“Nothing in this town was [far], although the winding river confused distances, making everything oddly separate. Like wavy parallel lines that never met.”
The Brisbane Line is not so much about the alleged WWII plan to abandon Northern Australia in the face of invasion, but a play on words. Author, J.P. Powell, pens a frustrated Brisbane society navigating the impending “new world” in 1943 through tram lines, philosophical lines between high and low society and police officers crossing the line into corruption.
With war drawing closer to Australian shores, the small town of Brisbane is seemingly on the front line and among its growing population driven by the influx of American soldiers, is Sergeant Joe Washington. A determined “desk Johnnie”, Washington is the driving and moral force of the American Criminal Investigation Command and the novel.
Through the clever use of this outsider’s eyes, Powell is able to reflect on Australian society at the time, including attitudes towards racism, sexism, homophobia and corruption. She highlights cultural differences, even those as simple as colloquialisms and weapon choice, with American soldiers favouring knives and Australians, fists.
However, an emotionally abused character named Alma explains all soldiers in this ‘man’s world’ are the same – “Drinking. Sex. It’s what they all want.”
The violence against women is partially attributed to their shift from debutants to “twirling young women shimmering in slinky material. All of it sliding seductively over non-girdled flesh”. Male police officers are able to arrest women trying to escape pimps with prostitution and sexual exploration rife.
Our female protagonist, Rose, has a boyfriend who is a prisoner of war and finds herself displaced. She sums it up perfectly: “It’s men who cause the trouble in the first place. It’s just another hypocrisy.”
Washington is also able to compare the treatment of Indigenous Australians to America’s deep south as the jitterbug and jazz hit Brisbane and crime encircles the few African American soldiers.
“Poofters and perverts” are laughed at by Australian police and one solider faces jail time over his sexual orientation. Despite this, advancements persist in literature, communism, policing technology and journalism. It’s in this dangerous cocktail of societal shift where Washington is faced with the challenge of solving the murder of American solider, Robert A. Foster.
The novel is a rare story of war off the battlefields and the men unable to be soldiers, demonstrating how crime on home soil is able to slip through the gaps while attention is focused on offshore fighting.
Enter Australian detective, Frank Bischof and an array of corrupt police officers and black marketeers. “No pie gets baked in this town without his little pinky finding its way into the crust,” is how Betty, the owner of a local brothel, describes Bischof.
Indeed, the opening quote explains how decency had vanished from the streets, not only due to drunkard soldiers but also due to those in positions of power.
Perhaps the lines between high and low society are more blurred than initially realised – which Washington sees through his passion for photography.
“I’m no good with words. I like watching people it’s the way I understand them. Perhaps I’ll become a photographer one day, try to tell stories through pictures. I like the simplicity of photos.”
The first half of the book is dedicated to setting the scene which although beautifully done, is a little slow. Fortunately, the pace picks up in the second half and cleverly depicts an often overlooked area of Australia’s war history.
For those unfamiliar with this time, it could be well worth reading the historical notes at the end of the book before diving in but the storyline is easy to follow. The beautifully Australian setting is superbly captured, like moments through the lens of Washington’s camera.
Alison Dance is an avid reader of historical fiction, fantasy and romance. Alison’s background is media and journalism with an interest in regional, agricultural and women’s affairs. While audio books are handy for long drives and e-books are compact, you’ll find her bookshelf full. You can find her on Twitter @alisonjdance and Instagram @alisonjustdance