An honest, funny, and at times brutal memoir of a forensic scientist in the 1980’s told with distinction by his son.
Writer Art Spikol once wrote that “a good storyteller knows how to get attention, inject a little suspense, exhibit a little of his character’s character, and dangle a carrot. On paper, at least.” Paul Verhoeven’s second novel Electric Blue is testament to that idea and Verhoeven himself is the perfect encapsulation of it.
Verhoeven’s first novel, Loose Units¸told the story of his father John’s time as a beat cop in New South Wales in the 1970s. It met with great critical acclaim (including an outstanding review on this website) and launched a podcast and a national speaking tour with Paul and his Dad. But that was only half of the story. Electric Blue picks up as John sees an opportunity to move into the world of forensics. It is the 1980s and New South Wales police are definitely on the nose with the general public following wide spread corruption. It is in this environment that John decides to make his career shift.
Paul tells his father’s stories in a series of interviews, injecting the stories with his own brand of wit and with an insightful ability to cut through his father’s rhetoric. Paul often interjects himself into the narrative to remind us that he is there and often asking the questions that the audience might be asking themselves.
Stories range from the humorous to the downright disgusting (with many stories making you wretch inside). Particular highlights (for want of a better word) include an old lady in a bath tub, a maker of necklaces with distinct “jewels” taken from a morgue, and the harrowing story of a 17 year old on his first and last motorbike ride. In between, the author asks his father probably the most important question that arises from these tales: how do you cope with seeing all these deaths on a daily basis?
Verhoeven also briefly gives us a glimpse at his mother, Christine, who was one of the first uniformed female police officers in New South Wales. Her tale of sexism and bravado in the 1980s deserved a little more exploration than given here (possibly something to explore in a third novel?) but nevertheless offers a well-earned respite from his father’s more gruesome stories.
Despite the subject matter, there are genuinely funny moments and some of the side characters (such as John’s mentor in forensics, a man called Grey) are well presented. We also get a glimpse of life for young Paul as he struggles with his ADHD at school. The moment where he confronts his father over his perceived lack of support in this time is truly heart breaking.
The final cherry on the cake is the last 100 pages of the book presented as a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, reflecting a theme set out from the beginning. Having read many of these books myself in my youth, I can truly say that Verhoeven has very much captured their essence well.
This is a magnificent read for anyone interested in hearing about life as a forensic scientist. Don’t be fooled by shows like CSI or NCIS. This is the real deal, warts and all. Verhoeven is a storyteller for the 21st century and we are all blessed to have his books to read.
Reviewed by Rodney Hrvatin
Published by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: August 2020
- Read our interview with Paul Verhoeven