Australian women have been writing crime fiction for a long time. The country’s first acknowledged mystery story by a person of any gender was 1865’s Force and Fraud and it was written by proto-feminist Ellen Davitt. There is excellent, though somewhat disheartening, research which suggests that the world’s determination to ignore Australian women writers, or relegate them to some kind of literary backwater, was already well entrenched when Force and Fraud was serialised in the Journal and then virtually forgotten until the mid 1990’s when it was re-issued and later the local chapter of Sisters in Crime established an award for crime writing by Australian women and named it in honour of Davitt. Ostensibly a whodunit about the murder of wealthy station owner Angus McAlpin, Force and Fraud gives an early indication that Australian women writers would use the crime genre to explore important social issues including the role of women in society. In the form of McAlpin’s daughter Flora the story also contains a feisty heroine who refuses to conform to all of society’s strictures for her gender, a tradition of Australian women’s crime writing that continues to this day. [note: a 1993 re-issue of this book by Mulini Press, with an introduction by ‘literary archaeologist’ Lucy Sussex, is reasonably easy to get hold of]
Nearly 200 of the 1400+ reviews posted as part of the inaugural Australian Women Writers challenge were of books that their reviewers considered to be part of the crime or mystery genre though there is a fair amount of cross over with other genres as the books discussed ranged from traditional whodunnits and police procedurals to romantic suspense, historical crime fiction, comic capers and even a gothic ghost story, a yarn that is also part sci-fi and a horror novel. You can easily browse the reviews, relating to 107 books by 62 authors (and one collective of authors featured in anthology of short stories) for yourselves but here I’ll highlight some trends and themes that caught my eye when perusing the reviews.
We love our history
An obvious trend is that historical crime fiction was a very popular kind of crime book to be reviewed by this year’s challenge participants. The two most reviewed authors, Sulari Gentill and Kerry Greenwood, are both best known for their historical series (though in Greenwood’s case some of her modern novels were also reviewed) and their books along, with many of the other historical crime novels reviewed, are set squarely in Australia. In her review of Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, set in 1930’s New South Wales, Isobelle Clare of Brouhaha neatly articulates the appeal of good historical fiction
You can read a list of facts, even a historical document, but to get that sense of what it was to be there – that idea of how people thought, acted, the politics of the day, the class divisions at work – you need a book like A Few Right Thinking Men. This is where fiction has a huge advantage over non-fiction, yet the best books still manage to educate as well as entertain. The phrase “bringing history to life” is overused to the point of cliché, but this is truly what Gentill manages. It’s a fantastic achievement.
Whether it be the austere period following the first world war in Carolyn Morwood’s Death and the Spanish Lady, the hedonistic environment of Kerry Greenwood’s 1920’s-set Cocaine Blues, the wartime worries of 1940’s Perth in Deborah Burrows‘ A Stranger in my Street or the politically turbulent 1990’s Sydney of P.M. Newton’s The Old School it seems Australian women crime writers are embracing the opportunity to examine our history and readers can’t get enough. What I’m thrilled to see is that we’ve finally grasped that Australian history covers more than just the early colonial period which is all it ever seemed to be about in my school days.
We also love love, especially when it’s accompanied by a dose of scary
Psychological thriller/suspense novels with a romantic twist vie with historical fiction as the most popular sub genre of books to be reviewed for this category. Jaye Ford, who took out two of this year’s Davitt Awards with her debut novel Beyond Fear, was a popular choice with Brenda’s review showing a typical reaction to the breathtaking pace and twists in the tale of Ford’s novels. Helene Young’s three romantic suspense novels set in far north Queensland were also popular, with Burning Lies, a novel which depicts the investigation into a series of deliberately lit bushfires, tipping out Young’s other two novels as her most reviewed this year. It seems Young’s choice to use a non-urban location as her backdrop is important to some readers and there can’t be too many Australians who would be unmoved by the subject of the ever-present threat of bushfires. In her review Bree from All the Books I Can Read sums up many readers’ thoughts:
Burning Lies delves into an important issue facing this country: arsonists. We are a country of long droughts at times and high temperatures. Bushfires are a given and they can be absolutely devastating. But time after time, things are made far worse by people deliberately lighting fires for the sheer thrill of watching things burn. Often these result in homes and even lives being lost. It’s hard enough to fight the destruction of nature without adding in. Burning Lies is meticulously researched but with information and scenarios that don’t slow down the pace building at all. The story keeps moving, never pausing, making its way to the dramatic climax that delivers everything promised throughout.
Having our thoughts provoked is good too
As a lifelong fan of the crime genre I’m used to the disdain with which some people view the books I love most and these days I am (usually) mature enough to ignore their jibes, secure in the knowledge that the sneerers don’t know what they’re missing. That doesn’t mean I’m not thrilled when someone who has a stereotypical view of what constitutes the crime genre suddenly realises there’s a heck of a lot more going on than a search for clues in most modern crime novels. I saw this happen a few times in this year’s reviews but no one captures the sentiment better than Yvonne Perkins who started reading P.M. Newton‘s The Old School at breakneck speed but soon realised she had to slow down to enjoy Newton’s ‘delightful prose’, the book’s exploration of identity and its honest depiction of its particular time and place. Yipee I thought, another convert!
