The post that follows is adapted from a talk I gave at the Bodies from the Library Conference in 2019 and it predominately focuses on The Murder at the Telephone Exchange (1948), So Bad a Death (1949) and The Devil’s Caress (1953). This version on my blog is a slightly extended one, including some material which did not make it into the final talk due to time constraints.
During her career Australian crime writer June Wright was so often talked about less for her writing talent and more for domestic management skills, that Lucy Sussex described her as a ‘housewife superstar.’
In an era in which the expectation for women to be domestic angels battled with individuals who wished to have a career, it is not surprising that the press painted June Wright as the ideal solution to the cultural conflict, as if her early contemporary interviews and reviews are to be believed, she really did manage to do it all, (minus having a social life). Getting up at 5:30 on washdays and taking care of her increasing number of infant children and her home, with no outside help throughout the day, she would finally get the chance to do some writing when they had gone to bed by 8pm that night, in fact writing every night except one day a week, which Esme Johnson in Women’s Day wrote at the time, was ‘the night sacred to the family ironing.’
Such a standard of womanhood was regarded as inspirational by many contemporary newspapers, though their articles invariably commented more on her than her work. The headlines for some of these articles can be seen opposite; all revelling in this miraculous feat that a housewife could actually write a really good book, without her children suffering severe neglect. In fact, one article in The Advocate in 1948 writes that: ‘Since the first publicity about the book appeared, there’s been plenty of discussion about Mrs Wright. And I don’t mean discussion of the merits of her work, I mean discussion of her own life.’ Yet despite this insight the article follows its forebears and discusses, you guessed it, June Wright’s domestic talents.
Looking at Wright’s daily routine, working mothers reading this post may be feeling a level of empathy for her. Or maybe you feel a little intimated? After all, one article in 1948 summed Wright up in this way: ‘At 28, Mrs Wright looks like a French mannequin, keeps a nine-roomed house bright and shining does all the washing, ironing, cooking and most of the sewing for her quartet of bonny youngsters.’ Whilst The Sun in the same year said Wright was an ‘inspiration to those mothers and housewives who submit to the daily round and lament their inability and lack of time, to do any work of a mentally stimulating nature.’ And to cap it all off, another newspaper article of the time wrote that, ‘Women who complain that they cannot do the household chores without help should consider Mrs Wright.’Moreover, if you were to focus on what Wright says of her own busy life and of the lives of other mothers, you might be forgiven for wanting to go around to her house and hit her on the nose. In an article aptly entitled: ‘She Never Wastes a Minute!’ she is said to point out that ‘many women, who are anxious for careers forget that they voluntarily undertook the privileges and responsibilities of marriage; they complain that they are so tied down by family cares that they have no time for other interests. She is more inclined to think that they don’t really want other interests.’ I don’t know about you, but is anyone else’s sympathy waning a little?
But how much did Wright buy into the ideals she espoused? Comparing the sentiments she expressed in these newspaper articles from the 1940s, with what she reveals in her later interviews of the 1990s, as well as her later novels, a glimmer of doubt begins to emerge. Was this image of the perfect mother an inescapable façade Wright chose to go along with, as part of her selling point as an author?
For the remainder of this post I am going to running my comments on her actual life in tandem with the books she wrote, honing in on three texts in particular: The Murder in the Telephone Exchange, So Bad a Death and The Devil’s Caress, which at their core all tackle the role of women in society, especially the latter two. So without further ado let’s start from the very beginning…
Wright was born on 29th June 1919 in Malvern, Victoria and christened Dorothy June Healy. She was still at school when her writing potential first appeared, receiving a prize from Australian journalist P. I. O’Leary in a children’s newspaper writing competition. One of her first jobs was at the Central Telephone Exchange in Melbourne, a setting which is made full use of in her debut novel. In 1941, aged 22, she married Stewart Wright, a cost accountant. They would go on to have 6 children, but it was soon after the birth of her first born, Patrick, in 1943, that she began writing her first novel: The Murder in the Telephone Exchange. Whilst he was sleeping, she completed her first novel within 6 weeks, but it went no further until a year later when she was putting some vegetable scraps into some newspaper. It was within the paper that she saw the advertisement for an international literary competition by the London publisher Hutchinson. Anthony Berkeley, John Creasey and Dennis Wheatley were to be the judges. The results were announced in 1945 and whilst no book was felt to be deserving of the full prize money of £1000, a number of entries, including Wright’s novel were selected to be published, with The Murder in the Telephone Exchange garnering a great deal of Australian press coverage. Adelaide newspaper, The Advertiser, even went as far as claiming that Wright’s novel outsold Agatha Christie in 1948!
