The Mean Streets of Melbourne


Recently, in lieu of reading about authorship for my thesis, I have been catching up with a genre that has oft been mastered by many older men wearing Hawaiian shirts with rugged grey and white beards- crime fiction. So James Crumley and Charles Willeford were inevitably on the list. As were David Goodis and Elmore Leonard. Not many women tend to read these works (at least the ones I know), for obvious reasons due to the unsentimental portrayal of violence and women. I won’t pretend that in my early days of reading hardboiled it wasn’t hard to stomach some of the imagery (particularly in Richard Stark’s, aka Donald E. Westlake’s case). Crime and hardboiled fiction shares many evident links with transgressive fiction, the hallmark text of which would be Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, which I was also able to navigate through despite scenes of women being nail-gunned to the floor. It would be too easy to turn this post into a gender-based one. To shed a quick point on this front, I find that while crime writing is often brutal to women, women often appear as the catalyst of the story. Behind every great (or misogynistic) man… and so forth. It’s important to realise that women are not just canon fodder for these works (pun intended).

But finally, the point of this post is not to reflect simply on the contemporary state crime fiction, but to look at the void of local, contemporary crime fiction, which translates here as Australian. As Jason Steger wrote in a 2002 article in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, ‘Australian crime fiction is struggling with the domination of overseas authors and a lack of new local talent.’ A decade later, things don’t seem to be improving. This is not to say that Australia is completely bereft of its hardboiled writers. Writer and academic Peter Doyle, for one, won the prestigious Ned Kelly Award for best first crime novel for his Get Rich Quick (1996), followed by Amaze Your Friends (1998) and The Devil’s Jump (2001). He also recently published Crooks like Us (2009) with the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, a book on crime photography, another hobbie of the detective fiction loving author. La Trobe University lecturer Sue Turnbull herself is a fan of the writer: “Among local writers she rates Peter Doyle, Shane Maloney, Temple – “my number one in terms of style” – Barry Maitland and Kerry Greenwood, whose “self-reflexively amusing” voice she much admires”, writes Steger.

Lack of editors who have a firm grasp of good crime fiction, cultural cringe, and a lack of crime-only publishing houses the likes of Ugly Town Publishing in LA and No Exit Press in the UK are some of the reasons that Australian crime fiction hasn’t managed to get a leg up in international stakes. And, while cities like Sydney and Melbourne, Darwin and Adelaide (and the rest) have all been the sites of great crimes (Adelaide’s ‘Bodies in the Barrel’ case for one gory example…), popular perceptions of Australian culture seems to clash with the noirish, tough-guy exterior revered in writers such as Chandler and Ambler. For someone who spent the first sixteen years of her life growing up in Balwyn and North Balwyn, affectionately dubbed North ‘Boring’, the iconic urban writing we know, spurred by experiences in ‘the city’, are perhaps decreasing, and appreciation for city streets and cultural and literary mapping appears absent in many aspiring writers who live in these cities. The closest Balwyn has come to any kind of literary darkness was in Australian band Skyhook’s song-about-suburban-sex, ‘Balwyn Calling’, a lyric describing the suburb as containing your own ‘brick veneer prison.’ It is not exactly the best setting for crime fiction.

On a recent visit to commercial but well-stocked bookstore Abbey’s Bookshop on York Street in Sydney’s CBD, I picked up a yellow leaflet with the latest Crime releases, which included nationality and category. Out of the sixty-eight Modern Crime books, the seven Historical Crime books and the two new True Crimes, only two Australian authors were on the list- Greg Barron’s Rotten Goods and Kathryn Fox’s Cold Grave, which are categorised as Espionage and Forensic respectively. The other categories included Cosy, Suspense, Archaeological, Private Eye, Police Procedural, Legal, and Journalistic, though no Australians penned works of this theme. It would be a nice change to see anarchy, murder and colourful characters introduced into the streets of Australia for the sake of a stronger sense of local crime writing that would refreshingly defy common though erroneous cultural images associated with Australia- I need not name them. Peter Doyle wanders the streets in a recent clip honouring his years of writing, offering advice to aspiring authors on how to attain inspiration and ideas. See it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfKcHMA10M8

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