Australian writer Aoife Clifford has won Australia’s two premier crime short-story awards (the Ned Kelly and the Scarlet Stiletto) as well as earning an additional nomination for each. When her first novel, All These Perfect Strangers, was published (in Australia and the U.K. by Simon & Schuster and in the U.S. by Penguin Random House) she was named an Amazon Rising Star of 2016. In her first post for this site she gives us an intriguing overview of the world of Australian crime fiction. Her latest EQMM story will appear in our September/October issue, on sale in August.—Janet Hutchings
Every so often writers and publishers try to come up with a snappy identifier for Australian crime fiction similar to the ever popular “Nordic Noir” or Scotland’s “Tartan.” Recently, I tried to convince others on Twitter of the merits of “sunburnt noir” but plenty of alternatives were posted in reply: “gum leaf,” “kangaroo,” and the tongue-in-cheek suggestion of “dingo noir”—designed for books with bite. My current favourite is courtesy of author Sulari Gentill, “Terror Australis.”
Perhaps it is only right that we struggle to sum up Australian crime fiction with a neat geographical catch-all phrase, given that almost one hundred Scotlands could fit inside our island borders. However, Australian crime fiction is thriving and should enjoy its own place in bookshelves around the world.
With over a quarter of Australia’s population born overseas it isn’t surprising that some of our best known international authors set their books in international locations. You could be reading Australian authors and not even know it. Michael Robotham’s psychological thrillers have been published in more than 50 countries and he won the Gold Dagger, UK’s top crime prize, with Life or Death, set in Texas. Adrian McKinty grew up in Northern Ireland and is now based in Melbourne. His highly entertaining Sean Duffy series, following an insubordinate Belfast cop, has won and been nominated for crime awards on three different continents with Rain Dogs receiving an Edgar Award earlier this year. Picking up James Patterson’s recent book, Never Never, you might have noticed the name Candice Fox also on the cover. An accomplished Australian author, Candice has co-authored three books with Patterson, in between writing her own award-winning best-sellers. Check out her serial killer Hades series and her new standalone Crimson Lake coming out March 2018. Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is an evocative retelling of Lizzie Borden’s life that has dazzled Australian audiences and is about to be released in the U.S.
If you are more interested in titles that have the land down under as a location, don’t worry. Australia has a rich history of crime fiction, which given that the white settlement of Australia began as a penal colony, shouldn’t be surprising. In fact the biggest selling detective novel of the 19th century was Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab set in both the slums and finest houses of Gold Rush Melbourne. Published in 1886 it was more popular than Sherlock Holmes at the time and has rarely been out of print.
If characters in period costume appeal, then Kerry Greenwood’s beloved Phryne Fisher will delight. Sixteen novels in the series so far, it features the best-dressed detective of all time (see the Netflix TV series for proof). Also no slouch in the sartorial stakes is the debonair Rowland Sinclair by Sulari Gentill. Three “Roly” books are already available in the US, with a fourth Paving the New Road out early next year. Sulari also has written a literary crime fiction novel Crossing the Lines, which has been described by Jeffery Deaver as a “brilliant blend of mystery, gut-wrenching psychological suspense and literary story-telling,” and is one I can’t wait to read.
The Australian equivalent of the Edgars are the Ned Kelly Awards. Named after the infamous outlaw bushranger, they are awarded annually and their shortlists are a great place to start. Their winners include Peter Temple, whose last book Truth, won the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. It is the first and only crime fiction book to be so recognised. Temple’s other books include international award winning and my personal favourite, The Broken Shore, as well as his ever popular Jack Irish series.
Multiple “Neddie” recipient and Australian crime writing royalty, Garry Disher, has published over fifty books. Currently, he is writing two separate crime series. The first centres on Wyatt, a captivating and enigmatic anti-hero not averse to organising a heist or two. The second is based on two police officers, Hal & Destry, working on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. My favourite standalone of his is Hell To Pay where a cop whistleblower has to deal with the consequences of his brave stand. If heist fiction is your cup of tea, you might also want to check out Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State, which is a thriller set in Queensland, Melbourne and Thailand.
American crime writing has had a big influence on Australian writers. The most influential I’d argue is Sara Paretsky and it’s not just for her character V.I. Warhawski. Back in 1991, a few enterprising Aussie dames got together and, inspired by the American Sisters in Crime, founded by Paretsky, started up the Australian equivalent with the aim of encouraging women crime writers. For short-story lovers, the Sisters run an annual short-story award, the Scarlet Stiletto, with several anthologies of winners available. Their annual prizes for best crime novels written by a woman are The Davitts, named after Ellen Davitt who wrote Australia’s first mystery novel, Force and Fraud, in 1865. At the first Davitt Awards there were only seven novels in contention. Sixteen years later there are almost one hundred.
It’s rare that someone pulls off the Neddie–Davitt’s double in one year, but in 2016 Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay did it. Centred on Caleb Zelic, a deaf detective, this beautifully written book swept both competitions. It will be out in the U.S. early next year, with the second in the series close behind.
When international readers think of Australian crime fiction it often conjures up bush settings, small towns, and hot dry weather. Jane Harper’s The Dry is the perfect embodiment of drought drama. Already appearing on international bestseller lists, it was awarded the Australian Book of the Year for 2016.
However, urban settings are just as popular, with my own hometown of Melbourne putting in a convincing bid for Australia’s crime-fiction capital. It’s the setting for a wide array of crime-related books. Anything from the true crime best-selling Underbelly series by journalists John Silvester and Andrew Rule based on the recent gangland war, to Ellie Marney’s YA retake on Sherlock Holmes, beginning with the rollercoaster Every Breath. Another of my favourite Melbourne books is the hilarious Murray Whelan series by Shane Maloney. Last published in 1998, it is well worth hunting out.
Prefer more sun and warmer weather? Then head to Australia’s “Emerald City” Sydney via works as diverse as that of Peter Corris, known as the Godfather of Australian crime fiction to Dorothy Porter’s incredible verse novel The Monkey’s Mask featuring a lesbian detective and killer poetry. From there you can keep working your way around the country courtesy of crime fiction.
One of the best things about reading a book is the ability to take a trip somewhere entirely different without leaving your armchair, so why not save the air fare and curl up with a pile of great Australian crime writing instead.
Sorry not to see a mention of Arthur Upfield, whose detective is probably unique,or at least during the period he was writing. Napoleon Bonaparte, half-caste police detective, uses his bush skills to solve crimes in the Outback. Maybe not as well written and polished as other writers, Upfield nevertheless caught the atmosphere and life in Australia’s very alien interior.
Also Arthur Upfield’s work apparently inspired a true-life murder which is probably every crime writers worse nightmare! So many great authors – not enough space.