Book review: Live Bait, Stephen Sewell

Can a novel succeed when it features a wilfully stupid protagonist?
Live Bait. On the left is an author shot of a grey-haired with grey/white stubble, white man in his 40s/50s sitting at a table outside in the city, with his arms crossed in front of him and wearing a blue suit jacket over a darker blue T shirt. On the right is a book cover of an angler standing in a rushing river with fishing rod out. We can only see from the chest down to the knee and he is wearing a utility belt with a pistol in it.

Stephen Sewell describes his novel, Live Bait, as a ‘slacker suspense thriller satire’. He could have added ‘with a social conscience’ to that description. Given his reputation as a playwright, I looked forward to an enjoyable read by an author whose view of contemporary Australia was likely to be amusing and insightful, with the added bonus of its presentation in the form of a thriller and a coming-of-age romance. I was a little disappointed. 

The central character of Live Bait is Tom Hanson, aptly described by Sewell as an ‘amoral journalist working for a corrupt media organisation intent on manipulating Tasmanian politics.’ Tom is indeed that but also comes across as lazy, selfish and unbelievably stupid. It is this excessive stupidity that makes Tom unrealistic and unlikeable and ultimately irritating.

Most readers will be familiar with one of the greatest satirical works of all time, Don Quixote. Cervantes paints his character as delusional as distinct from stupid, even though he does stupid things. That is one of the reasons why Cervantes was so successful in capturing the reader’s sympathy. However, Tom’s unrelenting stupidity, coupled with his many other unpleasant characteristics, has the effect of reducing the satire to farce.

Having said that, it is only fair to point out that Live Bait is peppered with several passages of shrewd insight such as when Tom points out he doesn’t want to become ‘normal’ like the Aussies we’re all supposed to be, but nobody is’, referring to ‘the consumerist idiots and vain bronzed beasts haunting our nightmares because maybe that’s what we really are after all. The thoughtless yobs just wallowing in it.’                                                                     

Live Bait also bristles with a galaxy of minor characters, from Ms Doom, who knows what you’re thinking before you do, and Heckle and Jeckle – detectives specialising in identity fraud and missing dogs – to the First Nations Uncle Ernie who isn’t black enough for the Japanese visitor. 

But in the main, it takes you on a journey with Tom as he incompetently unravels the mysteries of murdered fishermen, the knots of Tasmanian politics and the conflicting agendas of the Greenies and the loggers and of trout fishers and cricket fanatics. It is further interspersed with Tom’s inconsequential though enjoyable musings. But perhaps because it crammed so full of minor characters and incidents, it moves somewhat too slowly to genuinely engage as a thriller.

Read: Exhibition review: Cutting Through Time – Cressida Campbell, Margaret Preston, and the Japanese Print, Geelong Gallery

Sewell is best known as a successful playwright and as the screenwriter of The Boys. His fans may be prepared to overlook the flaws in Live Bait as in-depth characterisation and fast-paced plotting are not essential to everyone, or they may well be disposed to letting Tom’s stupidity slide or come to root for him in spite of it. But in a crowded marketplace such as crime fiction, albeit fiction with a social conscience, Sewell may find it difficult to bait a significant number of appreciative readers.

Live Bait, Stephen Sewell
Publisher: Magic Lantern Press
Format: Paperback

Pages: 517pp
Publication date: 21 March 2024
RRP: $33.66

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.