Cover image for Stiff : a Murray Whelan mystery
Stiff : a Murray Whelan mystery
Maloney, Shane, 1953-
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First North American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Arcade Pub., 1999.

Physical Description:
227 pages ; 25 cm
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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Single father and true believer, Murray Whelan thinks the life of a political minder is complicated enough with an ex-wife and intimations of intrigue among the party powerful. But throw in a Turk in a local meat plant, a stiff in the purest sense of the word, drugs planted under the bed,, break-ins, and blood-sucking parasites, and Murray soon finds things fatally out of control.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This is Maloney's second novel about Murray Whelan, the Australian political advisor and amateur sleuth (following 1998's The Brush-Off), and it's not quite as good as its predecessor. Although it is every bit as well written as the first Whelan mystery (which won Australia's equivalent of the Edgar Award), it's a tad too slow-moving. This is a "prequel," set before the events of The Brush-Off, explaining how a seemingly straightforward accidental death at a meat plant leads Murray to uncover a devilishly complicated conspiracy. Still, readers who enjoyed the first Whelan novel--especially those who enjoyed Maloney's fresh use of language and his ability to serve up a laugh on pretty much every page--will no doubt enjoy this one. --David Pitt

Publisher's Weekly Review

The Brush-Off, featuring Melbourne political fixer Murray Whelan, won Australia's Ned Kelly Prize and critical attention when it was published here, in 1998. This prequel, which first appeared Down Under in 1994, is a worthy but not sterling followup. It's 1984, and Murray is working as electorate officer (read: troubleshooter) for Charlene Wills, Australia's minister for industry. Despite his cynicism about politics, Whelan admires the 50ish Wills: "She was loyal, conscientious, devoted to her constituents, and I loved her like a mother, which was convenient as I no longer had one of my own. Her colostomy bag you couldn't notice, even if you were one of the very few who knew about it." When Angelo Agnelli, Wills's ministerial adviser (who rises to become minister for arts and Murray's boss in The Brush-Off), asks Whelan to look into the suspicious death of a Turkish meat packer, Murray stirs up a mess of corruption that threatens Wills and the Labour Party. Malone tosses in plenty of colorful detail about Melbourne's ethnic mix, and some touching scenes where Murray struggles to be a good father to his young son while his estranged wife is off tending her own, much more successful political career. The entire novel is narrated by Murray in a wry, tough voice as flavorful of Australia as kangaroo stew. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In this mid-1980s prequel to The Brush-off (LJ 5/1/98), Murray Whelan, who works for Australia's minister for industry in Melbourne, investigates a suspicious death in a meat-packing plant that may have political ramifications for his boss. Whelan's research, which targets the large local Italian and Turkish constituencies, points to payroll embezzlement rather than conspiracy. As in his previous book, Maloney pokes fun at almost everything, reveling in words that showcase ludicrous events and behavior. And Murray as a caring but totally unhandy and terminally horny single (almost) parent only broadens the satire. A rewarding and entertaining read. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One PERHAPS I SHOULD BEGIN by saying that this is not a sob story. It's a creel world, I know, and even in the just city a man can be stiff. Bad luck happens. And it's not like bad luck was something I didn't already know a bit about. Damage control was part of my job, after all. But up until then it had been other people's bad luck, not my own, that exercised my professional interest. Maybe that's why I was so unprepared for what happened over those four October days. So I'm not doing any special pleading, you understand. Considering what happened to others I could name, I got off pretty lightly.     It all started on one of those miserable wet Monday mornings when, come nine o'clock, half of Melbourne is still strung out bumper-to-bumper along the South-eastern Freeway. I had just dropped my son Red at school, and as I swung my clapped-out old Renault into Sydney Road the thought of all those Volvo and Camira drivers stewing away behind their windscreen wipers brought a quiet smile to my lips. Not that I bore them any personal animosity, you understand. It was just that if God wanted to punish the eastern suburbs for voting Liberal, She wouldn't hear me complaining.     I could afford to feel like that because the Brunton Avenue logjam was miles away. Where I lived, north of town, the toiling masses tended to start their toiling a little earlier in the day, and most of those that still had jobs were already at work. By nine the rush hour had already come and gone. Apart from a few hundred light industrial vehicles and the occasional tram disgorging early shoppers, women in head-scarfs mainly, I had the northbound lane to myself.     