Murray Whelan is the electorate officer for the Minister of Industry, Charlene Wills, the sitting Labour representative from Melbourne Upper, a multicultural district to the north of the city. His home life is a mess – his wife has upped sticks to Canberra and he’s looking after his young son, Red, in a house that’s seen better days – and his work life is not much better, spending his days fending off disgruntled voters, fixing relations with a variety of local self-interest groups, and smoothing over internal party squabbles. When a recent immigrant from Turkey is found frozen to death in a local meat packing plant he thinks nothing of it until one of Wills’ ministerial advisors, the snake-oiled, Angelo Agnelli, sends him off to investigate whether it’s anything the Minister needs to worry about. Whelan knows that this is probably a wild goose chase, but agrees to take a look to keep Agnelli and Wills happy. Pretty soon though it’s clear that there is more to worker’s death than a simple accident and, what is more, Whelan’s attention is definitely unwanted. And if he won’t drop the case, and walk away, then somebody is prepared to silence him before he discovers the real reason for the death. What should have been a straightforward look-see, instead has him struggling to stay alive.
In many ways Stiff is more of a political satire, than crime novel. Yes, the story charts Whelan’s attempt to uncover the reason for the worker’s death, but this adventure is used as a foil to expose and point fun at the machinations of political wheeler-dealing at the grassroots level. Mahoney is particularly good at detailing the life of an electorate officer - the slippage from ideologue to party hack, the flotsam of constituents, and the tedium of organising local party meetings. In Whelan he has created an interesting character; someone who is world weary, reflexive, crafty, and who has his own unrealised, political ambitions. The other characters are also well drawn and the dialogue realistic. The story itself though is a little contrived and the ending is telegraphed a little too early. All in all, Stiff is an enjoyable read, with enough snide humour and interesting insights into the political and social landscape of Australia in the late 1980s to keep the reader hooked to the end.