AMONGST THE DEAD
Robert Gott

 


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Scribe, April 2007
Reviewed by Sunnie Gill

Will Powers, Australia's worst Shakespearean actor and the man with the biggest superiority complex either side of the black stump is back. It's October, 1942 and the Japanese are making rapid progress south through Papua New Guinea. It is widely believed that it won't be long before they land on Australia's shores.

Will is asked by Army Intelligence to go undercover and join a small vaudeville entertainment troop. This means heading to the Northern Territory to investigate the suspicious deaths of three men in a top secret military unit: the North Australia Observer Unit (NAOU or the Nackeroos as they are called). These men are assigned to patrol the Top End in small groups watching for signs of enemy activity.

Although he feels vaudeville is beneath his enormous talent, Will agrees to accept the assignment because of the presence of his younger brother in one of the Units. It will make his mother happy to hear firsthand about her youngest son and might help with Will's rather strained relationship with her. Then again, all the relationships in Will's life are rather strained.

It's the Wet season in the Northern Territory and Will has visions of relaxing in a lush tropical paradise, shaded by palm trees with gently falling rain to cool his brow. The reality is nothing like that. Yes, there is rain, but it is torrential, turning the earth into thick, sticky mud. It is hot and humid, and when it's not raining there are flies, mosquitoes, scorpions and other assorted creepy crawlies, most of which bite or sting. Not exactly the assignment Will had been expecting.

Very soon after he arrives, there are two more deaths. One man has had a serious case of dengue fever, the other apparently shoots himself after the loss of his mate. Conditions up there can very quickly drive a man mad. However, Will knows what the men in the Unit apparently don't. There is a murderer on the loose and Will is determined to catch him.

If there is one thing Will can be relied upon, it is to get things spectacularly wrong. It is his one true talent. So we follow Will as he blunders his way about this harsh environment making life even more unbearable for the men he is investigating. There's one thing for sure, if there is a killer among them then Will is lining himself up to be the next victim. Of course, Will finds himself in trouble and his every attempt to extricate himself only finds him deeper in the mire. He wouldn't be Will if this didn't happen to him.

AMONGST THE DEAD is Robert Gott's third in the William Power series. While Will is still as annoyingly blind to what is under his nose as ever, there are glimpses that he might one day recognise his failings and grow up a little. Gott relies on Will's flaws for the humour of his books. It's the hook on which he hangs his stories and it would be very easy for this to become a little stale, but he has avoided this by his well researched account of a secret military operation conducted by a little-known group of men. Just how difficult life was in that part of the world during World War II is largely unappreciated by contemporary society. We have technology: air-conditioners, satellite phones, medi-vac facilities, Internet, etc. etc. The NAOU relied on horses and mules and their only lines of communication with the outside world was by Morse Code when weather conditions allowed. Any minor illness had the potential to kill.

There may be some who have found that the joke of Will has worn thin and are considering giving up on the series, but stick with AMONGST THE DEAD. It's worth it for the insights into an almost unknown military unit.

For more information about the North Australia Observation Unit visit.
http://home.st.net.au/~pdunn/ausarmy/naou.htm
http://www.lighthorse.org.au/military/north.htm
http://www.awm.gov.au/underattack/mobilise/nackeroos.asp

May 2007 review originally published on Murder & Mayhem

 

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