The Murder in the Telephone Exchange is an ambitious debut written retrospectively by protagonist and amateur sleuth Maggie Byrnes. The murder she is drawn to investigate takes place at her workplace, the Melbourne telephone exchange and the victim is a supervisor called Sarah Compton. She is that well-known victim type, the manipulative busybody who pries into other people’s business. The murder weapon is an unusual one, a buttinsky, (a gadget used to interrupt telephone conversations), with which she is bashed to death. I think Wright was proud of this device, recalling it as ‘unique in the history of murder instruments. Just imagine the mess that sort of [thing] would make of anyone’s face.’ Whilst the police are hampered by suspects, including Maggie, withholding information, further death follows and even Maggie’s own life is threatened, though the sequel to this book prevents any anxiety that these threats will be successful.
As well as the unusual murder weapon, June Wright was also keen to emphasise the Melbourne setting of the piece and in an article for Woman’s Day, she said that: ‘It is time we stopped being self-conscious about our own environment’ and Wright saw ‘no reason why Russell Street police headquarters should not become as well-known (fictionally speaking) as Scotland Yard.’ She even went as far as claiming that her novel was the first Melbourne set detective novel since Fergus Hume’s Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886), a writer which incidentally her grandfather knew. Whether this claim is true has not been verified, but in interviews of both the 40s and 90s her knowledge and experience of home-grown Australian crime writers seems lacking, with her attention much more focused on English and American authors.
In an interview with Lucy Sussex in 1996, Wright talked about why she wanted to set her first novel at the telephone exchange and she said that she found it ‘a very exciting place to be in, because all sorts of dramatic things could and did happen’ and she ‘thought the best way to convey that sense of drama and urgency was to put it into the context of a murder story.’ Yet it is interesting to see how many of the early reviews and articles misleadingly mark this title as a thriller. I think this is perhaps due to the Mignon Eberhart, woman in peril vibe, that the story sometimes takes. Nevertheless this book is so much more than that, often actually playing around with the expectations that the Had-I-But-Known school of mystery writing evoked. And without giving away any spoilers I would say this tale is a very clever whodunnit, which slips several misleading phrases past the reader. At this early stage in her writing career Wright was committed to the more traditional detective novel style, saying in one interview that ‘writing detective fiction is slow work … You must drop your clues, like stitches, on the way out, and pick them up neatly in a pattern when you’re coming in. The clues give the reader a chance and you mustn’t fool him with any trickery… You must have a plausible plot and the murderer must get an honourable mention early in the book, although you never let the reader into his mental processes. There must be no coincidences or unaccountable solutions…In a word, detective stories are no pushover.’ The feminine imagery of this statement marries well with Wright’s conception that housewives are suited to the skilled work of a writer, commenting in the Radio Times in 1948, that such women ‘are naturally practical, disciplined and used to monotony – three excellent attributes for the budding writer.’
Returning to The Murder in the Telephone Exchange and the earlier posed theme of women in Wright’s work, this debut novel is a very feminine focused mystery, from the suspects and victims, to its amateur sleuth and this is partially because telephone exchanges in those days mainly employed women, with less frequent men placed in more senior positions. Yet Maggie Brynes in the story provides a different slant on the gender imbalance, claiming that: ‘It is a strange, but true, fact that the stronger sex invariably make poor telephonists; perhaps because the work calls for a mind that can deal with several things at once, and that is a feminine trait only.’ But it is undoubtedly Maggie’s experience and knowledge of the workings of the exchange which give her an edge in the sleuthing stakes.