Not that I was busting a gut to get to work. No clock was waiting for me to punch it, and I couldn't see the pile of paper on my desk bursting into flames if left undisturbed a little longer. The fifteen minutes it took me to drive to work provided one of my few moments of solitude all day and I liked to make the most of it. As I drove I read the paper.     This was less dangerous than it sounds. I'd already studied the broadsheets over breakfast, and the Sun was the kind of tabloid easily absorbed while doing something else -- shelling peas, for instance, or operating a lathe. I had it spread open on the passenger seat beside me, and whenever I hit a red light or got stuck behind a slow-moving tram I skimmed a couple of pages. The spring racing carnival had just begun, so the emphasis was on horseflesh, fashion and catering. Just A Dash was favourite, black was big, and interesting things were being done with asparagus. Agreement was unanimous -- four years in and the eighties were holding firm as the most exciting decade ever.     The Bell Street lights had changed and I was halfway across the intersection when my eye caught a name buried in a two-paragraph news brief at the bottom of page seventeen. That was when I first encountered the name Ekrem Bayraktar. Not that it meant anything to me at the time. It was the other name that got my attention. I snatched up the page, draped it over the steering wheel and turned my concentration away from the road long enough to constitute a serious threat to public safety. This is what I read: Police have identified a man found dead last Friday in a freezer at the Pacific Pastoral meat-packing works at Coolaroo in Melbourne's outer north as Ekrem Bayraktar, 42, a shift supervisor at the works. It is believed that he suffered a heart attack and was overcome by cold while conducting a routine stocktake. Pacific Pastoral has announced an immediate review of its procedures in light of the incident which coincides with the state government's attempts to gain Upper House approval for its controversial industrial health and safety legislation. Informed sources at Trades Hall believe the matter will be considered when the THC Executive meets late next week. The Minister for Industry, Charlene Wills, was unavailable for comment.     I liked the way a whiff of Labor intrigue had been slipped into an account of some poor bastard's cardiac arrest. But that wasn't what interested me. What had pushed my button was mention of the Minister for Industry. Charlene Wills was a person whose reputation was a matter very close to my heart.     Up ahead I could see Pentridge, the razor ribbon atop its bluestone walls dripping dismally in the drizzle. On my left was an Italian coffee shop and a row of old single-storey terraces that had been tarted up into offices and professional suites. I pulled into the curb, tucked the Sun under my arm and pushed open the glass door of one of the shops, the one with the letters on the window saying "Charlene Wills: Member of the Legislative Council for the Province of Melbourne Upper."     With a bit of luck, I thought, I'd have just enough time to call Charlene's parliamentary office and get the lowdown on this piece of tabloid crap before the business of the day wrapped its tentacles around me.     Too late. The daily grind had already walked in off the street and was standing at the desk just inside the front door. He was solidly built, in a knockabout sort of way, anywhere between thirty and forty-five, with a duck's bum haircut and hands like baseball mitts. When I walked in, he shifted irritably and shot me a glance that told me he'd got there first and I could fucking well wait my turn.     All his weight was balanced on the balls of his feet, and the tips of his fingers were pressed down hard on the desk. He was glowering across it at Trish, who was in charge of office admin. "I've had a gutful," he said.     Statements like that, half-threat, half-plea, weren't unusual at the electorate office. But this fellow's tone was tending more to the threat end of the octave, and as he spoke he began tugging his khaki work shirt out of his pants and fiddling with the buttons. "I pay my taxes," he said. "I know my rights."     Trish nodded at the bloke sympathetically and, without moving her eyes, casually bent forward as if to better hear him out. Trish was big in the chassis and not afraid to use it, but just in case push ever came to shove she kept the butt end of a sawn-down pool cue sitting in her wastepaper basket. As far as I knew she'd never had cause to use it, but on the odd occasion its mere presence could be a comfort. If this dickhead's manner didn't rapidly begin to improve, we'd all have a very unpleasant start to the working week.     "May I help you, sir?" I said, stepping forward. "I'm Murray Whelan, Charlene Wills' electorate officer."     As I spoke the man turned towards me and threw his shirt open, like he was performing a magic trick or unveiling the foundation stone of a major civic monument. Underneath, he was wearing what appeared to be a paisley-patterned t-shirt. As I got closer I realised that he was one of the most comprehensively tattooed human beings I had ever seen. Which, in that part of the world, was no mean achievement.     