Other readers too picked up on the social and political ideas being explored amidst the tropes of crime and suspense novels including
- Virginia Duigan‘s The Precipice is my personal favourite novel discovered during the challenge not least because it contains that most unlikely being – a woman over 60 who isn’t a cuddly grandmother type hiding in the background of someone else’s story.
- Wendy James‘ The Mistake which goes deep into many territories including the moral dilemma of an unwanted baby and modern society’s rush to judgement of guilt or innocence based on nonsense provided by the media
- Sylvia Johnson‘s Watch Out for Me uses the backdrop of a 1960’s kidnapping to deftly depict the changes in Australian society over the past few decades, with a particular emphasis on those wrought by our post-September 11 2001 focus on security at any cost
- Deb Kandelaars‘ Memoirs of a Suburban Girl, a second-person, present tense story about a woman living in an environment of sustained domestic violence which Janine Rizzetti found claustrophobic and unsettling in its realistic depiction of this frighteningly common phenomenon
- Finola Moorhead‘s Still Murder is a prize-winning novel that very deliberately uses the genre’s tropes to address issues important to its author, in particular the use of violence and rape against women though Marilyn from Me, You, and Books is quick to point out that while in this novel “Moorhead has certainly not retreated from her radical feminism… she expresses it in a story more accessible to general readers”.
- Caroline Overington‘s Matilda is Missing garnered quite a few reviews even though most readers weren’t sure what genre to include it in. Still, in telling the story of a bitter marriage breakup and the legal wrangling surrounding custody of the couple’s young daughter it made for compelling reading and reviewer Rachael Johns wasn’t alone in not knowing what decision should have been made in Matilda’s interests. You can’t help but feel for the people who must make those kinds of decisions in the real world.
- Nicole Watson‘s The Boundary which Linda from Newton Review of Books says uses the backdrop of an investigation into the death of a judge who has ruled on an Aboriginal land rights claim to provide “…a vivid picture of Brisbane past and present, wrapped up in a page-turning thriller. Polemical, passionate and deeply felt, it is a novel of irresistible energy and an urgent cry for justice“. It is also an example of the kind of book that might never again be published as one of the newly elected Queensland Premier’s first activities upon attaining office was to cut all funding to the awards program that nurtured this publication to life. But I digress.
I found it fascinating that the crime book which attracted the widest array of opinions was Y.A. Erskine‘s 2011 novel The Brotherhood, which definitely falls into the thought–provoking category. It tells the story of the shooting of a Tasmanian policeman and there aren’t many hot button topics it doesn’t touch on including police resourcing, race relations, the modern media’s role in reportage and a bunch more besides. I suppose it just makes a truth of the old adage that no two people read the same book as it garnered this disappointed review as well as this satisfied one and a range of thoughts in between these extremes. I guess you can’t ask for more than that from one book.
We still like to travel
One of the things which surprised me about this challenge was that a vast majority of the reviewed books were set in Australia. I guess I had expected more of them to take place overseas because several of our best known crime writers (male or female) do set their novels overseas, especially the UK and America (e.g. Michael Robotham, Barry Maitland, P.D. Martin). Even though this is obviously a changing trend there is still a place for the Australian perspective on foreign settings which seems quite natural given our penchant for travel. A couple that stand out from the year’s crop of reviews are:
- Malla Nunn‘s series of novels set in 1950’s South Africa, just as the apartheid system is being created and enforced, had a strong showing with Marilyn from Me, You, and Books saying of A Beautiful Place to Die
Even those who usually shun mysteries will enjoy this exploration of how people react when rigid color lines are supposed to divide them. Nunn’s characters are surprising, but believable, individuals who reveal both love and cruelty within themselves. They don’t always make the choices we would prefer, but ones which make sense within the limitations of their lives
- Angela Savage‘s The Half Child is set in Thailand and features an expat Aussie heroine. AWW challenge creator Elizabeth Lhuede recommends the book to “readers who enjoy tom-boy Aussie female ‘anti-hero’ protagonists, quirky humour and exotic settings, and who don’t mind their detective stories giving them something more to think about than your average mystery“
- Felicity Young’s A Dissection of Murder explores sibling relationships and the hardships of being a female doctor in early 1900’s England and Tseen Khoo thought “Young’s deft touch with historical detail and social mores was enticing. She forewent slabs of exposition for tightly drawn scenes with telling conversations (loved those), non-intrusive urban context, and political conflict as demonstrated through personal relations and prejudices“. I Couldn’t agree more.
