Women's Crime Fiction
Ever wondered what the Australian predecessors to Phryne Fisher and Claudia Valentine were like? Women's crime and detective fiction in Australia has a long herstory – which includes goldfields bigamy, two genuine sisters in crime, and Dale Spender’s auntie. Here are some of the highlights.
Fortune (c. 1833-1910?) - one of the earliest women to write detective
fiction, and probably the first to write from the viewpoint of the
detective. She migrated from Canada to the Australian goldfields in
1855 and three years later married policeman Percy Brett (possibly
bigamously). She published her first detective stories in the
Australian Journal in 1865, using the pseudonyms of ‘Waif Wander’and
‘W. W.’. In all she wrote over 500 detective stories over 40
years, most featuring Detective Mark Sinclair. Her one book,
The Detective’s Album (1871), is the first known collection
of detective fiction stories by a woman. She died an alcoholic, the
date and place still unknown - somehow fitting for this pioneering
woman of mystery.
Ellen Davitt (1812-1879) - also wrote for Australian Journal, her 1865 serial 'Force and Fraud' being the first known Australian mystery novel. It begins with a murder and ends with its solution, with red herrings, blackmail, and a dramatic court scene in between. Born in Yorkshire, Ellen married teacher Arthur Davitt, and emigrated to Australia in 1854. The pair were powerful figures in colonial education and Ellen was also a public lecturer and an exhibited artist. She is vilified in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as having ‘overbearing self-esteem’ (translation: she was confident, a fighter, and not afraid of male authority). She died in poverty, of cancer. In 1993 Sisters in Crime Australia placed a plaque on her grave; the same year Force and Fraud was reprinted by Mulini Press.
Neville - actually two sisters, Ann Neville Goyder Joske (1887-1966)
and Margot Goyder (1907-1975). They wrote successful plays,
novels and two screenplays under the joint pseudonym from 1923, coming
to detective fiction with Murder in Rockwater (1944).
They also wrote a play with Joan Lindsay, author of Picnic at Hanging
Jean Spender (1901-70) - aunt of Dale Spender and mother-in-law of Carla Zampatti. A diplomat’s wife, she turned to writing during her husband’s various postings. Of her six novels, published between 1933-1960, two are set in Australia.
June Wright (b. 1919) - mother of six children and also writer of six detective novels between 1948-66, tending to feature Melbourne settings and female detectives. While wrapping food scraps in newspaper she saw an advertisment for a novel competition, run by the London publisher Hutchinson. She won the prize with Murder in the Telephone Exchange and Hutchinson published three of her novels. With Reservation for Murder (1966) she introduced her detective-nun, the formidable Mother Paul. The best of her novels is Faculty of Murder (1961), set in Melbourne University, with Ormond College’s tower on the cover.
Flower (1914-77) - born in Kent, and emigrated to Australia at
fourteen. Published fifteen crime novels 1958-76, many with (terrible)
flower puns in their titles. She worked for the New Theatre League,
was a copywriter, and also wrote for radio, tv and film. Her
novel Fiends of the Family was dramatised by ABC TV and won
an Awgie award. Her early novels with Inspector Swinton have been
compared to Maigret, but her later works are perhaps the best psychothrillers
Jay - pseudonym of Geraldine Halls (1919-96). Born in Adelaide,
she worked in the Court of Papua New Guinea, gaining the background
for her second novel, Beat Not the Bones (1952). This
book won the first Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers’ of
America, which Rayond Chandler was to win the following year. Her
husband John’s work with Unesco meant the couple travelled widely,
resulting in the exotic backgrounds of her novels. The New York
Patricia Carlon (1927-) - born in Wagga Wagga, now living in Sydney. Author of 15 crime novels written between 1961-70, including the excellent thriller The Whispering Wall (imagine being paralysed by a stroke and overhearing a murder planned...) None of her crime novels were published in Australia, due to local publishers (she says) not wanting anything but police procedurals. Now primarily a pseudonymous writer of romances. She is also a prize-winning cook.
Most of these writers are out of print, though well represented in library collections. You may find them in second-hand bookshops or op shops, if you are lucky. If you find Mary Fortune’s The Detective’s Album you will be superlatively lucky, as only one copy survives, and it is worth over $25,000, Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud was reprinted by Mulini Press in 1993. Wakefield Press recently reprinted Flower, Jay and Carlon.
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