Art Market Intrigue: a novel

Hot Rock DreamingWell, if the vagaries of the art market and last week’s post haven’t sated your appetite for the intrigues of buying, selling, trading–and stealing–then you might want to check out the new novel by Martin Roth, Hot Rock Dreaming (Ark House Press, 2010).

Hot Rock Dreaming is the second novel featuring detective Johnny Ravine, an East Timorese former freedom fighter, relocated to Melbourne but for this outing swept away to Alice Springs and caught up in a plot that mixes environmental politics and Aboriginal art.  It’s not quite a roman à clef, but readers will no doubt be amused by a former rock star who finds himself caught in a struggle between a geothermal energy company and the need for Indigenous cultural preservation, or an Alice-based senior artist whose best days are behind him, despite his connections to the early days of the Papunya painting school.

RokPower has a plan to produce cheap energy for Centralia by injecting water deep under the surface of the desert around Alice Springs, where it will be turned into steam upon contact with super-heated underground rocks.  The company has hired Wolfstead Gannon, a rock star slightly past his sell-by date but with impeccable environmental credentials and good Indigenous connections, to preside over their first attempt at the infusion.  They hope that Gannon’s reputation will blunt the bad publicity being generated by Old Albert Wallaby Walker, the veteran of early days at Papunya.  Although Albert is now also slightly past his sell-by date, he has been dancing ceremony at the site of RokPower’s operations to protest their disturbance of Kurtal, the Rain Dreaming ancestor who resides among the hot rocks.

Gannon summons Johnny Ravine to Alice when the old man is discovered dead in his in-town painting studio, head smashed in by a blunt instrument.  But what really killed the artist (as much as who) is the question at the heart of the story’s intrigue.  For it seems that Old Albert had predicted his own death and laid the blame on RokPower for driving out the spirit of the country–Kurtal–with their experiments.  Did Old Albert die because his Dreaming disappeared?  Or was there a more mundane but equally sinister cause?

I can’t describe too much more of the plot without giving away the details that point to the solution of the crime, other than to say that there’s plenty of venality to be had and that Roth seems to have imbibed the seamier side of the Aboriginal art market both in Alice and in the capital cities and brought it to bear on his plot and characters.

There are Todd Mall gallery owners who won’t discuss the old man, or how they came to have his works in stock; and then there’s the artist’s official dealer, whose very transparency looks suspicious.  The artist’s grandson Eddie disappears too quickly and too completely for comfort after the murder.  And when Ravine tracks Eddie down out bush and is nearly speared for his efforts, well, you can’t help but wonder about his motives.

The Aboriginal spirituality represented by Kurtal and the Dreaming power is complemented by Christian ethics in the form of Ravine’s Melbourne pastor, who arrives in Alice to help his struggling parishioner and to rescue him from dangerous mystical forces.  Some of those forces are represented by a mysterious Korean pastor of the dragon-lady persuasion, who runs a church for the local Aboriginal people, and who seduces Ravine (spiritually, of course) with a combination of  Buddhist meditation and shamanistic trance.  On the secular side, there’s an investigative journalist, vaguely British in demeanor–or possibly just eccentric.  Throw in a couple of Cockney thugs and you have the whole unholy missionary-madman-mercenary trinity of Territorian characters in the stew.

Roth makes good use of the Outback locations, especially as the story races to its conclusion amidst a torrential rainstorm that washes out the roads and seems to be the vengeance of Kurtal for the despoiling of the Dreaming.  As I said before, Roth has clearly been paying attention to the intrigues of desert art dealing and shows a surprisingly subtle understanding of the power plays that animate the hostilities and jealousies that in real life, luckily, produce only strife and not genuine homicide.

We’ve been sweltering through Top End temperatures here lately in the northern summer, and the thunderstorms in the evenings this week have been severe enough to rattle the windows and quite literally shake the floors.  Perfect weather for some Hot Rock Dreaming.

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