St Kilda Blues – Back to the Future

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St Kilda Blues is the third instalment in the “Charlie Berlin” series of crime novels by Geoffrey McGeachin. His previous novels, ‘Diggers Rest Hotel’ and ‘Blackwattle Creek’, were both winners of the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction in 2011 and 2013. This story, set in 1967, is a continuation of the series (though it’s not necessary to have read the previous two – the book works well as a stand-alone effort).

Detective Sergeant Charlie Berlin, a past victim of internal police politics, power-plays and Command hypocrisy, is investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl, Gudrun Scheiner, whose father is a powerful, politically-connected (to Premier Henry Bolte, among others) property developer. This naturally means Detective Berlin once again ends up butting heads with police Command but, more importantly, he soon realises that he is dealing with a serial killer, as a number of other girls have gone missing under similar circumstances.

Berlin and his, at times “ethically flexible”, partner Bob Roberts go trawling through inner-city Melbourne; a world of seedy cafes, Discos, trendy studios and pig-sty apartments. Despite the title, little of the action takes place in St Kilda – not that it should be a “naming of the parts”. Perhaps the most authentic “Sainners experience” is a rather inconsequential one featuring a young teenage prostitute on Burnett Street.

A most interesting mechanism McGeachin uses is to describe the genesis and ongoing development of the serial killer’s psychosis. This one appears to have been “born evil”, rather than being primarily a product of his environment – arguably the main difference between a psychopath and a sociopath (depending on which Psychologist you listen to).

Another highly-workable technique is the use of brief but visually intense imagery, in the form of Berlin’s wartime experiences in the European theatre, piloting a Lancaster bomber: “The German capital was a nightmare, savagely defended by massed anti-aircraft artillery concentrated in three massive, multi-storey, reinforced-concrete flak towers and multiple searchlight batteries”. Berlin, who was traumatised by his experiences, further describes vivid nightmare images of Lancaster/Halifax bombers plummeting to Earth in flames; sometimes spinning furiously, the centrifugal forces pinning the desperate, panicked crew members to the interior bulkhead, unable to escape. Berlin’s own plane was shot down over Germany, several of his crew dying in the carnage.

A seasoned “crime reader” may have guessed the identity of the serial killer well before the end, but this reviewer was rightly gobsmacked, as no doubt other readers will be. Having grown up in Elwood/St Kilda in the 60’s, the book also brought to mind other images and memories of the time: Hamburger Max, The Candlelight Cafe (which as kids we gave a wide birth to – it being the smackys’ hang of choice), and “Catcher Pigs” (hands up who remembers them). Certainly most readers will find St Kilda Blues an engaging read and an interesting look at the district’s development (or degradation, depending on one’s viewpoint) towards what it became in the 70s/80s, and what it is today.

Reviewed by John “No Saint, me” Kerrens

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