But what is Maggie like? One reviewer of 1949 describes her as the ‘most candid woman in contemporary crime records’ and whilst I would disagree with the remainder of this reviewer’s patronising comments, I would concur that Maggie takes a very blunt approach to sleuthing. For example, in recounting one interview with a suspect she says, ‘I had made up my mind to be without mercy until I had got what I wanted,’ whilst to another she says in a late night restaurant ‘Choke it down… and get on with your story.’ However, this last encounter becomes particularly disturbing when the suspect in question is later found dead, an assumed suicide and Maggie has to confront herself and her approach towards others as a consequence, though of course, as is common in mystery fiction, not all is as it seems… Maggie’s coolness of manner is also directed to the murder she is investigating. Whilst she might have fainted when discovering Sarah’s body, she reflects afterwards that since she ‘never cared much for the woman,’ that ‘the situation might prove exciting and intriguing’ and later on quite happily says that ‘this detecting business has given me quite a thirst.’
It is unsurprising that the police in the book don’t know how to handle her. Then again she does not help herself, as when asked ‘How do you think you will stand up to a few questions, Miss Margaret Byrnes?,’ she calmly replies, ‘It all depends what they are about.’ It nearly goes without saying that the police view her with suspicion, a suspicion Maggie tackles head on when they complain about her reluctance to help them. She points out to them that ‘until now, you have been treating me as a suspect. It is no wonder that I am not quite sure of my role.’ So in a way her position as amateur sleuth is one which she grows into as the plot progresses and it is a process she is quite self-conscious of, saying that, ‘I feel like Jekyll and Hyde. Two personalities. Only mine are not quite so sinister; one detective, and the other a hardworking telephonist.’ Interestingly this is a duality of roles, which goes on to double even further in her second case. There are some adverse comments about Maggie’s sleuthing role, mostly by catty colleagues, but the few male characters also contribute suggesting that she ‘better leave these things to people who know how to handle them’ and that she should ‘stay in’ her ‘own sphere.’ Yet I feel this sort of gendered antagonism is much more pronounced in Wright’s later books.
Given her blunt approach to questioning people and the consequences this has, as well as Maggie’s withholding of information from the police, due to friendship loyalties, the reader is left with the question of whether she did slow down the case being solved, that she did hamper the men on the job, as Dorothy L. Sayers puts it in her earlier piece on female sleuths. Whilst this is very much up for debate in this book, this seems less the case in her second investigation…
The writing process for her second novel, So Bad a Death, was more of a protracted affair. June Wright began writing it soon after completing her first novel, then pregnant with her second child, but she did not get very far. Domestic life demanded a great deal of her attention and in an interview with Lucy Sussex, she said that ‘your vitality as a mother is used on your children, and a similar vitality is needed for writing. It’s an exhausting business. Writing is almost as exhausting as looking after children. It’s an emotional exhaustion.’Yet her experiences as a mother provided the fuel for this second piece and arguably it can be seen as an emotional outlet for the frustration and irritation she may have been feeling. This is evidenced in the alternative title for this book, Who Would Murder a Baby? When asked about this title, which her publishers had rejected, she cheerily replies that, ‘Obviously you know nothing of the homicidal instincts sometimes aroused in a mother!’
In Maggie’s second and final outing, she has married Sergeant Matheson, who was one of the investigating officers from the previous novel and now has a 2 year old son. Yet murder soon re-enters her life when she and her family move to a cottage on the “estate” of Holland Hall, which is in the suburbs. As the book progresses we find out more about the difficult inhabitants of Holland Hall and it is not long before odd things begin to happen: a disappearance, an increasingly sick child whose grandfather prevents the local health care professionals from examining him and last but not least murder! Like in her previous case Maggie rushes head long into danger, but the reader has to find out whether this decision will have repercussions for her own child.
This novel was serialised in Woman’s Day; a magazine whose articles often reflected the issues and maternal concerns that Wright brings up in the book. This was no minor achievement for Wright, as this publication serialised Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood the year before. The arrival of her second novel arguably put June in the spotlight, as aside from newspaper interviews, she was also appearing in radio talks and made some TV appearances. She even began speaking at Housewives Association events. Again we are faced with this I-can-do-it-all persona and if you look at Maggie Byrnes in Wright’s first two novels, you can argue for a parallel between the creator and her creation, as even once she has left her job to become a housewife and mum, it’s not long before Maggie adds sleuthing to her daily routine.
