Prologue: How did we get here?

The year is 1958 and I have Scarlet Fever and Measles and am experiencing entertaining hallucinations. There are faces in the chintz curtains that are drawn to protect my eyes from the light.  It’s like Walt Disney’s Fantasia all over again, especially the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence.    

My mother’s stirling effort to protect my eyes is to no avail. By the time the faces in the curtains have evaporated, I have re-read all my Enid Blytons by torch light under the covers and am well on my way to the minus nine eyesight that will see me emerging from my convalescence sporting a nifty pair of cats-eye blue frame spectacles in the style favoured by Dame Edna Everage, that I will refuse to wear.

Bed-bound for another week on Doctor’s orders, I’m also extremely bored and   my mother is desperate. So she puts on the hat and gloves she would never be seen outside without, and her second best coat – the one she keeps for shopping trips – and heads off to the Cleadon Library where she hits on The Sherlock Holmes Solution, three volumes at a time.  

In the space of one week I have read the entire Conan Doyle oeuvre and am hooked on the formula of the detective story – the establishment of a problem, the reading of the signs, the misdirection and the solution that helps it all make sense, not to mention a quirky detective and his stiff-upper-lipped sidekick.  And my favourite Holmes outing? The Speckled Band with its gothic elements and supernatural mystery. Which, I learn later, was also the favourite of its creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Fast forward ten years, and I am studying English Literature at London University and have become a literary snob.   To my shame, I am pooh-poohing my mother’s taste in thrillers and conspicuously reading Dostoyevsky on the bus.  

And then came that first long haul flight to Australia in 1982, back in the days when you needed a back-breaking supply of books to get you through since the only alternative form of inflight entertainment involved talking to your neighbour. A fact, I discovered later, was one of the primary reasons Martin Bryant, the Port Arthur killer, liked international travel.  Largely shunned by the local community who thought him weird, Bryant would eagerly chat to his companions on the plane as they were strapped in beside him and could not escape for at least eight hours.  Those were the days.

In preparation for this flight to Australia on the infamous Garuda airlines (the motto of which at the time was ‘I flew Garuda and Survived’), I had purchased Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children, a Booker prize-winning literary novel that as a pretentious postgraduate university student I was quite happy to be seen reading.

Now, I am sure everyone I Australia has experienced the joys and the perils of a long haul flight and the fact that once you have reached a certain level of sleep deprivation and exhaustion, what you really need is a nail-biting psychological thriller you can’t put down in case something bad happens when you are not looking.

Fellow crime readers and friends, I learned my lesson on Garuda airlines the hard way.  Sometimes only a crime novel will do.  Although these days, given my commitment to reviewing, I rarely read anything else and have found that the diversity depth and range of this genre satisfies all my needs for literary excellence, social commentary, powerful story-telling and a good read.

Chapter 1: Private Eyes and the City

It’s 1980 – and we’re in Sydney in the company of Cliff Hardy, Private Investigator who is feeling ‘fresh as a rose’ on a Monday morning at 9.30 a.m. largely because his booze supply ran out on the Saturday night, and he has spent Sunday on Bondi beach sunning himself and the evening with John le Carré and tonic water.

British Spy thriller writer, John Le Carré, however, is clearly not the inspiration for The Dying Trade, Hardy’s first outing. Corris is instead channelling American author Raymond Chandler and his hardboiled, sardonic detective Phillip Marlowe.  Marlowe, it might be recalled, was a habitué of the mean streets of Los Angeles, a city with a sunny climate not unlike that of Sydney, although the film noir adaptations of Marlowe’s books never made it seems so.    

As we meet the fresh as a rose Hardy for the first time, he’s about to become embroiled in a case involving a rich family in Vaucluse.  There’s a brother who shoots seagulls for fun,  and a sister, a femme fatale with whom Hardy will inevitably end up with in bed after consuming an astonishing quality of booze. My could Cliff Hardy drink – and still perform like a stud.

Thirty seven years and forty one books later, and Peter Corris has just published his last Cliff Hardy, Win Lose or Draw (2017), which, somewhat poetically, also features a rich family living in Vaucluse.  Along the way, Hardy has been our eyes and ears on the changing face of Sydney, its pubs, its streetscapes and its crime. He’s also become an adoring grandfather, dealt with a heart problem, giving up smoking and cut down on the booze –  a bit.  

Here’s Hardy just hanging around observing stuff in Sydney in 2017:

When in doubt, have a drink […]. I wandered back to Crown Street and found a wine bar that provided sandwiches and light meals.  I ordered a BLT and a glass of red and sat looking out at the passing parade – the suits, male and female; the youngsters, pale and dark, some tattooed and pierced, some conformist; the old, discernibly slower than the young but many looking happier.

