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Knowing where the bodies are buried

Sucked In by Shane Maloney. Text, Melbourne, 2007, 276pp. Paperback, RRP $32.95, ISBN 978-1-921145-44-5, website.

Knowing where the bodies are buriedWinston Churchill described democracy as the worst political system – except for all the others. The same could be said about the Australian Labor Party amongst Australia’s political parties. Shane Maloney has recognised the potential for drama and farce within this historically significant institution, and created Murray Whelan as the vehicle through which these traits can be expressed. Sucked In sees Whelan reach a cynical peak, working the numbers to his advantage and as he Truly Believes, to the long term benefit of the party and nation.

Over the course of six novels, Whelan has risen through the ranks from trade union researcher to electorate secretary, to ministerial adviser and on into the Victorian Legislative Council. His seat of Melbourne Upper centres on Sydney Road where "rusted-on-blue-collar meets multicultural melting-pot". Whelan skilfully balances the interests of local branches that are predominantly Greek, Turkish and Lebanese. It is 1997 and the demand on everyone’s lips is 'please explain!' Whelan and his mentor Charlie Talbot, federal opposition frontbencher and "elder of the tribe" are on a bush tour called Labor Listens. As they dine in the Grand Hotel Mildura, Charlie dies suddenly while reading the Melbourne Herald Sun.

The intertwining stories of Sucked In involve Whelan’s attempts to protect Charlie’s reputation and to ensure that Coolaroo, Charlie’s seat in Canberra, which overlaps with Whelan’s state seat, goes to a suitable successor. The police are inquisitive because it seems possible that Charlie’s death was caused by a newspaper report that a body has been uncovered from Lake Nillahcootie. The body is likely that of Mervyn Cutlett, who disappeared at the lake in 1978 while on a fishing expedition with Charlie and other labour movement heavyweights to discuss union amalgamations.

Knowing where the bodies are buried is one means to ensure a successful career in the Labor Party, but Cutlett’s old associate Sid Gilpin is interested in blackmail of a financial kind. Whelan must tread carefully to ensure that no blame attaches to his deceased comrade Charlie, while maintaining some leverage with his companions at Lake Nillahcootie, and especially with Senator Barry Quinlan. By factional agreement, the Left, despite splitting more often than a "hyperactive amoeba", is to fill Charlie’s seat. Quinlan, the Left’s influential powerbroker, plans to parachute his staffer into the seat.

Whelan observes that "by long-established custom, the ALP is loath to pass up any opportunity to erupt into a full-fledged public brawl, particularly with a safe seat at stake". To manipulate the pre-selection process Whelan uses his knowledge of "the five basic moves in Labor decision-making — the stack and whack, the roll and fold, the shift and shaft, the Brereton variation and the whoops-a-daisy". It helps of course that he pays the annual dues of half the branch members.

Knowing where the bodies are buriedWhile Labor might come across as full of contradictions, other parties are dismissed as uninteresting. Premier Kenneth Jeffries, with his "trademark cowlick...comb of a strutting cockerel" heads a government claiming to have 'Victoria – On the Move'. Whelan says "On the take more likely, I thought. You could smell the greed in the air". The major parties consider the Greens "fruit bats in the political canopy".

Once a political fringe dweller, Whelan is now absorbed in the party and parliament. Maloney paints a comprehensive picture of political life, particularly its paradoxes and extravagances. One chapter deals with the aphrodisiac of power as Whelan and television journalist Kelly Cusack engage in quick sex, excitement heightened by the possibility of discovery, in this case on the despatch table in the Legislative Council.

While Sucked In is solid on the work of the MP, it is perhaps less of the thriller than the previous Whelan novels. Initially a likeable muddler, Murray Whelan has become very slick. Perhaps he could not have survived without developing his ruthlessness and cunning, but the mature Murray seems less appealing. So it is that his relationship with his son Red provides some relief from the political grind. Now finishing high school and begging driving lessons at every opportunity, Red has developed into a responsible lad despite being torn between his separated parents in Melbourne and Sydney. Murray thinks Red is fine considering he has a politician for a father and a "loser politician" at that. However, Red is often a few steps ahead of Murray.

Whelan too is learning. He studies Greek conversation, mainly to woo classmate Andrea Lane. Curiously, Maloney renders some phrases in Greek script without further explanation. Generally however, Maloney needs no translation for lovers of breezy prose crammed with contemporary references. Sucked In is an easy, entertaining read as we approach yet another federal election in which the leaders’ images provide the only real choice against a background of policy convergence. But for its indubitable basis in reality, Sucked In would be fine therapy for those jaded Australians who desperately hope to see some idealism erupt in affairs of state.



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