This is a rich novel thematically and the reader has to be wary of making superficial assumptions, especially when it comes to the role of women in this piece. It is so easy to blithely suggest that it endorses stereotypical notions of femininity and the woman’s role. Maggie herself does not seem to seek work and genuinely loves looking after her child. Her blunt and forward nature also means she is eager to proffer unsolicited childcare advice on to other mothers. In particular she is vehemently against babies being given dummies, happily discarding these items without parental consent. But is this brashness a masking for Wright’s own insecurities? In an interview with Lucy Sussex she opened up that there was an immense pressure to raise your child up the right way, saying ‘we were all very conscientious mothers, bringing up our babies and caring for our children according to the book.’ Whilst in 1997, she said that ‘marriage, motherhood and the suburban lifestyle were not enough – though one would never have dared to voice such sentiments then.’ This was very true of June herself, as in the 1940s she was singing a very different tune, declaring in newspaper interviews that ‘being a wife is my number one career and that’s that.’
Nevertheless, to pigeon hole this book by its childcare focus, or even its’ continuation of gothic HIBK sequences, first found in the Wright’s debut novel, would be to miss the much darker point this book is making. It is not for nothing that Lucy Sussex, in her introduction for the Verse Chorus Press reprint of this title writes that, ‘patriarchy takes a pounding in the novel, as more implicitly, does maternal dependency, the ideal of the stay-at-home mother.’
Patriarchy has quite a feudal shell in this story. Mr Holland, owner of Holland Hall, is the landlord to most of the businesses and dwellings in the suburb, yet his role is described as that of a ‘squire’ and it is said that he ‘held a tight grip on the village and its inhabitants.’ His subsequent role as murder victim, is therefore not at all surprising and his death undoubtedly provides space and freedom for his ideologies and attitudes to be unpicked. His toxic patriarchal attitudes certainly encroach upon the women within his household, going as far as imposing a surgical procedure upon one such individual; an action very much taken in order to gain control and again without saying too much, hopefully, this element of the book is intriguingly controversial for the times, yet does not seem to have been picked up on in contemporary reviews.
Even Maggie finds Mr Holland’s death a freeing influence, despite only being his tenant for a short period of time. Yet it is actually from another quarter that Maggie encounters more persistent attacks on her personal freedom. Her husband, Sergeant Matheson, is in charge of investigating Mr Holland’s death and he is keen that his wife stays on the side lines. He goes as far as saying that if she oversteps her boundaries and gets too involved in the case, then he will not allow them to buy the house they are renting. Now financially dependent on her husband, this is a significant leverage and one which forces Maggie to modify how she talks to her husband about the case and of course compels her to work behind his back; a task made more difficult when he gives her police protection. Or is this latter action just a way of keeping tabs on her? Like Maggie, you can argue that her behind the scenes sleuthing brings ‘things to a head more quickly,’ though I would also say that the temporary rift between Maggie and her husband pushes her into a trap later on in the book. Nevertheless, Poirot may have become known for his use of feminine domestic knowledge in solving cases, but Maggie in her own, takes this to a new level, with her knowledge of childcare being absolutely crucial for the cracking of this case. Despite the obstacles her husband produces, Maggie’s sense of humour still shines through towards them, such as when her husband tells her to stop ferreting for clues, she merely replies, ‘I will see you again with my ferret.’
Interestingly notions of stereotypical femininity are not only to be found supported by the male characters in the book, but are also propagated by the women, in particular the women of Holland Hall. It is with these women, that June Wright attempts to walk along a tricky tight rope, as whilst Maggie is a committed and enthusiastic mother, she also head on questions the infantile and passive expression of femininity that Holland’s niece, Ursula Mulqueen, lives out and believes that the best thing for this woman is to get away from the poisonously debilitating atmosphere of the Hall. This advice is acted upon, though perhaps not in the way Maggie expected. I would say June Wright is also attempting another tight walk rope in this book, trying to position Maggie’s amateur sleuthing alongside societal expectations for women. This is set up on the opening page, in which Maggie eschews the amateur sleuth title, or as she puts it the ‘femme fatale.’ She goes on to say that, ‘Crime does not dog my footsteps… Neither am I one of those sleuths for whom corpses crop up conveniently. Such individuals should, in the interests of public safety, be marooned on a desert island. Their presence in the community is an incentive to murder.’ She further minimises her detecting role when she says that, ‘I am merely a police officer’s wife who has certain reasons in recording impressions of a homicide case’ and she is keen to defend herself ‘against further attacks from friends,’ who believe that murder follows her around. Yet this deferential position is not maintained for long, as we see Maggie get into the full swing of things and in particular she soon reveals a resentment towards being used by suspects as a conduit for delivering information to her husband, saying that ‘all were out to use me as a buffer between their uneasy consciences and John.’