As is Hardy by the way.

Corris’s achievement is indeed a remarkable one, worthy of at least a Ph.D or two. Which– by the way – we appear to be happily attracting quite a lot of at the University of Wollongong these days (shameless plug).  

Vale Hardy, and thank you Peter Corris for indeed leading the way since back in the eighties, the private eye was all the go, and not just with the male crime writers

At the start of the 1980s, American authors Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sarah Paretsky had all embraced the feminist potential of the sub-genre, and Australian female authors were soon to follow in their footsteps. In The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender published in 1989, Marele Day introduced us to her private eye protagonist waking up  after a booze-soaked night to discover they have somehow acquired a good-looking blonde in bed.  In a nice subversion of the genre, the blonde turns out to be male – and our bed-hopping detective the resourceful Claudia Valentine.  

Nor was Claudia alone in her PI antics.  Pretty soon there were female private eyes popping up all over the place, pounding the means streets of Sydney, or St Kilda, in the present and in the past since it was also in 1989 that Kerry Greenwood gave us her lady-detective, and unflappable flapper, Phryne Fisher, with her insatiable appetite for solving crime, good food, sensual lovers and smashing frocks, forever locked in 1920s Melbourne.    More Leslie Charteris and the Saint than Raymond Chandler, Greenwood kept things light while also offering a revisionist take on the pressing gender and social issue of the day.

One of my favourites in this feminist subversion of the PI genre has to be Leigh Redhead’s exotic dancer and private eye, Simone Kirsch, whom we first encounter in Peepshow in 2004 humping a piece of off-cut carpet in The Cricketers Arms while simultaneously performing her lunchtime striptease for the football crowd and casting a steady, ironic, gaze over her customers. Drawing on her own ‘colourful’ life, Redhead and Simone took us into the places nice girls wouldn’t go in an anthropological study of the Melbourne underworld that was both funny and engaging.

At which point we might note, that the sub genres of crime fiction, like the private eye, clearly never really die, they simply get reinvented for a different era. Which brings me to the rise and fall of the serial killer thriller.

Chapter 2: Enter the Serial Killer

In the beginning there was Vlad the Impaler, Jack the Ripper, and Ted Bundy.  And then there was Thomas Harris, who gave us in 1981 what I consider to be perhaps the most powerful serial killer thriller ever written, Red Dragon, although this has tended to be overshadowed by Harris’s later books including Silence of the Lambs and the entire Hannibal Lecter oeuvre.

What was significant about Red Dragon was not the first sighting of Lecter, but the degree of empathy between the investigator, Will Graham, and the killer, the Tooth Fairy – aka Francis Dollarhyde. Harris rendered this all the more intense by providing us with the killer’s back story and point of view, a strategy that has now been done to death, but which at the time was genuinely affecting and original.

Seven years later, and Harris gave us Silence of the Lambs, this time with FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling as the detective faced with the uncanny acts of yet another deranged serial killer, Buffalo Bill.  And in 1991, the film directed by Jonathan Demme appeared, winning five Academy Awards including best actress for Jodie Foster and best actor for Anthony Hopkins for his performance as the brilliant, but completely bonkers, forensic psychiatrist, Hannibal the Cannibal.

And suddenly there were serial killers all over the place.  On television in Prime Suspect – and everywhere in crime fiction. Every crime writer worth their salt in the nineties had a go at the serial killer as a trope of what we feared most. From Val McDermid in The Mermaids Singing (1995) to Michael Connelly in The Poet (1996)– pretty soon every crime fiction reader could probably have qualified as an expert profiler trained in Quantico such were the lessons we learned about psychopaths in print.

One of the first off the mark was Patricia Cornwell.  In Postmortem in 1990, Cornwell introduced us to her forensic examiner, Dr Kay Scarpetta and made history in the progress by obtaining a record figure for her first three books in this series.  However, while Postmortem, Body of Evidence and All That Remains were riveting, fresh and original, in that they introduced us to the mysteries of forensic examination long before Silent Witness and CSI came on the scene, there have now been twenty four books in the Scarpetta series. I must confess I abandoned all hope around number 12 – Blow Fly – which may just be one of the worst crime novels I have ever read.

