Book review: Still Murder by Finola Moorhead

Still Murder
by Finola Moorhead
Spinifex press, 1991; reprinted 2002 with introduction by Marion Campbell.

The title of this novel is intended to mirror the phrase “still life”. As in a still-life painting, various disparate elements are presented to the reader, eventually to coalesce into the whole picture. Each element, or “frame” to continue the art analogy, is one person’s perspective on events that happened in a particular place. Gradually, one comes to see the complete picture but none of the individual characters do. Another meaning of the title can be deciphered as: “in love and in war there is killing, but is it still murder?”

The book is a very serious, political one. The author is a strong feminist and her delivery of her message is the overarching impression with which the reader is left at the end. In this sense, the book is similar to the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, in which the authors’ socio-political message is, cumulatively, more memorable than the crime plots of each book, or indeed the characters depicted.

Although written in 1991 and set (mostly) in New South Wales, Australia (pictured), in 1989, I felt as if I must have been living on a different planet at that time. The back-story is about two characters swept up in the Vietnam war: Peter is a young man when drafted into the army, madly in love with a student, Patricia. Both of them are irredeemably traumatised by the experience. Peter is thrown into a maelstrom of brutality, death and danger, and rapidly becomes assimilated into becoming an abuser of the people the army is supposedly protecting. On some level, he is so appalled at himself that he invents a new name for Patricia, Felicity, and it is as this “new person” he’s created that sustains him until he can return home. Patricia, who was pregnant when Peter left for Vietnam, takes up with and eventually marries someone else, at the same time becoming radicalised, protesting against the war and living a lifestyle of free love and expression.

In 1989, an odd event is reported in the press – some marijuana plants are found growing in a local park. This might just have been a quirky, quickly forgotten story about a prank if it were not for a nun who insists that there is a body buried under the plants. The next, and perhaps main “frame” of the novel is told by Detective Senior Constable Margot Gorman, who is sent undercover by her boss to be a nurse to Patricia Philips, a schizophrenic woman in a mental hospital. Margot is a no-nonsense, athletic woman with a strong sexual appetite, who puts up with a great deal of sexism and bullying at work. She’s determined to make a success of her strange assignment, even though she has no idea why she is looking after Patricia. By forming a relationship with the patient, Margot gradually comes to realise that someone has been killed – possibly Patricia’s husband – and wonders if Patricia is under suspicion or if she in fact needs protecting from the killer. Eventually Margot’s cover is blown so she never finds out.

Another section of the book is from the point of view of Patricia. As we live inside her deluded mind as herself or as one of the three main personalities she has adopted, her past comes into focus, and the reader becomes fully aware of the ghastly, long-term effects of the war on those who can never recover from it. And of course, in the process, we wonder whether Patricia is insane or whether her state of mind is a “normal” response to the ordeals she’s suffered in her life, which may or may not have really happened.

There is also a very hefty dose of feminist politics in this book, most particularly involving themes of rape and anti-rape activism in various forms, which to me was less involving than the post-war traumas. In one of the later main sections, Margot is on holiday and decides to find out what is really going on – she succeeds in part and fails in part. The author is admirably determined not to create a typical crime novel, so there is no “final discovery” or closure for Margot, whose last appearance is rather unsatisfactory and lacks credibility (not least regarding the nun’s role and a scene in the bar when Marge goes to meet her boss), but the reader does learn more than most of the characters about what has happened and why.

I did enjoy this novel very much, but it is of its time, reminding me of earlier feminist fiction from the USA by authors such as Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, Vida). I found some of it very moving and tragic, particularly the story of Peter. On the other hand, one has to wade through a lot of feminist tract of a nature that is relatively uncommon in mainstream fiction nowadays and to my mind somewhat oversimplifies several issues in its ‘men vs women’ righteous polemic. Margot Gorman is an odd character, in some ways independent and strong, in others passive and dominated. The author has written another novel about her 10 years later, Darkness More Visible, so it will be interesting to find out what’s happened to her and how she has developed in a time when one assumes the police force in Australia has a more enlightened attitude to women.

Finally, I was pleased that in the 2002 Spinifex edition I read, there is both an afterword by the author and an independent introduction, as both of these short essays provide some perspective and made the book more comprehensible by focusing on its main issues. Otherwise, the sheer amount of words and digressions that serve to obscure what has happened because of the particular narrator, and the author’s determination to write at a level different from a straight storytelling approach, would have left me a bit confused about some aspects of the author’s undoubtedly sincere messages.

I purchased my copy of this book.

About the book at the publisher’s website, with a short plot summary of this “Spinifex feminist classic and winner of The Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.”

Read another review of Still Murder at Reactions to Reading, a post that made me decide to read this novel.

Biography of Finola Moorhead.

21 thoughts on “Book review: Still Murder by Finola Moorhead

  1. What an excellent review of a complex book…some parts being more engaging and sensible than others – I agree that some of it was bordering on incomprehensible (and I wish I’d kept reading notes way back when because I’ve no clue what I made of it all then).

    I suspect you weren’t living on another planet at the time but you were in another country and if I’m not mistaken the UK didn’t send troops to Vietnam? (I could be wrong) We did and we didn’t welcome them too kindly when they returned…even the Returned Servicemen’s League didn’t welcome them with open arms….it was only in 1987 or 88 that they received a formal welcome home parade (about 10-12 years after the last troops came home) and I’m guessing Moorhead was writing this book around then…I moved to Sydney in 1988 after finishing Uni and it was still a big issue there for several more years (much more so than in my home town) – in my younger days I was much more politically active than I am now and I attended branch meetings of the Labor party (vaguely left of centre) (though getting less so by the moment but that’s another story) at which our sending of troops, our treatment of them, our post-war involvement with Vietnam and our handling of Vietnamese refugees was all thrashed out and I suspect some of that angst found its way into this book

    I do agree that the feminism in this book is far more overt than most of what I read these days…and also more like a lecture….but I wondered if it was the academic side of Moorhead coming through, and maybe there is still writing like that going on but I don’t read academic stuff very much any more (mostly because you tend not to find out about it unless you travel in those circles and I don’t so much these days).

