In the Port Macquarie penal settlement for second offenders, at the edge of the known world, gentleman convict Hugh Monsarrat hungers for freedom. Originally transported for forging documents passing himself off as a lawyer, he is now the trusted clerk of the cursesettlement’s commandant.

His position has certain advantages, such as being able to spend time in the Government House kitchen, being supplied with outstanding cups of tea by housekeeper Hannah Mulrooney.

Not long after the commandant heads off in search of a rumoured river, his beautiful wife, Honora, falls ill with a sickness the doctor is unable to identify. When Honora dies, it becomes clear she has been slowly poisoned.

Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney suspect the commandant’s second-in-command, Captain Diamond, a cruel man who shares history with Honora. Then Diamond has Mrs Mulrooney arrested for the murder. Knowing his friend will hang if she is tried, Monsarrat knows he must find the real killer. 

This month’s read scored high with most of our group. The historical setting and combined characters of Monsarrat and Mulroney proved entertaining enough, even for those who initially found the story a little hard to get into. As this is the first in a series of adventures for the two main protagonists, it is felt (and for us character driven readers, hoped) that more depth and complexity will evolve as the series develops.

The story itself flowed well and we all found it easy reading, but there was some discussion concerning the two authors and how the writing/research was divided between them. Mary thought she could define the two writing styles and felt it disrupted the flow somewhat. Others could not pick this at all and were of the opinion that the Keneally teamwork was clear and distinct.

Regardless of the high scores given, the conversation eventually revealed that the ‘slow release’ plot did drag out a little and Sandra in particular could not stay with it through lack of interest in the characters and the historical background. In contrast, Cathie thoroughly enjoyed it and after her completion of a Convict Ancestry course, found it chronologically interesting and factual.

We managed to diverge to a few other interesting topics through our discussion … namely illiteracy (Mulroney’s dilemma) and  the convict life in general. In summing up, the general consensus seemed to be that, although this is no riveting tale that could in all intents and purposes, become an Australian classic (Secret River was mentioned here) it does absorb and captivate the reader, albeit in a more subtle and gentle manner. And given the gift of time and more episodes, may find Mulroney and Monsarrat well entrenched in the Australian literary psyche.