As a crime-writing nation, modern Australia is a much younger sibling to the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet, like any other enthusiastic child, Australia took to crime writing with eagerness and flair. Australians would go on to reflect and reject some of the great traditions of the genre established by many of the earliest names to be associated with crime fiction including Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed, there’s a great confidence in Australian crime fiction as Australian writers had a distinct advantage over their British and American predecessors. Let’s face it; in the early days everyone knew a crook.
The British established Colonial Australia as a penal colony in 1788 and around 182,000 convicts would be dispatched to the Great Southern Land until the final transport reached our shores in 1868. These men and women (who, with a few exceptions, were transported for 7 years, for 14 years or for life) set the scene for Australians to write and to read crime fiction; though the majority of these criminals hardly fitted the profile of the modern day serial killer or violent murderer found in contemporary examples of the genre. In amongst those charged with assault and highway robbery were those guilty of much lesser crimes such as forgery and fraud, or stealing coats or handkerchiefs, food or drink, as well as cash and more valuable items such as livestock or pocket watches. These activities were enough to establish an interest in the criminal life and tales of, and inspired by, the exploits of such lawbreakers would appear in newspapers and pamphlets before becoming staples of publications such as The Australian Journal (1865-1962) and The Bulletin (1880-2008).
Australia’s first novel, Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton (1830), is a crime novel and many of our early literary efforts followed Savery’s example. Charles Rowcroft’s The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land (1846) is a melodramatic tale designed to warn potential criminals away from a life of crime. Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859) is a story of bushmen and bushrangers that has never been out of print. Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud: a tale of the bush (1865) clearly demonstrates the capacity of women to contribute, as both character and creator, to the crime fiction genre. Marcus Clarke’s (1846-1881) For the Term of His Natural Life, serialised in the early 1870s and first appearing as a novel in 1874, is widely considered to be one of Australia’s most important literary works. Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) is a classic locked room mystery and the first Australian international bestseller after its initial publication in 1886 while the well-known works of Guy Boothby, that detail the exploits of the occultist Dr Nikola, in: A Bid for Fortune, or Dr Nikola’s Vendetta (1895); Dr Nikola Returns (1896); The Lust of Hate (1898); Dr Nikola’s Experiment with Three Short Stories (1899); and Farewell Nikola (1901), dominated the final decade of the Colonial Era and saw Australian crime fiction through to Federation in 1901.
So, Australians made a strong start and have now been pushing out high quality crime fiction novels for nearly 200 years but what is Australian crime fiction?
Setting is probably the most obvious answer. It’s not, however, a straightforward one. Sure there are the obligatory kangaroos out bush and descriptions of Sydney Harbour on a hot day or the back alleys of Melbourne after rain. Yet, Arthur Upfield was born in England while his Napoleon Bonaparte novels predominantely feature uniquely Australian bush settings. Miles Franklin was born in Australia but her only crime fiction work, Bring the Monkey (1933), is set entirely on a large country estate in England.
Language is another obvious answer. The occasional re-imagining of The Queen’s English providing a very specific Australian flavour. There’s the odd bit of slang and a talent for understatement, when Shane Maloney describes where the corpse was hidden at the Pacific Pastoral meat-packing works in Stiff (1994) it’s pretty simple: “There it was, jammed between a pallet load of best export bone-less beef and half a tonne of spring lamb.” There’s also a very particular way of talking about class divides as seen in Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade (1980): “I pushed my old Falcon along the sculptured divided highway which wound up to the tasteful mansions and shaven lawns. Mercs and Jags slipped out of driveways. The only other under-ten-thousand-dollar drivers I saw were in a police Holden and they were probably there to see that the white lines on the road weren’t getting dirty.”
Australian crime fiction is both of these things: the outback and the streets of Sydney and Melbourne; the way people describe things and the way they talk to each other. But Australian crime fiction is also something more. There’s a dry humour, there’s an idea that maybe not all criminals are as bad as they seem, and there’s often a healthy disrespect for authority figures and for the system. There’s also a desire to just get in there and get the job done. A great example of this can be found in Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore (2005) the story of a police officer, Joe Cashin, who, suffering the long-term effects of being seriously wounded, leaves his posting with Homicide in Melbourne and returns to the small coastal town he calls home. When Cashin loses his temper with a particularly obnoxious and racist local man, he takes to him with a can of dog food; the blow so fierce both men feel the impact. The act generates no cries of outrage or claims of police brutality from the reader. It’s just a copper taking care of someone who desperately needed to be taken care of. Using a can of Frisky Dog, Meaty Chunks in Marrow Gravy, instead of a regulation piece of weaponry, is simply a nice touch.
Australian Crime Fiction: a quick guide
Marcus Clarke (1846-1881): His classic tale For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) is a story of crime, convicts and a moving commentary on social life.
Fergus Hume (1859-1932): His first, and best, crime novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) was also Australia’s first international bestseller.
Mary Fortune (c. 1833-c. 1910): Australia’s first woman crime fiction writer, she wrote The Detective’s Album a serial that began in 1868 and went for an astonishing forty years.
Arthur Upfield (1890-1964): The creator of Napoleon Bonaparte and the man responsible for giving the police procedural credibility.
Patricia Flower (1914-1977): A fine writer of police procedurals and psychological thrillers, her first novel Wax Flowers for Gloria originally appeared in 1958.
Patricia Carlon (1927-2002): A writer of crime fiction and romance fiction her best crime novel is one of her later works The Whispering Wall which was first published in 1969.
Jon Cleary (1942-2010): The creator of Scobie Malone and one of the most respected crime fiction authors Australia has produced.
Peter Corris (1942-): The creator of Cliff Hardy and the man often credited with generating a renaissance of Australian crime fiction.
Gabrielle Lord (1946-): One of Australia’s most successful crime fiction writers, she has written popular crime fiction series for adults and young people.
Marele Day (1947-): The creator of Claudia Valentine and the woman who produced the best feminist reimagining of the hardboiled novel.
Regardless of how broadly or narrowly Australian crime fiction is defined there is an enormous reservoir of titles to explore. From the early tales of bunyips and bushrangers to Peter Corris’ hardboiled stories of tough men living tough lives. These titles have international appeal and share common themes of good guy gets bad guy (and sometimes the girl), tough girl catches a few killers of her own, and the heroes – generally – manage to triumph over the villains. There is, however, something unique about Australian crime fiction, let’s call it an attitude, that makes it easily recognised as a product of Down Under. Enjoy.
Bio: Dr. Rachel Franks (administrator / educator / researcher / writer) is based in Sydney, Australia. Some people look at her strangely when they find out her PhD is in crime fiction. Rachel has delivered numerous conference papers on crime fiction, food studies and information science. Some of her work can be found in various books, journals and magazines as well as on a few blogs. She likes characters who are tough, quirky or both and stories that have neat endings. Her favourite murder weapon is poison.
crimefictionwriter at gmail.com