and dockland murders, whorehouses and massacres. And, via the stories of ”Black Betty” and Robert Ringa, Infamy condemns Australia’s appalling history of persecuting indigenous people.

The novel, then, is violent. It rings with ”thick explosion[s] of pistol shot”; chests are ”chewed bloody” and flesh is ”split open like a wineskin”. But amid all this is love – an antidote, a sense of lightness in an otherwise gritty book. Our heroines are brave and spirited, inspiring the hearts of men to thump at something other than impending death.

Bartulin gives a sense, too, of the thoughts and feelings of Tasmania’s early settlers, perhaps most poignantly in their clinging to pieces of England – the carefully shipped mahogany desks, the vellum with a ”dull glow of cream … good enough to eat”.

Bartulin’s prose is muscular and evocative and cinematic cuts between plot-lines keep the action moving fast throughout.

Infamy is an excellent read – a book that gets the blood flowing and the fist pounding, and makes you glad you don’t live by a dockyard tavern in 1830s Tasmania.

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