Australian Crime Fiction: A 200-Year History (2018) by Stephen Knight

Apologies for being somewhat absent this week on the blog. Although I was supposed to be reading Juanita Sheridan’s What Dark Secret (1943), I decided mid-week to read this title instead. I was in the mood for reading some non-fiction and I also thought it might work better with the more fragmented reading time I had.

This book is an updated version of Knight’s earlier work, Continent of Mystery: A Thematic History of Crime Fiction (1997) and it covers 254 authors and 645 books. Australian crime fiction, in this text, is defined as: ‘stories that are focused, at least in significant part, on Australia, its citizens, their concerns and contexts. As in other countries, there are books by local writers dealing with world issues, with a large number set in England, Europe, America and increasingly in Asia; these are only noted here when there is some reference back to Australia.’ In the introduction he sets out, in brief, the trajectory, roots and influences of Australian crime fiction. All of which I found highly interesting to read.

Divided into five sections, the book begins with the earliest stories in the early 1800s and runs to the First World War. Given how Australia was used to contain many British criminals, through the transportation system, the convict experience is fundamental to the foundations of Australian crime fiction. Often such works would be based on the writer’s own experiences. Knight notes that:

‘Early stories, published both in the convict-oriented colony and in London, where they chimed with growing fictional interest in English criminality, dealt with two elements of the convict experience, the harshly convicted person who suffered under the system […] and the bolder figure who escapes and runs free, the mythic bushranger…’

This section explores a variety of texts which explore the convict experience and its harsh realities. Understandably crime fiction was used as a way of looking back at the convict system and its flaws, with prisoners being portrayed in a sympathetic manner. However, one point which particularly fascinated me was the idea that these stories confirmed ‘in literature the long-standing Australian feeling for the underdog and against the authorities especially the police.’ Knight, when discussing the shifting interest to urban-set mysteries in the 1870s, strongly emphasises how:

‘Police appear in most of these urban mysteries, but they do not play the leading even heroic role, that had emerged in mid-century English short stories [… Mary] Fortune had a seen a place for thoughtful police, and later Australian women writers would agree, but the dramatic national memory of convictism clearly turned the male authors for many decades against any real authority for police detectives.’

This idea grabbed my attention because of how it diverges from the history of the fictional detective in England. I also came across the intriguing term of the squatter thriller. In Australia a ‘squatter’ ‘is a socially elevated term meaning someone who settles on and exploits extensive lands, usually without payment to government, and certainly without any recompense to the indigenous previous owners.’

Alongside the squatter thriller, stories focusing on free settlers also sprung up, offering a different viewpoint to the convict texts. These stories though similarly came out of writers’ own personal histories and the criminal incidences and encounters these narratives include, are frequently interspersed with more non-fiction commentaries on a wide range of subjects relevant to the settlers’ life. This mix might seem odd to us today and we would also probably find the nature of the material quite melodramatic. Though in part the drama of these stories is not necessarily exaggerated.

In conjunction with convicts being regarded more favourably, crime fiction at this time also often showed criminal characters as holding a personal code of honour and this had the effect of bringing equality across a range of characters of different races in these stories. Perhaps because the authorities were the common enemy.

Another important historical factor which Knight brings up is the discovery of gold in Australia in 1851. This discovery not only lead to an increase in the amount of fictional reading material available, but it also weaved its way into the crime stories of the day, as gold mining initiated new types of crime. One writer Knight focuses on at this point is Mary Fortune, who published over 500 stories. Looking at some of her stories from the 1860s it is interesting to see the continuing development of the genre as her work often contains tropes we are familiar with today. For example, in ‘The Dead Witness,’ a character solves a case using evidence from a photograph, whilst ‘In the Cellar,’ includes a dying message. Moreover, in ‘Circumstantial Evidence’ we see a very fallible detective whose reasoning and interpretation of clues is proved to be completely wrong.

 

Other facts of interest from this section include:

  • Ellen Davitt is said to have a strong claim for ‘being the first female crime novelist.’ Her novel Force and Fraud (1865-6) is a squatter thriller and legal mystery and Knight notes that it has a ‘clear awareness of the developed English crime fiction tradition.’ Like Collins’ The Woman in White (1860), there is an artist hero similar to Walter Hartright and in keeping with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) there is a missing witness sequence.
  • Despite The Mystery of a Hansom Cab being a bestseller, its writer Fergus Hume only received £50 for the copyright. If he had had royalties, he could have gained ‘up to £2000 within a year.’
  • Hume Nisbet wrote the story, Bail Up: A Romance of Bushrangers and Blacks (1891), which is set in Queensland and has a Chinese detective named Wung-Ti. I am wondering whether this book could be credited as featuring the first Chinese detective.
  • J. Vogan wrote the novel The Black Police (1890), as a way of criticising ‘the treatment he saw of indigenous people, especially by the Queensland Native Police.’ In this you could say he was ahead of his time, not least because the responses he got to his work ‘were mostly dismissive.’
  • W. Horning may be a name familiar to many and due to poor health he spent time in Australia, which lead to stories such as The Rogue’s March (1896), which contains his creation Stingaree the gentleman bushranger, which Knight describes as ‘an ironic combining of national stereotypes, equipped with gun and tough associate as well as jodhpurs and a monocle.’