We also like to chuckle
A final trend that I feel duty bound to comment on, given the serious nature of most of the books under discussion here, is that Australian women can write light-hearted and funny crime and mystery fiction too. It’s hard to ignore a title like Mad Men, Bad Girls and The Guerilla Knitters Institute from Maggie Groff and Shelleyrae from Book’d Out convinces me that this tale of a freelance journalist investigating an American religious cult setting up business on the Gold Coast is a great romp. Unorthodox private investigators feature strongly in this category with Marianne Delacourt‘s Tara Sharp and Leigh Redhead‘s Simone Kirsch both featuring in reviews of their comic caper tales.
Crimes happen in the real world too
True crime is a whole different ball game from crime fiction and something I shy away from in my personal reading (and watching, I think I’m the only person in the country who hasn’t watched an episode of Underbelly) but it would be remiss of me not to include some analysis of the true crime books that were reviewed as part of this year’s challenge. Really though the most noticeable trend here is that I am clearly not alone in eschewing real crime for its fictional counterpart as there weren’t a lot of true crime books reviewed. However, a couple did stand out:
- Hilary Bonner’s The Double Life of Herman Rockefeller which details the rather sordid death of a Melbourne millionaire at the hands of a pair of swingers. I found it interesting that reviewer Simone at Great Aussie Reads thought the book good but lacking any insight into why such a man would allow himself to get caught up in the sordid games that cost him his life. In the best crime fiction we’d get the answers to the why question, but in true crime (as in life) the reasons for such things often remain a complete mystery.
- Helen Cummings‘ Blood Vows - a memoir of a woman who was the first wife of a man who ultimately killed his second wife and their daughter. Brenda’s review makes it sound like a gut-wrenching tale of living with a man prone to fits of rage.
- Vikki Petraitis‘ The Frankston Serial Killer was reviewed by fellow writer Amra Pajalic who praised Petrait’s for getting “…into the heads of the police, grieving parents, and chart[ing] the way the community changed with the realisation of a monster in its midst, fuelled by sensationalist headlines and a media hungry for a new spin.“
This last review sums up beautifully the difference between crime fiction and true crime
In a fiction novel the murderer is captured, the family of the victim gets closure and even though still suffering, are able to stoically move forward. Vikki shows that in real life the story does not end when a murderer is captured and imprisoned. Instead the victims are forever frozen in time, while family and friends are forever changed by their loss
Indeed. I read crime fiction because it allows me to pretend none of the nasty, horrible things it depicts have ever actually happened. If I started reading true crime I’d have to start being honest with myself and surely that way madness lies.
What does it all mean?
One of the reviews I bookmarked early in this challenge was Jason Nahrung’s review of Katherine Howell‘s novel Frantic which tells the tale of Sophie, a Sydney paramedic, whose husband is shot and son kidnapped in the first pages of the novel. It struck me that Jason had hit upon something important when he wrote
It’s a methodical tale, competently told, with attention to detail — leaves in drains, the smell of food — and no grandstanding. Marconi [the novel’s detective] is neither Sherlock Holmes nor Dirty Harry. Sophie is not an action hero. Chris is not Chuck Norris. No one gets out unscathed or unaffected, not even Marconi. That down-to-earth approach is perhaps the novel’s most endearing feature.
I think this sensibility runs through a lot of writing by Australian women crime writers who are, for the most part, writing Australian stories. Our stories. The realism, the undercurrent of humour, the down-to-earth nature, the almost anti-hero like qualities of the protagonists that Jason recognises in the one novel are, I think, mirrored in many of the other books read and reviewed for this challenge. A recurring theme in dozens of the reviews is that local readers loved reading about people like them, living in locations they recognised, with characters occasionally strolling a street the reader knew intimately. Those foreign readers taking part in the challenge reported enjoying gaining a sense of this Australian-ness).
I think one other conclusion I can safely draw is that crime and mystery writing by Australian women is in fine form with any of these authors (and the many others I didn’t have room to mention individually) being able to be favourably compared to their male and/or international brethren. In fact the only common lament (that I’m sure crosses all the genres) was from overseas readers who struggled to get hold of many of the books being discussed and reviewed as part of the challenge. I don’t think I posted a single review that didn’t elicit at least one comment or email from someone overseas who was tempted to read the book but was unable to get hold of a copy in their country. Perhaps that’s our next challenge as a community of avid readers and promoters: to drag our publishing industry into the 21st century and stop all this faffing about with territorial copyright?
In the interim stay tuned for monthly wrap-ups of crime / mystery / thriller / suspense news and reviews from the 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge (which it is not too late to join). And remember…crime writing may not be what you think it is.
I’m Bernadette Bean. I’ve been reading avidly for as long as I can remember, blogging about reading since late 2008 at Reactions to Reading and co-hosting Fair Dinkum Crime, a site devoted to promoting and discussing Australian crime fiction, for the past couple of years. I read and reviewed 18 books as part of my own participation in the 2012 challenge. Some of them weren’t even crime novels!