June Wright’s next published novel occurred four years later, with The Devil’s Caress, after The Law Courts Mystery was rejected by her publishers. The Devil’s Caress was her first published work not to feature Maggie Byrnes, a decision motivated partially by the fact she was tired of readers presuming Maggie was autobiographical. Later in an interview she also commented that this work was her ‘first attempt at broadening’ her writing. However, I think it is more intriguing when she says Maggie had ‘come to the end of her useful life.’ Did Wright feel that she couldn’t plausibly have Maggie solve any more cases? Had Wright written all that she wished to say about the woman’s lot as mother and wife? Was she finally tired of the way her novels backlashed an image of maternal perfection upon herself?
In keeping with the psychological thriller flavour of the piece, The Devil’s Caress, takes place on the top of a peninsula near Melbourne, in and around the summer home of Dr Katherine and Dr Kingsley Waring, which is on the edge of a cliff, prone to high winds and bad rainy weather. Suffice to say this is never a safe option when you’re in a murder mystery novel. A medical country house party gets under way, with protagonist and reluctant amateur sleuth, Dr Marsh Mowbray joining the group for a rest before her trip to England. It is not long before Marsh is faced with two suspicious deaths, both of which leave her looking at her mentor, Katherine, in a new more sinister light. Marsh’s conflicting thoughts are exacerbated by the way those around her are determined to blacken Katherine’s name, eager to believe the absolute worst and exploit the subsequent confusion for their own gain.
The Devil’s Caress is a dramatic departure, with its more psychological thriller style and its’ choice of protagonist: a young woman who has chosen to pursue a medical career, in an era when within and without the profession, female doctors were still regarded with suspicion. Marsh Mowbray, our reluctant amateur sleuth, is no Maggie Byrnes, revealing a much more vulnerable and less self-assured personality. This has significant implications for how Wright explores a woman’s lot in life. Now it is not a case of being able to do it all, as both Marsh and Katherine, find that they cannot have it all: demanding career, healthy marriage, devoted children. For them choices have to be made, choices which bring their own cost. This is equally apparent in Wright’s own life as whilst her earliest novels were produced quite quickly, in the 40s, her composition speed begins to markedly slow down after this point. In a later interview she remarked that she couldn’t recall the writing of her second and third novels. Though with 6 children to take care of, one of whom suffered from a form of cognitive dysfunction, this is not surprising.
This shift from women in the home, to women within a male dominated profession, is the beginning of how this book echoes Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, a book we know Wright read and loved. The parallels and divergences Wright’s book make, would cover a whole separate post within itself, so instead I am going to focus my comments on Dr Marsh Mowbray and Dr Katherine Waring. Both are fundamental to the story, though you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you had only seen the rather unapt original dust jacket cover.
Yet this mismatched dust jacket would have at least pleased the male characters in this story, who from the beginning are determined to take over everything and resent any proactive or supportive action taken by Marsh or Katherine. The opposition Maggie met seems like a walk in the park, compared to what these two female doctors face. Even a simple offer to help a man having car troubles, elicits derision rather than gratitude and when it comes to Marsh being given the role of lead clinician, for the case of Katherine’s husband, assault nearly occurs, as well as harsh words. Moreover, the various male medics, none of whom are more experienced or competent than Dr Mowbray, perceive their attempts to takeover the patient, as a natural right they can assume, whilst Marsh’s promotion to the role is considered a usurpation of natural order.