In section 2 of this history, Knight focuses on crime fiction set between 1915 and 1945 and he notes that this period ‘saw relatively few female writers.’ One of the important historical factors for this time period was the creation of the Traditional Market Agreement, which was formed between the UK and Australia after WW1, lasting until 1976. This prohibited countries such as America from publishing within Australia and in turn limited how well Australian crime fiction was promoted globally. The agreement also led to several crime fiction writers moving to England and to use England as a setting for their own books. Knight argues that the ending of this agreement enabled Australian crime writers to more effectively create their own voice.

The reluctance to use a police detective as the central hero was still a factor during this interwar period and one consequence of this was for writers to turn to the private eye, a subgenre which is still hugely popular today in Australia. During WW2 local publishing houses in Australia popped up to cater for US servicemen who were visiting while on leave. They could not buy American books in the country due to the agreement, so these publishers tried to create their own variety of the hard boiled/private eye novel.

Unsurprisingly some time is also spent in this chapter looking at the work of Arthur Upfield, who was the ‘first Australia-based author to be elected to the Mystery Writers Guild of America’ in 1962. It was interesting to see how Upfield did not fully commit to his series character Bony straight away, often trying out non-series novels instead. Not having read many of Upfield’s books I did not realise how often Bony delivers his own brand of justice. In exploring this writer’s work Knight includes more analysis than he does elsewhere providing a variety of opinions on Upfield’s detective and whether he is ‘a racist simplification, a rural fantasy, a rejection of the real issues, or a sympathetic contemporary treatment of indigenous issues and qualities.’

Section two also considers the use of setting in Australian crime fiction during this period and Knight suggests that:

‘Around this time emerged the curious double structure of setting in Australian crime novels published in England: apparently to please readers some novels had almost no setting at all, just announced they were from Sydney or Melbourne and proceeded through a bland location-free narrative. Others, for more curious readers, were notably touristic, rich with bush or seaside detail – and it was strikingly common for the country itself to avenge the crime, with the villain dying in a flood or a bushfire, or from falling over a huge cliff.’

Other interesting facts from this section include:

  • Errol Flynn who was born in Tasmania, penned an adventure thriller set on an island off northern Australia called Showdown (1946).
  • J. M. Walsh was dubbed the ‘Australian Edgar Wallace’ and I found it interesting how when he wrote a story, he would usually publish it twice, only changing the location from Australia to London, or vice versa.
  • Frank Walford’s novel Twisted Clay (1933) was called by his publishers ‘a New Dracula’ and he was compared to Sheridan LeFanu.
  • Murder Pie (1936) ed. By Jean Ranken and Jane Clunies Ross was akin to the Detection Club’s The Floating Admiral (1931). The editors ‘persuaded fourteen Australian writers to join them in a murder mystery in which an academic secretary’s body is found in a lake in the university park’. Unfortunately, it is not particularly praised.
  • The Test Match Murder (1938) by Denzil Batchelor has a cricketer die on his way to the wicket. ‘There is a poisoned pin in a finger of his batting glove, which he drew on as he walks out.’

Section three then considers Australian crime fiction’s move towards independence, covering the years between 1946 and 1979. This is a time period I was very interested in as I was wondering whether I would find any new authors to read. Despite private-eye novels being prolifically produced, other writing styles are still present and thankfully the post-war period brought about a significant increase in the number of female writers. Quite a few of these authors were familiar to me such as Charlotte Jay and Patricia Carlon.

I was interested to read more about the sisters who wrote under the name Margot Neville, having read their novel Murder of Olympia (1956), last Christmas. Although I was a little disappointed that the book doesn’t reference how this title was serialised in a newspaper and was the basis for a competition to win tickets to the Melbourne Olympics. (Click here for my post on it). However, Knight comments that:

 ‘In general the Goyder sisters are notable in Australia for two developmental features in Australian crime fiction. For most of their novels, they adopted police detectives without difficulty, and they also began to use Australian settings as a natural, unstressed element of their work, without the strange silence of the zero-setting novels or the exaggerated touristic contexts evidently attractive to English publishers.’

Hopefully at some point I will be able to read more by these two writers.

Naturally my ears pricked up when June Wright was mentioned, given my love of her work, and the fact I spoke about her at the Bodies from the Library conference last year. Therefore I was a little bit irked by one of Knight’s comments on The Devil’s Caress, which is inaccurate. Knight writes that the heroine, Marsh, ‘can link up with the handsome man she first met galloping his horse along the cliffs’ at the end of the book. Yet the complete opposite happens, and a key point of Wright’s book is that the happy ever ending is not guaranteed for a woman who also wishes to pursue a career. That aside, one author I am keen to try now is Pat Flower, so I have two of her books on order.

Knight also considers at the end of this chapter non-Australian mystery writers who set their books in Australia, so this concluding section makes reference to the likes of Andrew Garve, Hammond Innes, John Creasey, Dulcie Gray, Robert Barnard and Max Murray. It is a pity the sisters, Constance and Gwenyth Little were not included in section 3. Most of their books are set in the US, but I have read at least one which is set in Australia and the setting seems more pertinent to plot, than in some of the books included.