As a reviewer, I very rarely choose to review a book that I consider to be bad. But like Clive James, my all-time reviewing hero, I know there is great delight to be had in the process. It’s very easy to be funny about a crappy book. Blow Fly, I rather cruelly suggested in my review, might well have been called Fly Blown.  It is, however, very important to choose one’s targets carefully.  Cornwell’s sales, I figured at the time, would hardly be dented by my acid wit, nor would her avid readers be deterred. But it does pay to be considerate as a reviewer since a lot of time and effort has always gone into every book, good or bad.

Chapter 3: Police Procedurals and the rise of the specialist

While the constantly evolving private eye and the ever-inventive serial killer have to some extent fallen out of fashion, the police procedural has remained a constant. Although there have been some subtle shifts in the genre over time. What’s interesting is that we can actually follow these through in the long career of a stalwart policeman like Detective Inspector John Rebus, the creation of Ian Rankin.

When we first met him in 1987, Rebus was a hard drinking dour Scotsman who embodied the trope of the middle aged brilliant detective with no respect for authority and a dysfunctional family life.   The books were dark, grim and dogged, unflinching in their confrontation with crime and the ever-present serial killer.  In Rather Be the Devil, published in 2016, however, Rebus has evolved into something of a comic trickster figure, no longer a serving policeman but with a keen eye for the absurdity of life and quite happy to pass the procedural baton on to his former prodigy, Siobhan Clarke.    

Like Peter Corris, in the process of following Rebus through the cobbled streets of Edinburgh New Town, Rankin has also provided us with a long-running commentary on the changing face of a city, its evolving law and order issues, not to mention the political machinations that have percolated around the bid for Scottish Independence.   Rankin has serious fun with politics.

As an aside, such is the popularity of rival crime writers Ian Rankin and Val Mc Dermid that at one point they were clearly competing in terms of the number of buses and taxis circulating in Edinburgh and London with their latest books emblazoned upon on them.  This is the kind of advertising and public attention Australian crime writers can only dream about.

Interestingly, when it comes to long-running Australian police procedurals, there are not so many to choose from. It’s therefore tempting, but too easy, to suggest that maybe this has to do with Australia’s historically fraught relationship with the law.  Nor have there been many Australian police procedurals successfully translated onto the small or large screen – with the exception of the mini series based on Gabrielle Lord’s remarkable Whipping Boy in 1992.  This book lifted the lid on paedophile networks in the church, police and judiciary long before paedophilia emerged as a major theme in crime fiction in the new millennium.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, including the multiple prize-winning author Garry Disher whose series featuring Hal Challis began in 1999 with The Dragon Man – and a serial killer haunting the Mornington Peninsula.  What I love about this series is its regionality, that fact that far from focussing on a city, it takes us into the hinterland  – a topic to which I will return.

Another of my favourite police procedurals is the Brock and Kolla series of Scottish born Barry Maitland. Like Michael Robotham, Barry has set most of his crime fiction in the UK. What I particularly admire about the Brock and Kolla series is not so much the central characters and their relationships, as engaging as they are, but the attention to place.  As a Professor of Architecture, in every one of the Brock and Kolla mysteries, Maitland gives us an extraordinary location for the crime. From the hidden away Jerusalem Lane in London in The Marx Sisters in1994 to Hampstead Heath, the setting of the next which is out very soon.

More recently, Barry has given us the remarkable Belltree trilogy, which features a policeman whose murdered father was a ground-breaking indigenous judge. This trilogy set in Sydney, Newcastle and the New South Wales hinterland has been one of the crime fiction highlights of recent years, not least because they are so well written and because they deal with the indigenous issues.   Like many police procedurals, Maitland’s focus is also firmly on the domestic life of his hero, Harry Belltree and his blind wife Jenny.

There are two strands I want to pick up on here: the first has to do with the domestic, and the second, an attention to indigenous issues and place.

Chapter 4: Behind Closed Doors - Domestic Noir

Domestic noir has emerged as a label that publishers appear increasingly happy to use to identify psychological thrillers in which there are rarely any detectives at all.   This is hardly an original development.  There has long been psychological thrillers of this ilk, and I’m thinking here of Ruth Rendell’s brilliant stand-alone series of books written under nom de plume, Barbara Vine  including A Dark Adapted Eye (1986) and A Fatal Inversion (1987).

Whoever used the term first (and British author Julia Crouch is often mentioned in this context), the blockbuster novels that have given domestic noir its prominence include most memorably Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train (2016) by Paula Hawkins. In her blog post originally published in 2013, Paula Crouch wrote:

In a nutshell, Domestic Noir takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants.

Since 2013, this has become one of the most popular sub-genres of crime fiction. I now receive book after book that is described in the publisher’s blurb as being ‘in the style of Gone Girl and the Girl on a Train’.

