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“Witty, wryly humorous and fast-paced, “The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender” is a thriller with a twist which brilliantly evokes the sleaze below the surface of the city’s glittering façade”. Is this what the novel is about?
Marele Day’s novel, “The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender” explores a large scope of issues related to crime and mystery writing. The use of simple language, symbolism, clever wit and a certain sense of satirical mockery all contribute to composing this witty, wryly humorous and fast paced novel. Through the way in which Day portrays the protagonist, Claudia Valentine, she challenges the stereotypes and ideas set in the readers’ minds, in relation to gender issues. Day also succeeds to ruthlessly unmask the bare grit and grime of the cold hard truth, that is, organized crime in Sydney.
“The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender” is a satirical ridicule of the traditional hard-boiled school crime novel. It complies with the basic characteristics of a piece of private-eye detective fiction; however Day has also incorporated a certain extent of irony into the story by choosing the main character/detective to be a woman. Claudia Valentine is not depicted as the typical useless female throwaway- either by being the victim or betrayer. This woman is self-sufficient, gutsy and heroic. Her involvement challenges stereotypes and ideas set in the responders’ minds in relation to gender issues. She is equal to any male, completing her job successfully and outwitting anyone in her path. She is also the intellectual counterpart of Harry Lavender, the “evil villain” in the story.
In light of the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of the novel, through Claudia, Day captures the typically marginalised life-style of a detective that’s lacking in emotion, living on the fringes of society, being largely fond of alcohol, cigarettes and modestly enjoying violence in their life. She shows a female character doing what previously only men had done; directly committing herself to the criminal underworld, walking dangerous streets at night, boldly trespassing into perilous areas and defending herself- all the things that only men would do in conventional versions of the genre.
On the very first page, Day introduces this concept of ironic mockery by creating confusion as to the gender of the character. A tough voice that fills the requirements of hard-boiled school men is established, and only after turning the page does the reader realize that the terribly hung-over narrator is a female private-eye and the blonde in the bed is a good-looking male.
The novel is set in Sydney. Day represents the city form two different views. One is Claudia’s safe, sheltered Sydney of innocent childhood,
“Cars sat in the sun silently absorbing the heat, reminding me of childhood summers. Days at the beach and before you went home all the doors of the car would be flung open and the heat that rushed out nearly knocked you over.”
The reader soon discovers it to simply be a façade that blinds us from seeing the seedy, savage and corrupted undertones of a world which very few are aware of. This other side is associated with Harry Lavender, who is slowly infiltrating all of society like cancer slowly invades a healthy human body. On several occasions Claudia reinforces the idea that Harry Lavender has always been in control of her city, but it wasn’t until she became an adult that she realized this.
“…the innocence of a time past, before the stench of Lavender. But the stench had always been there, I just hadn’t smelled it till there was no place left that didn’t reek of it.”
Day projects her views on the naivety of modern day society towards the empire of crime that surrounds them through Claudia’s recollections back to childhood. Indirectly, Day draws an analogy between Claudia’s thoughts from her untainted youth to the inexperienced world of deluded people that wander Sydney every day with wool pulled over their eyes, oblivious to the severe corruption that takes place so close to home. One of Day’s main purposes in the novel was to expose a small piece of the sleazy realm that most people choose to remain heedless of. She does this successfully in the merciless way that she describes certain things so bluntly;
“The governors have always tried to impose a shape on Sydney, a clean, ordered mirror image of the uptight citizens they purport to be.”
The scenes in this novel are concise and direct. Day is able to adequately convey her ideas and communicate straight to the point without waffling on. This unique technique along with the use of simple language creates a fast-paced atmosphere which keeps the reader on the edge and leaves them with a hungry desire for more of the thrilling action that this novel can satisfy one with.
Day likes to play with words; she uses a lot of symbolism, puns and metaphors throughout the novel. The very first sentence of the novel already signifies Day’s fondness of playing with words;
“I woke up feeling like death. Ironically appropriate given what the day had in store.”
Claudia often uses clever and witty one liners;
“- Every time I see you Claudia, you’re wet.
-Someone in this city has got to stay clean”
She also uses metaphors and similes that often enhance the visual image created in one’s mind;
“With eyes like pools you find beneath waterfalls”
There is also quite a lot of obvious symbolism and allegory in the novel. The fact that Harry has cancer is an obvious metaphor to the way in which the city is corrupted by him and the way that the cancer slowly eats into his body, is the same way that his reign slowly infiltrates the city of Sydney. At the end of the novel when Claudia finally hacks into the computer, all the symbolic aspects of the book unite; the lavender crabs (which are the star sign for cancer) eat into the heart on the computer screen. The heart corresponds to Claudia, the uncorrupted and virtuous side of Sydney. Harry also likes to use lavender to signify his presence, obviously because it represents his surname but also because of what lavender characterizes. This strong, sweet smelling herb is often able to soothe the atmosphere and mask an unwanted odour, in the same way that Harry masks the corruption he instigates within the city.
All in all Marele Day has successfully accomplished a novel that is not only entertaining in its wit and cunning but also investigates issues that most writers would not dare to delve into. She is able to communicate her pro-feminist views through producing Claudia Valentine as a woman who seems realistic yet powerful enough to conquer certain stereotypical injustices within society. In, “The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender” Day also manages to pragmatically approach the topic of organized crime within Sydney and unmasks the brutal reality that lies beneath the “surface of the city’s glittering façade”.