At this point we’re less than halfway through the book and already we’re on to section 4, which is subtitled: Australia Stands Alone and it deals with the 1980s and 1990s. Despite only tackling two decades it comprises 80 pages of the book. This section and section 5 now routinely organise their information around the different types of subgenres/writing styles, with considerable page space being given to private eyes.  As you can tell I have very little to say about this section, as it did not hugely interest me. Though I definitely had my opinion confirmed that modern crime fiction is not for me. One exception which is included in section 4 is Jennifer Rowe’s Verity Birdwood.

The final section of this book, another long one, deals with the years between 2000 and 2017 and once more the unremitting violence and graphic nature of the books presented in this volume, reinforce my preference for older crime fiction. However, I did find it interesting that ‘the amateur detective has in Australian crime fiction, as in American, been more of a rarity than in Britain.’ There are some examples by Goldie Alexander and Kerry Greenwood, but from this chapter I concluded that there doesn’t seem to be an extensive range of Australian cozy mysteries. But if anyone knows better let me know! There was also one bizarre point in this section where Knight writes that:

‘Some locally-set stories do not really qualify as crime fiction through the simplicity and action-based nature of their progress, like Noel Mealey’s drug-focused police adventures…’

I think like saying if it doesn’t ‘really qualify’ why include it? Though I am impressed that a police adventure cannot be written in such a way that it can’t be regarded as crime fiction…

Final Thoughts

My lack of interest in post 1980 crime fiction, naturally meant that nearly 50% of the book contained little to maintain my attention. But that doesn’t mean it is a bad book, as someone who really enjoys modern crime fiction would find that half of the text more useful.

However, the approach this book takes to giving a history of Australian crime fiction has two fairly big problems. The first of these issues is its stance on giving spoilers. In the introduction Knight outlines when he will or won’t reveal a spoiler. He writes that: ‘the commentary avoids exposing solutions to the mysteries that authors pose, though when, as in crime novels and psychothrillers, there is no specific puzzle, this restraint has not been observed.’

Having read the book my short response is this:

If you read this book prepare to have easily 95% of titles spoilt. Identities of killers are revealed all over the shop. Surely even with a crime novel or psychothriller you don’t want that ruined for you? Major plot surprises are also given.

So why does Knight include so many surprises and solutions? Well that in part is linked to the second big problem of this book. Again 95% or even more of this book is devoted to giving plot description after plot description. This book could be more accurately labelled as a catalogue of synopses, and in the main there is very minimal critiquing or commenting on them. When there is, this increasingly becomes generic, with the same phrases being used over. Part way through this book I did begin to wonder whether it was accurate to call this book a history, simply because it puts its’ plot synopses in chronological order. The introduction in fairness, does a great job of summing up the changes and developments in the genre in Australia, but to be honest a lot of the later chapters do little to add to what the introduction has already said.

A key issue with this over-focusing on plot descriptions is that the book quickly becomes dull and monotonous, not least because all of the plot descriptions begin to blur into one after a while. This was especially the case with the novels post 1980 which were very hard to differentiate, and it left me wondering what these synopses were adding to the book. There are also moments where someone like Max Afford, only gets two of his detective novels mentioned in one paragraph, whilst another obscure author like Hilda Bridges, whose works are typified as being adventure stories with loose mysteries, getting over a page and half of plot descriptions. The inconsistency over who gets more written about them and who does not is a little baffling.

All in all, I was disappointed in this book. It held great promise early on, but I found the lack of analysis a consistent weakness in the study. I was also sad that I did not come away with more authors I wanted to try.

Rating: 2/5 (Though this score is naturally influenced by my lack of interest in later crime fiction)

So if you have any Australian authors you wish to recommend to me let me know!

11 comments

  1. Very interesting review, Kate, even if the book was disappointing. A book that is little more than a collection of synopses of mysteries not only is bound to spoil, but also becomes boring very quickly in my opinion.

    The two bits that I found most interesting had to do with the long shadow of history: how a nation that grew out of a penal colony developed a persistent strong taste against regular police protagonsists in its mystery fiction, and how the British Publishers’ Traditional Market Agreement ended up affecting what kinds of mystery books were written where and for what audience, and hence the content of mystery books.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post Kate. Always interesting to learn about the history of the genre in countries outside of the UK/US. Sad that the author chooses to spoil the outcome of the novels they’re writing about though.

    You mentioned (based on the author’s comments) the “Australian cozy” and the seeming lack of. Sulari Gentill is the author of the Rowland Sinclair series (set in Australia in the 1930s). She incorporates historical aspects of the time very well, and they are really quite good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The name Rowland Sinclair does ring a bell. I think it was mentioned in the book, but then everything did start to blur after a while! Good to know it is a series worth seeking out. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled. (Not that my TBR pile needs any more books at the moment!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for such a great review. Well written and fair to the author, with your personal preferences explained. It was a pleasure to read such a humorous but fair and germane review. I share your preference for older writers without all the graphic and unnecessary violence. It’s not necessary in a mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

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