Peter Corris, author of the Cliff Hardy novels, died on August 30 2018 age 76.
By the 1970s Australian crime fiction was drifting.
The genre had a long history, back to convict days, when it dealt with unfair convictions and brutal treatments, most famously in Marcus Clarke’s For The Term Of His Natural Life (1870-2).
Being mostly published in London for the curiosity of the English, Australian crime fiction had followed European models, with some major success like Fergus Hume’s best-selling The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), and the fine series of mysteries by post-second world war women writers June Wright, “Margot Neville”, Pat Flower and Pat Carlon. But local crime fiction was little publicised and had little impact – the books mostly came into libraries from London.
English business interests and Australian outlooks changed as time passed. Then, in 1980, Peter Corris’s The Dying Trade appeared, a crime story which was American in its influence, fully Australian in its spirit, and both published and strongly publicised at home. The novel was the first adventure of a tough, but at times sensitive, Sydney private eye with the wonderfully Australian name, offering both geography and morality, Cliff Hardy.
Published by McGraw Hill, an American company newly adventuring across the Pacific, the novel was very well-received, and started Peter’s own long series of fiction. But it was also the first of a very striking renaissance (or even naissance) in Australian crime writing.
Within ten years Marele Day, Jennifer Rowe and Claire McNab were producing their sharp variants of female detection. By 2000, major producers such as Gabrielle Lord, Gary Disher and the powerful Peter Temple, who also recently passed away, were busily at work. They were asserting that the mysteries of death and detection could have a distinctly local and socially investigative thrust – as Corris had established back in 1980. No wonder he has been named the “godfather” of modern Australian crime fiction.
Cliff Hardy, though tough in his name, could be subtle. He lives in Sydney’s Glebe; he spent some time at the nearby university; and is capable of close analysis when needed. His cases are brought to him, but, as the masters of the form Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler established, the P.I. will also assert his privacy and make decisions about where his investigation is going to go.
As with the major American writers, the primary themes of the Cliff Hardy novels are urban corruption. But Corris’s expertise in Pacific history informs his writing. The first novel involves Pacific misdoings. White Meat (1981) makes Indigenous themes important – which return strongly in The Black Prince (1998).
Like the detective of Peter Temple, who no doubt learnt both confidence and approach from Corris, Hardy shows how local malpractice can have its roots in national and international criminal evil.
Though Australian crime writers have had very little success with the spy thriller, Corris’s Ray Crawley series – eight novels from Pokerface (1985) to The Vietnam Volunteer (2000) – are a capable version of the form.
More remarkable is his eight-book “Browning” series, from Box Office Browning (1987) to Browning Without a Cause (1995). In the series, the popular investigator Browning (one wonders why Corris chose the name of the wry learned 19th century English poet) adventures in part comically around the world, meeting on his way his compatriot Errol Flynn.
Corris also assented to the recent (and internationally very late) male Australian crime-writer engagement with police detectives – some of his leanest and sharpest novels are the three in the Luke Dunlop series about an undercover police agent, from Set-Up (1992) to Get Even (1994).
At first an academic historian, in the 1970s Corris became the literary editor of the much-regretted serious weekend newspaper The National Times. He had a wide range of knowledge and interests.
But what Corris will be most remembered for, and what he kept flowing in novels — and also in a number of short stories – were the adventures of Cliff Hardy. Cliff was drinking and chasing women a lot back in 1980. He calmed down in both departments, but kept at his investigations of corruption and malpractice, both business-oriented and personal.
Through his hero, with his physical and moral echt-Australian name Cliff Hardy, and through his lucid, calm plotting, Corris has matched Raymond Chandler in the modern world’s dominant crime form.
Both citified and individualist, the private eye story at its best demands personal, deep referential knowledge of the author – and calm stylistic skills. We have seen all this in the Hardy novels.
At the very end of Corris’s last Hardy novel, Win, Lose or Draw (2017) – in Australia, sport is always there – Hardy is smiling. So should his creator have been. With Hardy, he made a richly entertaining, very widely-admired, genuinely, lastingly, Australian international crime fiction hero.
In English, we might claim we could “murder a good steak”. Italian and Spanish speakers might “kill for a coffee”, and Germans refer to acute hunger as Mordshunger or murderhunger – but do people really kill for food?
