The Twentieth Man is the first novel by Australian journalist and broadcaster, Tony Jones. A shocking act of terror, the like of which has never happened in Australia, mars a beautiful spring Saturday in 1972. Two bombs target Yugoslav travel agencies in George Street, Sydney. Despite expert opinion, the Attorney-General of the Liberal Government denies the existence of any evidence suggesting Ustasha, a Croatian extremist group, are involved. Even information from the Yugoslav Government, that a group of Australian-trained and -funded revolutionaries have attempted to infiltrate Bosnia, just two months earlier, does not sway this stance.
Fast forward two months, and a change of Government brings an Attorney General with a very different agenda. Lionel Murphy is determined to know the truth about ASIO’s involvement with the Croats, something that becomes all the more urgent with a death threat against the soon-to-visit Yugoslav Prime Minister.
Young and eager, ABC radio journalist Anna Rosen has been doing her own research on Croatian activities. Her interest was piqued by her abruptly aborted relationship, begun in 1970, with Marin Katich, son of Croat activist (and former Ustasha war criminal), Ivo Katich. Since Marin’s mysterious disappearance, Anna has amassed a comprehensive file of information; whispers of Marin’s involvement in the Bosnian incursion elicit mixed feelings.
The narrative comes from a dozen different perspectives. While much of the story is carried by the main characters, Anna, Marin, Commonwealth Policeman Al Sharp, press secretary George Negus (yes, that George Negus) and ASIO operative Tom Moriarty, the thoughts of minor characters like surveillance technicians, secretaries, members of parliament, bombing witnesses, policemen, ASIO’s deputy director and even the bomber are also heard when convenient. Flashbacks fill in a bit of history as needed.
Jones conveys the mood of early seventies Australia, the prevailing social and political climate, with accuracy (probably) and consummate ease. For readers of a certain vintage, there is an abundance of familiar names, and some nostalgia (no doubt mixed with relief) is bound to result from his rendition of the way it was then, the food and drink, the fashion, the level (read lack) of technical sophistication, the sexist attitudes, the xenophobia. The cameo by a certain well-known comedian is a cute touch. Could it happen in today’s tech-rich world? Probably not, but Jones renders this recent history easily digestible. An excellent political thriller.