I tried to look unimpressed as I accepted his tacit invitation to inspect his pecs. He was certainly toting some artistry about. Fire-breathing dragons, dagger-pierced hearts, tiger-mounted she-devils, flame-licked skulls, Huey, Dewey and Louie, you name it, he had it. Innumerable little pictures exploded out of his pants, ran up over his flaccid paunch, covered his torso, and curled back across his shoulders.     The mad swirls of colour stopped abruptly, however, at the V of the man's collar line and, I was prepared to bet, at the point in mid-bicep where the sleeves of a summer work shirt would run out. His hands, neck and face were unadorned. No spider webs embellished his earlobes, no intertwined bluebirds flew up his neck. This was a good sign. Here was a man who knew that some people tended to jump to the wrong conclusion about tatts, a man who had the brains not to let his passion for self-decoration get in the way of his employability. Someone you could talk sense to.     And now that he was dealing with a fellow male, he became a little less highly strung. "I want this bloke put out of business." He jabbed his finger at the place right above his heart where a freshly laid-on pair of baroque cherubs, beautiful work, were holding aloft an ornate scroll. I moved his shoulder sideways so I had better light to read by. Inside the scroll were the words "Gial For Ever."     "Gial?" I said.     He nodded morosely. "Gail took one look and shot through," he said. "Reckoned if I couldn't even spell her name properly, she certainly wasn't gunna marry me." Then he brightened up. "I told that fucken prick of a tattooist I'd have his licence. And I'm not leaving here until I do. Dead set. I'm adam-fucken-ant."     Three years before, when Charlene had offered me the job of looking after her constituents, a Labor MP's electorate office was, by definition, a backwater. Then the tide had turned and swept Labor into office, first at state, then federal level. The drover's dog was in the Lodge. We were the power in the land. And that sign on the door had become a homing beacon for every dingbat within a ten-mile radius.     When I began at the electorate office, our only customers were ordinary voters desperately seeking redress from bureaucratic inanity or government indifference. Or the harmlessly wan and smelly looking for somewhere out of the cold. But by late 1984 we were attracting such a daily barrage of basket cases and snake-oil salesmen that the sign out front might as well have read "Axes Ground Here."     Surely, I was beginning to think, the cause of social progress could be deploying my skills more effectively. Could I not perhaps be managing a small lake or pine plantation for the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands? A modestly demanding range of foothills even? Something with a little less interface.     "Okay, Mr. Adam fucking Ant," I shrugged. "Let's see what we can do." Behind the man's back, Trish had relaxed and was grinning like an ape. I discreetly flashed her a splayed handful of digits and led off towards the back of the office. Five minutes of deeply concerned bullshit should, I figured, be enough to see this particular dipstick safely off the premises. "Walk this way."     Adam Ant, or whatever his name was, tucked his shirt back into his pants and slouched after me. "It's not right," he mumbled under his breath.     What passed for my office was a partitioned cubicle tucked into a back corner behind the stationery cupboard. Before the election had transformed Charlene into a Minister of the Crown, it had been hers. Back in those days, I'd shared the reception area with Trish and whoever else happened to wander in. But I was fast to grasp the perquisites of political power and had quickly taken advantage of Charlene's increasing frequent absence to commandeer her privileges.     I snapped on the flickering fluorescent light, parked myself behind the laminated plywood desk and indicated the orange plastic of the visitor's chair. As Ant lowered his backside into place, obscuring my Tourism Commission poster of Wilson's Promontory, I squared off my blotter, uncapped my pen with a bureaucratic flourish and tried to look like I gave a shit.     "I'd like to help you, mate. I really would," I said. "But you've got the wrong department."     Ant finished buttoning up the National Gallery, ran his hand through his greasy pompadour and looked deeply wronged. "I rung up Consumer Protection. They said I should try my local member."     Typical. Consumer Protection took the cake at pass-the-parcel. I nodded understandingly and went through the motions of taking down the particulars. This was the first instance of a dyslexic tattooist that Mrs. Wills' office had ever been called upon to address, I explained. And while the Minister would undoubtedly be sympathetic, in a case like this the powers of an elected member of the state's legislative chamber of review might be somewhat circumscribed.     The Sun lay between us on top of my overflowing in-tray, still folded open at page seventeen. If I don't piss this joker off soon, I thought, Parliament will begin sitting and Charlene will be unreachable for the rest of the day.     "I'm not going anywhere, pal," said Ant. "Until this thing is fixed."     "This is a legal matter," I said. "Restitution. Punitive damages." These were words he liked. "You need the Community Legal Service." The Family Law Act surely included provisions for the irretrievable breakdown of the relationship between a man, his tattooist, and his intended.     Looking like the height of efficiency, I dialled the CLS and made an appointment, skipping the details in case they thought I was pulling their collective leg. Friday was the earliest the slack-arses could squeeze him in. "This lot will look after you," I told Ant. "Top people."     The CLS was half a mile down the road. I drew a map, wrote the appointment details underneath, and slid it across the desk.     Ant folded his arms across his chest. "You're just trying to give me the bounce."     True. But it wasn't as though I hadn't given it my best shot first. "Look mate," I said, marginally more firmly, "there's nothing else I can do. The legal service will handle it from now on. Good luck. Let us know how you go. I'll keep Charlene informed. But in the meantime my hands are tied."     He shook his head and settled his Technicolor mass even more firmly into the moulded plastic cup of the seat. I opened Charlene's correspondence file and buried my face in it, wondering how long it would take Trish to burst in with an urgent pretext. "Dear Madam," the top letter began. "You are a pinko ratbag bitch."     Five minutes later I was still pretending to read and Ant was continuing to glare. What did he want me to do? Whip out a bottle of correcting fluid and a blue ballpoint and personally amend his faulty chest? "I'll call the cops," I said, lamely.     He snorted derisively. Quite right, too. For a start, we could hardly be seen having someone dragged away merely for demanding that the government do something about their problems. That, after all, was what we were there for.     Also, I found it hard to sound convincing. If I called the coppers on every cantankerous customer we had, they'd have to start running a shuttle bus. And given the ongoing budgetary constraints faced by the various agencies under the jurisdiction of the Minister for Police and Emergency Services, a factional ally of Charlene, that was a poor prospect.     Mainly, however, I couldn't call the coppers on some love-struck dumb-bum with Cupid engraved on his left tit because such an encounter was unlikely to be conducive to an outcome of social equity. Let the coppers catch who they could. I'd gone to school with blokes like Ant, and having to resort to the wallopers in my dealings with them would have been an affront to both my personal morality and my professional pride. Quarrels should be kept in the family. "Do us a favour," I suggested courteously. "Fuck off."     Ant smiled maliciously and leaned back like he had all the time in the world. Fortunately, at exactly that moment the phone rang. It wasn't Trish but Greg Coates, a deputy director in the Melbourne office of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.     Nearly a quarter of the electors of the Province of Melbourne Upper had been born overseas and it wasn't uncommon for constituents with an immigration problem to turn up on our doorstep. No problem. Immigration is a Commonwealth matter, so all we had to do was steer them over to the local federal member.     But, as often as not, the problems were little more than language mix-ups, and it would have been criminal of me to allow an important federal politician to be burdened with such trifling matters. Especially if Charlene could get the credit for fixing them. Which wasn't difficult to arrange since Greg Coates had been a mate since university, and was both a fellow spear-carrier in my faction and a member of the same party branch. So about once a week Greg gave me a call and we cut a bit of red tape together and swapped political gossip.     I swivelled my seat around, pointedly turning my back on the tattooed wonder, and spent fifteen minutes firming up a batch of family reunion applications. Eventually Coates made his way, as if in passing, to the prospect of an early election. There was a lot of speculation about, and what with Charlene being in Cabinet, Coates was always trying to weasel the latest inside info out of me.     I told him what I knew, which was exactly zip, and we finished off with the customary exchange of promises to get together for a drink. When I spun my seat around to hang up, Ant had helped himself to my Sun and was pretending to read it, something he wouldn't really be able to do until he developed the intellectual capacity of an eight-year-old.     I was about to get seriously snaky when the phone rang again. This time it was a nice old Greek pensioner whose plumbing difficulties I had been shepherding through the maintenance division of the Housing Ministry. In comparison with the idiocy incarnate sitting opposite me, the institutional oddities at Housing were child's play. I made a couple of quick calls to the appropriate authorities, threw my weight about in a minor way, and called the old bat to reassure her that she'd be flushing again before she knew it.     By that stage, it was too late to call Charlene. Besides which, the day had kicked in with its customary vigour. In rapid succession I had a branch treasurer ring to fish for his postage costs to be reimbursed, a school wanting Charlene for its prize night, and a personal visit from a guy with a Ned Kelly beard describing himself as Citizens For A Freeway Free Future. I took him out to the waiting area and spent half an hour outlining the intricacies of the Western Ring-Road community consultative process. He kept his helmet on for the entire conversation, so I'm not sure if he understood everything I told him.     