Cannibalism is by no means the only way in which crime and food are linked.
Disputes over food may lead to murder. In the Bible, when Abel’s sacrifice of meat is preferred to Cain’s second-rate offering of produce, jealousy results in a deadly attack.
Food may also be a deadly weapon, killing through poison, or as in Roald Dahl’s fiendish short story Lamb to the Slaughter, serving as a blunt instrument.
Indeed, research has shown that the brain does not differentiate between real-life and fictional sensory triggers. Food memories can really bring a story alive.
Rather than serving to highlight a limited range of functions (as a weapon, as an element of characterisation or setting), food has immense potential in crime fiction. Our book addresses a broad range of questions, including what role recipes play in these narratives, whether crimes can be committed against food and how eating rituals relate to cultural belonging, sex, gender or class.
In chef and author Anthony Bourdain’s fictional and factual writings, eating and the preparation and experience of food are always situated on the edge. The professional kitchen is not primarily a place where delicious food is produced but is instead a site of violence.
This kitchen-as-crime-scene contradicts its expected role as the cultural and emotional centre of the domestic and social sphere.
Food is a pervasive element of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano franchise. Eating rituals may increase dramatic suspense, but they also mark place and cultural identity and contribute to the psychological characterisation of the detective hero.
Food plays a crucial role in outlining Montalbano’s distinctive personality, just as it does for other famous detectives such as Georges Simenon’s Maigret, for whom eating is an essential part of any investigation. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine cuisine. Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho is both an experienced cook and a famous glutton.
In recent years, culinary mysteries have become very popular in Germany, marketed to both fans of detective fiction and food aficionados. Ella Danz’s Georg Angermüller mystery series features a police inspector who likes to cook and eat. In her novel Geschmacksverwirrung (Taste Confusion), a food critic dies after being force-fed goose liver pâté in the same way geese and ducks are force-fed to produce foie gras.
While investigating the crime, the detective confronts issues like factory farming and ethical food production. Solving crimes requires skills that can equally be used to discover hidden truths about food. Truffled goose liver pâté may contain large amounts of pork fat and only a tiny amount of truffle. Factory animals never get to see the green grass and blue sky on the packaging.
Danz provides an appendix with recipes, a practice that has proven popular with readers. Adding recipes to culinary mysteries also allows bookstores to display the books in both the cook book and and mystery sections, thus doubling exposure.
Feminist food rituals
Feminist crime fiction sheds a different light on food. Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Dominique Sylvain all portray eating as an expression of female independence and agency in opposition to gender norms, challenging the cultural ideal of thinness.
The eating habits of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone not only signal that women are allowed to enjoy heavy food (McDonald’s), but they are just as much a commentary on the obsession with health and healthy food in American culture. In the French context, both Sylvain’s and Fred Vargas’s female detectives show strong appreciation for good food, prepared well.
Another, somewhat opposing idea in the novels is an indifferent or oblivious attitude to eating. The female detective who stares into her empty fridge is a recurrent scene in all the series, representing another blow to the traditional association of femininity and domesticity. Replacing marriage and family with friends is a typical feature of feminist crime fiction that rejects traditional gender roles, highlighting the female detective’s independence.
Bars and restaurants play a crucial role in this. The importance attached to the local eating place that functions as a headquarters inhabited by friends, as opposed to family, reflects the detective’s liberation from the domestic sphere and traditional femininity.
The female protagonist and first-person narrator of Ruth Rendell’s novella Heartstones is 16-year-old Elvira, whose mother has died from cancer. Through her retrospective narrative, the novella follows Elvira’s descent into anorexia, her obsession with her emotionally distant father Luke and her relationship with her younger sister Spinney, who overeats.
The clues Elvira later discovers suggest Spinney murdered Luke and his new fiancée, and may murder her, too. The narrative focuses on the denial of food and the compulsion either to eat or to avoid eating. Food is the enemy, a form of poison, and eating is the crime. Rendell uses the domestic noir genre, which highlights intimate experiences from the personal and domestic sphere to create a feminist critique of eating disorders and the patriarchal family as a “crime scene”.
