A colonial prisoner and a cook: an unlikely pair of detectives

Be prepared to be drawn into the first case for an unlikely detective pairing in colonial Port MacQuarie… THE SOLDIER’S

Be prepared to be drawn into the first case for an unlikely detective pairing in colonial Port MacQuarie…


Bad news, good news? Can’t be avoided, I’m afraid, so I’ll offer the bad first.

We recently discussed our feelings on ending a book into which we have been drawn. When we engage with a story, and especially the characters, there can be a hollow sensation on completion, effectively a sense of relationship lost. This is very much the case with a book I read recently, The Soldier’s Curse, by Meg and Tom Keneally.

How best to describe a work I found so enjoyable? Is it possible to review it with four words, a grouping of fourteen letters: What a great read? No, of course not, it would be a dereliction of duty and you would soon sack me for it. But no additional commentary will achieve real change in outcome…

Soldier's Curse, TheA Soldier’s Curse introduces us to an unlikely early colonial pairing, prisoner/ clerk/detective, Hugh Llewellyn Monsarrat and Hannah Mulrooney, cook and housekeeper to the local governor, and a free woman. Monsarrat, an Englishman said to be half Welsh, half French, is a highly intelligent individual who acts as secretary to the governor. He stops by the kitchen at government house on his way to work every morning and shares a cup of tea with his friend Mrs. Mulrooney.

They discuss happenings in and around the 1820s Port MacQuarie recidivist settlement – established for those who have twice now fallen foul of the authorities – where the story takes place. Monsarrat is an educated gentleman with the capacity to apply a scholarly mind to matters while Mrs. Mulrooney is very much a woman with a straight, no-nonsense approach to everything.

Major Angus Shelborne is the settlement’s commander, tolerant and progressively humane. He is called away on an expedition to the north, leaving the management of the colony to the despotic martinet, Captain Diamond. Soon after the Major’s departure, it is evident his beautiful wife, Honora, is being poisoned. She dies just before he returns. He is devastated.

Initial indications are that the Captain might have had a hand in a murder so foul but, later in the story, suspicions turn on Mrs. Mulrooney. The plot weaves around thoughts, fears and  misgivings but a solution is achieved through sound methodology: observation, investigation, knowledge, logic and, finally, confession. There is a steady, valid progression to the mystery.

Meg Keneally is co-author with her illustrious father, Tom. Meg is Tom’s older daughter, a former journalist. To quote her father, she is “…temperamentally …very like me – except she has extraordinary industry, can write 4,000 words a day to my 1,500 on a first draft.” I am one who eagerly awaits the next Keneally and Keneally book. Tom writes with great good humour, with warmth, wit and first-rate historical research. It is evident Meg writes with the same entertaining flair. The Soldier’s Curse is a book neither more nor less than expected. To repeat myself, what a great read!

I covered the bad news, which really only related to having finished a book so much enjoyed; not all that bad, truth to tell. So, what of the good news? Perhaps the full title of the book might explain: The Soldier’s Curse, Book One, The Monsarrat Series. Yes, there will be others. It seems Meg and Tom have enough research, enough material, to envision a series of twelve books.

The void is to be filled, hopefully within the near future. The settings, the era, the pair of extraordinary detectives and, I am sure, the quality of writing are keenly anticipated…

The Soldier’s Curse by Meg and Tom Keneally is available now from Dymocks.

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