Just after eleven Agnelli rang.     Angelo Agnelli was Charlene Wills' ministerial adviser at Industry. The Industry Ministry was where government policy rubbed noses with the big end of town. The nose was Ange's weapon of choice and Charlene paid him a princely sum to implement initiatives, expedite the legislative process, keep the mandarins on their toes, and God knew what else. Recently, he'd been making the effort to find the time to look over my shoulder and make tut-tutting noises.     That day, the big bee in Agnelli's bonnet was Joe Lollicato. A couple of years previously, Joe had been elected to one of the municipal councils in the area. And in the last round of local government polls he'd been returned with a handsomely increased majority. To Agnelli, who'd never been elected to anything in his life, this sort of personal popularity was both a personal affront and evidence that Lollicato was positioning himself to seize the party's endorsement away from Charlene.     "Forget Lolly," I told him. "Parliamentary ambitions are a fact of life around here. Lolly wouldn't be the first person in local government to start thinking he's on the up-escalator to Canberra. But if Lollicato wants a stab at Charlene's job, and that's a debatable point, he'll have to wait until she decides to go, then take his chances along with everyone else. If he tries anything sooner, he'll find out that a stretch at a suburban town hall, a few half-baked factional connections, and an Italian surname won't be enough to convince a preselection panel to dump a sitting member. A minister at that."     Agnelli refused to be mollified. "There are plenty of people in the party who'd like to see Charlene taken down a peg or two. Lollicato's a sneaky little prick. It wouldn't pay to underestimate his deviousness. He's got more friends than you'd suspect."     These were facts that could not be disputed, but they were hardly very specific, just the usual Labor Party love talk. The real reason for Agnelli's antagonism towards Lollicato, I suspected, was cultural. I thought this because sensitivity to ethnic cultural nuances was an essential aspect of my professional capabilities.     Charlene's electorate, the whole area in fact, had Italians coming out of its armpits. Fully a quarter of all the Italians in the entire country lived in Melbourne's northern suburbs, not counting their second and third generation descendants. This was apart from the Greeks, Lebanese, Maltese, Macedonians, Turks and Maoris. All things considered, Melbourne Upper should have been called Wogolopolis. A high level of skill in multiculturalism was, therefore, an indispensable aspect of my job.     It was, I believed, a requirement I fulfilled as reasonably as could be expected for the descendant of three generations of Irish publicans. I had been handing out how-to-vote cards in Italian since I was a teenager. I knew better than to confuse the Federazione Italiana Lavoratori e Famigli with the Comitato d'Assistenza Italiano. I knew who could be relied on at the vegetable market to buy a book of raffle tickets at election time, and whose brother-in-law was private secretary to the Christian Democrat mayor of San Benedetto del Tronto. And while I would have been the first to admit to having trouble picking a Guelph from a Ghibelline in a dappled olive grove in the Tuscan twilight, I could, to the extent required by profession, reasonably claim to know my tortellini from my tartufo. "This isn't some sort of Italian crap, is it Ange?" I said.     Agnelli was obsessed. "That little shit Lollicato is capable of doing any amount of damage if he thinks he can use it to his own advantage. You see the newspaper this morning?"     "Minister in Pre-Selection Wrangle?"     "Jesus, where was that?" There was real panic in Agnelli's voice.     "Relax, Ange. You mean the dead guy at the meatworks in Coolaroo? I've been wondering about that. What's the story?" Agnelli's voice took on a gossipy conspiratorial hiss. "What are you doing for lunch?"     "I was thinking of having a pie," I whispered back. "You reckon it's safe?"     "Be serious for a minute, can't you, Murray? I'm trying to put something useful your way. Come into town."     I swung my chair around. The amazing tattooed nuisance had his boots on my desk, right on top of the in-tray. "I dunno," I told Agnelli. "I've got a lot in front of me at the moment."     "I'll buy." Agnelli's salary was nearly double mine and this was his first gesture of generosity with anything but unsolicited advice. Clearly, something was going on.     "Ministry or House?"     "House. And since you're coming in, can you do us a favour and give old Picone a lift. He's having lunch with Charlene and I want to pick a bone with the old bugger first. Give him the two dollar tour and bring him downstairs."     I took my umbrella off the filing cabinet, turned off the two-bar radiator and gently moved Ant's feet over to the out-tray.     "Anyone calls," I said, "I'll be out for the rest of the day." Copyright © 1994 Shane Maloney. All rights reserved.