Food and identity
Like Saga Noren (Bron/Broen) and Sarah Lund (The Killing), Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is lacking in emotional intelligence, which prevents her from establishing a personal relationship to the social code of food. The emphasis on the very narrow range of food she consumes stands in clear contrast to the other characters in the stories. She lives on frozen instant meals, mostly pizza, heated in the microwave or the oven, bread, apples, and of course coffee, which she usually consumes alone.
Eating frozen pizza not only blurs the boundaries between child and grown-up, but also introduces a male characteristic — refusing to take on the female role in the kitchen — that fits perfectly in the masculine area of the nerd and the hacker.
The relationship between food and identity, and the use of food as a symbol of the diversity of identities, place Cuban writer Leonardo Padura’s work in line with recent trends of international crime fiction. He uses traditional food and drink to expand and challenge the definition of Cubanness. Cooking is a way to preserve the richness and variety of local and traditional culture.
Many traditional Cuban dishes, such as the stew ajiaco, are under threat because of the scarcity of ingredients. Padura suggests here that the richness of Cuban culture is a victim of the revolutionary government’s attempt to create a coherent national narrative and a standardised identity model.
National dishes represent identity in other contexts, too. Cultural differences appear in Georges Simenon’s work through references to food. Where, when, what and with whom people eat are all potentially useful clues for Maigret. They can serve first, when among people of the same nationality, to underline difference and make clear the boundaries between people. Second, when foreigners are involved, they can confirm similarity, suggesting unity and togetherness.
In the case of the English-born Australian writer Arthur Upfield, food offers insights into complex race relations and colonial influences on the traditional owners of the land. One example is seen in Upfield’s most famous protagonist, Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony), and the detective’s ability to identify, through observation alone, an Aboriginal Australian who has been living on a white man’s menu rather than a traditional indigenous diet.
Ranging from “meals” to “grub”, food is critical to establishing, maintaining and handing on cultural practices and social identity. The suspects in Bony’s investigations — male, female, single, married, working class, upper class — are separated by what, and how much, they eat and drink as easily as they are by gender, living situation and occupation.
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The representation of food in international crime fiction, running the gamut from giggles to gore, is clearly a rich field for exploration.
Most countries produce crime fiction, but the versions vary according to national self-concepts. America admires the assertive private eye, both Dashiell Hammett’s late 1920s Sam Spade and the nearly as tough modern feminists, such as Sara Paretsky. Britain prefers calm mystery-solvers, amateurs like Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey or sensitive police like Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based John Rebus. The French seem to favour semi-professionals who are distinctly dissenting – in 1943 Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma stood up to Nazi occupiers nearly as overtly as to Paris criminals.
The first Australian crime novel appeared in 1818, but production has been uneven. Most mysteries have been published here in the period since 1980, with substantial local publicity and reviewing. Before then, locally-written and Australia-set mysteries usually arrived from England, asserting colonial authority, and then banning American publishers through an “International Market Agreement”.
Writers sent manuscripts off to London, and a hundred or so hardbacks would arrive for local libraries, with almost no publicity and little impetus to develop the form here. But things changed with an American challenge to the “Agreement” in 1976 and the waning influence of Britain in general. In 1980 Peter Corris’s The Dying Trade began a flow of local productions – some from English firms now based here, like Allen and Unwin, who produced Jennifer Rowe with their Tolkien earnings.
The strongest convict novel is The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh: he experiences harsh imprisonment, then escapes to live with bushrangers, and then mostly genial Indigenes: written in 1845, probably by ex-convict James Tucker, the novel was not published for over 80 years.
Criminal threats to free settlers were central to Tales of the Colonies (1843) by Charles Rowcroft: an immigrant Tasmanian family encounters the exciting land and its fauna but also bushrangers and the historical and rather noble Indigenous leader Musquito.
In Alexander Harris’s The Emigrant Family (1849) English incomers meet a vigorous native-born family as well as a range of trouble-makers. The settler thriller moved up to squatter level in Henry Kingsley’s rambling The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), which offers “every known cliché of Australian life” according to Arcady in Australia: The Evocation of Australia in 19th Century English Literature, an excellent critical book by Coral Lansbury – mother of Malcolm Turnbull.
Crime fiction illuminated the 1850s goldfields experience, mostly through short stories in the Australian Journal featuring police detectives known as “mounted troopers”, who controlled theft and crime of all kinds: they and the miners generated an early form of mateship.