Not to decry the difficulties of this situation, but this clash of gender politics is not something which is new to either of the female doctors, who are very much caught between a rock and a hard place. Birgitta Berglund concluded that if a female detective, ‘does not retain her feminine attributes, she is accused of being unwomanly, and if she does, she is accused of being unprofessional’ and I think this statement can be equally applied to the medical field, as Marsh and Katherine have to contend with these seemingly opposing qualities. Katherine opts for the first category and as a consequence her ‘inhuman intelligence,’ her ‘studied detachment’ and her reticence when it comes to her emotional troubles, are continually misunderstood, a misunderstanding which even Marsh is not immune from. Yet as the solution to the book is revealed, I would say her self-reliance has come at a great cost and there are inklings that she regrets this cost in part; all of which makes the name of her house, Reliance, take on an ironic tinge. Though I don’t think the reader is meant to go as far as agreeing with Katherine’s sister in law, who says to her: ‘I have always considered it a great pity you didn’t become more domesticated both for your own sake and for Kingsley’s.’ Given my reading of Wright’s earlier works, I don’t think that is the solution we are meant to take home, i.e. Katherine ought not to have become a doctor in the first place. This is corroborated in the way that Wright only flirts with the idea of a romance subplot for Marsh, perhaps because Wright wishes to eschew and maybe feels she cannot endorse a Cinderella happy type of ending, in which the heroine gets to have her cake and eat it.
June Wright’s final series character was Mother Paul, who very much swims against the tide of motherhood and home, with her religious life presenting an alternative path for women. I wonder whether as the years passed, that Wright began to question her can-do-it-all attitude. No longer is the amateur sleuth a young woman who has to choose between career and home. The choice has already been made and Mother Paul’s chosen profession, is similar to Miss Marple’s age, in that it simplifies the gender issues. Their professionalism does not become problematic. There is no tight rope walk to contend with. June Wright gained inspiration for the character from a real-life nun named Mother Mary Dorothea Devine, who was a Sister of Charity and the head of the maternity ward June stayed at when giving birth to her twins in 1946. The character Mother Paul went on to feature in the last three mystery novels to be published in Wright’s lifetime. In Reservation for Murder (1958), Mother Paul solves a death within a young woman’s hostel, whilst Faculty for Murder (1961) has a university setting, in which a new student arrives, intent on discovering her sister’s killer… Nothing going to go wrong with that plan is there now? Mother Paul’s final case takes place in Make Up for Murder (1966), where Mother Paul is running a girls’ school in Melbourne and ends up investigating the murder of an ex-pupil, as well as the disappearance of a TV celebrity.
One question you may be asking yourself, is why June stopped writing when she did and the answer she gave was the nervous breakdown of her husband. As he was not able to work, she had to take up a salaried job, as her writing would not have produced enough money. Eventually her husband recovered enough to set up a cleaning business, which she then supported him in. After his death in the 80s, she did go back to writing, but not unfortunately for us not into crime writing. Instead her interest shifted towards family history, with a view to self-publishing. For me this answer is one which raises even more questions about why her passion turned away from detective fiction.
Her output, although small, was important in producing stories which female characters and female detectives were the focus. Lucy Sussex writes that ‘before June Wright, Australian detective fiction tended to focus on the male protagonists and the experiences of male detectives, even when it was written by women.’ Sussex sees Wright’s work as a turning point for Australian detective fiction and notes that her work ‘resonated with women’s lives then and now.’
There is so much more which could be discussed about Wright’s work, in particular how some of the texts write back to British class culture and detective fiction, but alas this is the matter for yet another post. Instead I want to encourage you to go and read her work. Verse Chorus Press have so far reprinted The Murder in the Telephone Exchange, So Bad a Death, The Devil’s Caress and Duck Season Death*. Reservation for Murder was due to be reprinted in September 2020 yet supplies of this text do not seem to be readily available, although I have finally secured a copy through Blackwells. I would like to end with some of June’s own words which I think truly reflect the zest she had for life and her determination to make the most of it: ‘Maybe I’ll never write a classic … Maybe that isn’t my role in life. But vegetable I’ll never be, and neither will I toss out any God-given talent simply because “I’m only a housewife”’.
* Although I have not touched upon this book in the post, I have written a review of it, which you can read here.