    • Thanks for your comment, Bernadette. Yes, that’s what I meant about the different planet (I remember 1991 pretty well as I had my first child then – tends to stick in the mind!)- I was too young to know much about the anti-Vietnam protests as they happened – which they certainly did in the UK (Grovesner Square, Vanessa Redgrave etc), and only really caught the tail-end of the feminist movement here, which kind of petered out of the mainstream after the equal pay act of 1979 (?) and the sex discrimination act that made it illegal to advertise for “Girl Fridays” etc – common at the time. However, the fact that we did not have the draft for Vietnam obviously made a huge difference- the traumas of the USA with the returning servicemen has been well documented but until I read this book I was unaware (or had not taken on board) that there was an Australian draft. I remember in 1990 being very concerned about the Iraq invasion of Kuwait and subsequent events – Vietnam was but a distant memory. (Now on the school history syllabus).

      The UK finished National Service (our word for the draft) back in the 1960s or maybe even 1950s. So nobody under retirement age can recall it – big psychological difference in mass cultures (as many countries still have some form of it, eg across Europe).

  2. Oh and I’m not sure the Australian police force has an enlightened attitude to women even now – I worked as a civilian for our force for about 6 months in the late 90’s and was underwhelmed with their level of enlightenment

    • Why am I not surprised? I imagine it is similar here but probably not as marked or “open” as Australia as everything over your way seems more up-front, whereas we in the UK go for the nasty undercurrents.

  3. It’s interesting how some aspects of feminsm have dated over the years. Someone gave me a bag of second hand books recently (I run an occasional book stall where the profits go to charity). There were a load of books written as late of the 1980s on feminsm and when I dipped into them I found them really dated. I’ve not especially seen this in crime fiction but I can well imagine how it might look. I might read the book though if I see it.

    • Yes, I loved all those books from Germaine Greer on at the time, Sarah, but I think I’d find them relatively irrelevant now, not least for treating women like a homogeneous mass of one mind. My daughters are not interested in feminism as a movement or philosophy, to them it has all happened and it is a non-issue. Interesting (not in a good way) to see what social changes the new recession brings about.

  4. I am definitely not getting into a debate about feminism, there have been too many formidable women in my family with ideas and aspirations way ahead of their time.

    But Maxine if Vietnam is on the school history syllabus I would hope that the aftermath of the Communist victory, Pol Pot and “Democratic Kampuchea” are also on that syllabus.

    ‘The Khmer Rouge, whose leaders held extreme views formed from communist ideologies of China, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam, set up policies that disregarded human life and produced repression and massacres on a massive scale.’
    [A History of Democratic Kampuchea 1975-1979 Khamboly Dy]

  5. Maxine – This is an outstanding review – thank you! As I read it I was thinking of our treatment of those who went to Vietnam, so your discussion of that aspect of the book resonates very strongly with me. Regardless of what one thinks of that war, some of those who returned were treated horribly. And your discussion of the theme of feminism made me think of other series that also seem limited by their time in that way. I’m thinking for instance of Joan Smith’s Loretta Lawson novels. Thanks for giving me so much to think about…

  6. Sounds like an interesting book, which I’ll read if the library has it.
    Interesting to see again a plot about the Vietnam war and the treatment of veterans. It’s still not too good, a lot of neglect by the government, homelessness, joblessness, and not all receive enough medical or mental health care. Often care is left on families’ shoulders. A high rate of PTSD.
    On women’s rights, there are still inequities over here in wages, even worse for African-American women and Latinas. There is still not an Equal Rights Amendment. There is still sexual harassment on the job. There’s been backsliding during this recession. Women’s health care has also taken a hit, including funding for women’s clinics, many that provide check-ups and cancer screenings.
    In Congress and in some state legislatures, the statements made by those opposed to women’s rights and benefits have been a throwback to 50 years ago (or more). Women Congress members and legislators have been slandered during arguments and even during hearings over judicial nominees. Clinics for survivors of rape and domestic violence have been closed in many states, women have lost medical benefits in many states, etc.
    It’s grim in many ways.
    Every day I see emails from women’s organizations asking for help and raising another setback or attempted setback.
    If Social Security is cut, it will fall on women, as one-half of women mostly rely on it after the age of 65.
    Those of us who were out there marching will have to do it again, but with young women in the lead, I hope.

    • Well I think there are inequities over here too, Kathy, but there does not seem to me to be much of a young feminist movement here. Many women here are lower-earning, disproportionately looking after elderly relatives, etc.

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  8. Sure, I believe it.
    Many women here earn low wages, too. The Census Bureau published a stunning statistic a few weeks ago: 1/2 of people working here, or 75 million earn $26,000 a year or less. Many are women, many single mothers.

  9. That is stunning Kathy. Even in Devon, which along with Cornwall is one of the poorest paid parts of the UK, the average wage is according to the BBC £17,946 [$28,108].

  10. Thank you for this review. Moorhead is a wonderful writer but for some reason I haven’t read this book yet. I’ll make sure I chase it up over Xmas/New Year. BTW Have you ever read Jan Mckemmish’s A GAP IN THE RECORDS. Hard to get but well worth the chase……

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