The most prolific author was Mary Fortune who, Lucy Sussex’s research has shown, wrote hundreds of crime stories to the end of the century, and has begun to be re-published. The new gold-rich urban Australia was explored, especially when Donald Cameron produced the intriguing, and almost totally forgotten, The Mysteries of Melbourne Life (1873), followed by Fergus Hume’s highly readable The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886): Melbourne-set and published, it then became in London the first best-seller in world crime fiction.
There had been retrospective fictions that essentially criticised the harsh convict colony and ennobled the transportees. The Broad Arrow (1859) by “Oliné Keese” (English visitor Caroline Leakey) is about a brave, true woman convict; His Natural Life by England-born Marcus Clarke offers a long, well-researched story of a maltreated, wrongly-convicted man, appearing first as a serial in the Australian Journal.
In that version he finally escapes from Norfolk Island, becomes a successful goldfields shopkeeper, and eventually returns wealthy to his much-diminished English family. But when it became a book Clarke was persuaded to drop the optimistic “Aussie-success” ending for popular novel melodrama: the escaping hero drowns tragically, and the title becomes the unironic For the Term of His Natural Life.
A more romantic and now fully Australian account of past crime and redemption was the very popular Robbery Under Arms (1881-2) by “Rolf Boldrewood”. The bushranger-turned-convict is no Anglo hero but a tough native Australian: he and his patient girlfriend end up as successful rural property-owners. So crime fiction developed a positive patriotic approach which would soon mesh with the bush myth asserted by popular writers like Lawson and Paterson – also fictional, as the cities grew.
In the late 19th century there were predictable urban mysteries and better rural dramas by writers like Rosa Praed and Mary Gaunt, as well as the distinctly Australian sporting thriller, notably those set at the races by Nat Gould, and also bold roving amateur detectors such as Randolph Bedford’s Billy Pagan, Mining Engineer (1911).
But national mythic features could also be negative: notably absent have been police – while they were familiar overseas, here the memory of transportation limited them to Fortune’s people-friendly troopers, well-separated from convictism.
Equally lacking was any serious treatment of Indigenous people: they only appeared as lurking threats or helpful trackers, except in Arthur Vogan’s The Black Police (1890) in which an England-born New Zealander, who had taken a job in outback Queensland, told a bleak story about the racism he found there.
Between the wars, London publishers continued their dominance and there appeared two striking responses from local crime writers. Their novels can have “zero-setting”: though occurring in Australia they offer almost no local detail at all. Or they can be the opposite, “touristic” crime fiction, all bush and kangaroos, with the villain often consumed by the land itself in fire or flood.
The success of Arthur Upfield’s long series of “Bony” mysteries was not primarily based on his intelligent half-Indigenous detective but, including for overseas readers, came from the many grand outback landscapes that are so well described, to which Bony relates so strongly.
At the same time, interest developed in the formerly minor “crime novel”, the name for a story without detection and tending to sympathise with the criminal – an Adelaide-set series came from Arthur Gask. Classical mysteries were often set in the northern islands, as by Beatrice Grimshaw and Paul Maguire and, amazingly, the Hollywood actor and Tasmanian journalist, Errol Flynn, whose Showdown (1946) is a very capable thriller.
In the 1930s Jean Spender, adopting the English style, deployed an under-heroic police detective and she was followed post-war by other successful women. June Wright’s restrained policemen usually marry the young Melbourne lady amateur detective, but she also created a fine nun-detective, Mother Paul. Sydney-based Pat Flower, from Hell for Heather (1962) on, produced a sequence of psychothrillers as potent as those by international stars such as Patricia Highsmith or Barbara Vine (the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell).
Effective post-war male crime writers existed, such as Sidney Courtier and A. E. Martin, but they too were mostly England-published and little noticed or remembered. The American private eye had a brief presence in and after World War II, with many Americans in the country and English book imports rare: both US-based and local tough-guys thrived like those by the ultra-prolific “Carter Brown” (Alan G. Yates).
They faded, but the form would return when, feeling abandoned by Britain and looking more across the Pacific, readers were offered their own version of the American mode. The Dying Trade (1980), published in Sydney, with full local publicity, featured a truly Aussie tough guy, Cliff Hardy, and the author, Peter Corris, academic and journalist, stimulated more Sydney-based detectives, Marele Day’s elegant feminist Claudia Valentine, glamorous lesbian cop Carol Ashton by Claire McNab, and the thoughtful English-style amateur Verity “Birdie” Birdwood from publisher Jennifer Rowe. Now local readers could enjoy a wealth of their own national crime fiction, newly embodying many forms of contemporary conviction.