It’s tempting to suggest that one of the reasons this has proved to be such a popular genre for crime writers is that, unlike the private eye genre, the police procedural or any crime novel requiring specialist insight, domestic noir can be written by anyone with an experience of family life, and dysfunctional relationships.    

I’d also like to go out on a limb here and suggest that if every age gets the crime fiction that it deserves reflecting the anxieties of the moment, then domestic noir can be read as symptomatic of a current societal concern with domestic violence and mental health more generally.  Nor is domestic noir the province of women authors alone, as proved by S.J. Watson in Before I go to Sleep (2011), and more recently Michael Robotham in The Secrets She Keeps (2017).

Interestingly, it is reported that S.J. Watson was encouraged to use his initials in order to disguise the fact that he was not a woman – a publisher’s move that Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (aka the Brontë sisters) would have found somewhat bemusing.  

As a reviewer, I’m not sure how long the domestic noir can keep going in that I have started to become all too familiar with its moves – the unreliable narrator, the multiple points of view, the madwoman in the attic who is far from mad, etcetera, etcetera. What I do know, is that crime fiction as a genre is in a state of constant evolution and Michael Robotham’s latest, The Secrets She Keeps, is a remarkable novel by any standards.  

Chapter 5: Northern Lights: The rise and rise of Scandi Noir

One of the other major developments in crime fiction over the last twenty years, has been the rise and rise in the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction, about which a great deal has now been written.   There is indeed a whole realm of scholarship devoted to the Scandinavian in film, fiction and TV.

While Sweden’s Henning Mankell paved the way in the 1990s, the global phenomenon of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2005 heralded a snowy avalanche of crime from the Scandinavian region that shows little sign of abating as yet, and it interesting to speculate why.

I suspect it is all about a fascination with the ‘other’ and the landscape, a fascination augmented by the Swedish and Danish film and TV adaptations of Mankell, Larsson as well as ground-breaking Danish and Swedish series The Killing and The Bridge that have taken imaginative hold of the kind of niche public that buys books, the one that also watches SBS.  

While Mankell gave us the gloomy policeman Wallander (with inspiration from Rebus he suggested in interviews), Larsson gave us the political journalist, Michael Blomkvist, who was rapidly overshadowed by another character, the somewhat terrifying Lisbeth Salander, clones of whom started popping up all over the place in crime fiction.  Feisty socially dysfunctional females with black eyeliner, tattoos and fantastic cyber skills became quite the thing post 2005, including in the work of Australian author Candice Fox.

One of the key features of both Mankell and Larsson’s work were the ways in which they revealed to the world Sweden’s troubled political past and its troubled present. Who knew Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme had been assassinated in 1986 – or what this meant – until they picked up a Swedish crime novel?   

The willingness of Swedish crime writers to reveal the ‘truth’ underlying Sweden’s social democratic dream is not new. Between 1965 and 1975, journalists Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall wrote 10 crime novels featuring detective Marin Beck that they grouped together under the title ‘The Story of a Crime’. In this endeavour, Wahlöö and Sjöwall were apparently inspired by the police procedurals of American author Ed McBain, a connection demonstrating that the genre of crime fiction is, and always has been, truly international. The Martin Beck police procedurals took the reader behind the façade of the Swedish welfare state in ways that have continued to inspire Scandinavian authors and TV producers ever since.

At the moment, I have shelves full of Nordic noir to catch up with – but If I think about why I have a bit of a ‘thing’ for the Scandinavians at the moment, I confess that for me it does indeed have to do with the landscape and how this shapes the experience of those who inhabit it, as well as the opportunity these crime novels afford to escape into a different culture, its history and politics, in ways that are both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Like many others, I’m also just a bit obsessed with Iceland– and the crime novels of Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, Ragnar Jonasson – and let’s not forget Australian author Hannah Kent’s remarkable debut novel. While Burial Rites published in 2013 may have won a swag of literary awards, it was also claimed for crime fiction by Sisters in Crime who awarded it two Davitts including Best Debut Crime Novel and the Reader’s Choice Award.

And then there’s Norwegian Jo Nesbø who combines ice and snow with extreme violence in ways that can be extremely confronting.  But these days middle-aged alcoholic detective, Harry Hole, also appears to be coming out of the darkness into the light. Maybe this is just what happens as crime writers get older, they stop being angry and allow their characters to experience life as tragi-comic, rather than just unrelentingly grim.

Although The Bat only appeared recently in translation, we should remember that Harry Hole was originally conceived on a flight to and written largely while Nesbø was on holiday here.  And it’s remarkable both for what it gets right and wrong.

From the moment Harry Hole comes through customs to be greeted by a female passport official who beams ‘How are ya mate?’, followed by an indigenous policeman called Kensington wearing a pair of blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt,  Harry Hole is on a backpacker’s tour of Sydney and Australia at large. In the first few chapters, Kensington takes him to the Gap and then to lunch at Doyles in Watsons Bay– before they embark on an investigative trail that will takes them up the coast to Nimbin. Along the way, Nesbo holds a mirror up to the Australian society he sees – with a focus on indigenous politics that Australian crime writers appear somewhat reluctant to take on.

More to the point, there have been very few indigenous authors in this genre, with the exception of Philip McLaren.  McLaren has written four crime novels that deal with indigenous experience of a post-colonial society, with Scream Black Murder, a police procedural set in Redfern published in 1995 being the best known of these.  

Indigenous issues are there though,  in Adrian Hyland’s two excellent crime novels, Diamond Dove (2007)and Gunshot Road (2010) featuring indigenous female detective, Emily Tempest;  and in Peter Temple’s subtle use of an indigenous storyline and characters in The Broken Shore (2005).  Recognised both at home and overseas as one of the best crime novels of recent years, The Broken Shore featured a detective returning to his home town on the Victorian coast after being injured in the course of duty in Melbourne.  This is a book that took us into the regions, while maintaining an always vigilant eye on the city and a pair of memorable giant poodles:

When he was near the house, the dogs, black as liquorice, came out of the trees, stopped, heads up, looked around as if seeing the land for the first time. Explorers.

The Broken Shore made you want to get out of the city and breathe, even if in the sequel, Truth (2008), Temple anticipated the catastrophe that was the Victorian bush fires.  

Chapter 6: Back to the bush

It’s never really gone away, but more and more crime fiction is emerging in Australia that has a regional focus.  In the last two years, the setting for crime has changed from the big city to the small town and the regions.  I mentioned Garry Disher before, but his stand-alone thriller, Bitter Wash Road (2013), takes us into back blocks of the South Australian wheatbelt to impressive effect. As does this year’s Debut Ned Kelly Award and Double Davitt Award winner, Jane Harper’s The Dry (2016).

Both of these books are extraordinary stories about the land, drought, failure, resilience and love.  Once again, they reveal how the land shapes people even as they struggle to shape the land.  Like the Scandinavian crime novels that I have come to admire, they are acutely attuned to the harsh environment from which they have emerged.   

Judging on my to-be-read pile, this return to the regions in Australian crime fiction is indeed the latest trend, inspired perhaps by the fact that so many Australian crime writers grew up in small towns and know exactly what they are like.  But don’t expect these to be named in their crime fiction.  No one wants to upset the relatives by making their small town look bad – despite the lure of crime writing fame.

While much of this fiction explores the sinister side of life beyond the perimeter, there are also writers who have embraced its comic side too.  Take Sue Williams in her two crime novels set in the small town of Rusty Bore somewhere on the way to Mildura.  In Murder with the Lot (2013) and Dead Men Don’t Order Flake (2016), Sue introduced us to her wannabe detective, fast food and chiko roll expert, Cass Tuplin. And let’s not forget Maggie Groff, the author of Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters Institute (2012) set in Byron Bay.  These are books that help to remind us that crime fiction is never just noir, but can be quite rainbow coloured – especially in Byron.

Chapter 7: Real estate

And so to the future – which is also always about the past the past.  And the most recent crime wave I have spotted so far this year is the number of ABC journalists who are turning to crime including; Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann in The Marmalade Files (2012), adapted into the best Australian TV crime drama, Secret City, that no one has ever seen; Lateline and Q&A host, Tony Jones revisiting the 70s in The Twentieth Man (2017), and Michael Brissenden dealing with the spectre of terrorism in The List (2017).   What does this mean, we well might ask. Will even more journalists be turning to crime as the ABC contracts and the legacy media dwindle?  

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the great Australian crime novel that is all about real estate:  from the arrival in the 1788 to the dirty dealings of those in public office exploiting the rape of the landscape for profit that is happening right now.  Not forgetting the over-inflated Sydney and Melbourne housing markets.  There’s plenty of crime potential there.

There is, in fact, so much to write about in a genre that has always served to entertain, and – like the canary down the mine – to focus our attention on what really matters.

And my final recommendation? Get reading,  and perhaps more importantly, get writing too.

This talk was delivered at BAD17, copyright Sue Turnbull. Sue is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Wollongong.  She has been reviewing crime fiction for The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age for over twenty years and is a scholar of crime on screen.  Her publications include The TV Crime Drama.