The crime novel continued through Garry Disher and his genuinely tough Wyatt, while the psychothriller and other sub-genres flourished, especially from the ever-productive Gabrielle Lord. Finally, major male writers started to employ police – Disher by 1995 with Inspector Challis in The Dragon Man and Peter Temple’s very successful The Broken Shore (2005) introduced injured cop Joe Cashin.
Modern retrospection arose from Australian acceptance of the innovative mode of historical crime fiction pioneered by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose (1980). Melbourne led with Kerry Greenwood’s glamorous 1920s investigator Lady Phryne Fisher in Cocaine Blues (1989); later Marshall Browne offered a turn-of-the century Melbourne thriller series.
International gay crime fiction arrived: Claire McNab handled the female side forcefully, while for the men Adelaide’s notorious Duncan drowning was reworked in Roger Raftery’s The Pink Triangle (1981) and Phillip Scott’s amusing opera-related series started with One Dead Diva (1995).
Indigenous crime fiction writers also appeared. Mudrooroo Narogin produced, then as Colin Johnson, Wild Cat Falling (1965), a potent crime novel about a Perth teenager; later crime stories featured his Detective-Inspector Watson Holmes Jackamara, a figure both ironic and revealing. Archie Weller wrote a strong crime novel The Day of the Dog (1981) and tough short stories; Philip McLaren’s major novel Scream Black Murder (1995) has Indigenous police detectives, male and female, facing both public and personal challenges in Sydney’s Redfern.
Since 2000 Australian crime fiction has strengthened further, mostly with new voices. Day, Rowe and McNab all put an early end to their series and in 2017 Corris has called it a day – Cliff is smiling as the story finishes. Temple’s darkest novel, Truth, won the Miles Franklin national prize in 2010, but his recent death has saddened readers.
Historicism has continued. Sulari Gentill explores the politics of the 1930s in her Rowland Sinclair series, and Lady Phryne has re-appeared, but Greenwood now also turns to the “cozy” tradition with large detecting chef Corinna Chapman. Police presence has grown, with notably realistic treatments by former female officers, P.M. Newton, Karen M. Davis and Y.A. Erskine; and there are others, like Leigh Giarratano’s subtle detective Jill Jackson and Felicity Young’s Senior Sergeant Stevie Hooper, tall, brave and based in Perth, like several other modern investigators, including Alan Carter’s “Cato” Kwong, a police detective from a long-present Chinese family.
Australian women crime writers are now in a clear majority, and they also offer private eyes: Gabrielle Lord has a series about Gemma Lincoln, and Angela Savage’s well-developed Thailand-based novels feature Jayne Keeney. The psychothriller remains vigorous: journalist Caroline Overington produced the intriguing Ghost Child (2009), while Honey Brown offers deeply imaginative stories like Red Queen (2009).
The crime novel thrives among male writers — Disher’s man re-asserted his presence in Wyatt (2010) and Andrew Nette produced the both local and international Gunshine State (2016); the comic crime novel emerged in Robert G. Barrett’s series about the idiotic bogan Les Norton. Other traditions continue: Tara Moss keeps feminism alive in her Mak Vanderwall series, while Nicole Watson’s The Boundary (2011) is a powerful Brisbane-based, Indigenous-oriented narrative.
Unique features appear in Australian crime fiction, and not just the five different authors who focus their mysteries on the Melbourne Cup. More notable are Leigh Redhead’s series about Simone Kirsch, the stripper-detective, starting with Peepshow (2004), revealing in several ways, and the two fascinating poem-based mysteries by the sadly late Dorothy Porter: The Monkey’s Mask (1994) and El Dorado (2007).
Such brilliant exotics, and the richness of the tradition as a whole, show how far Australian crime fiction has come from convicts and bushrangers, without losing its continuing relationship with changing national concerns and the social and personal myths it can both test and validate.
Women have always been central to true crime stories: as victims, perpetrators, readers, and (increasingly) as tellers of these tales. Indeed, these tales, often dismissed as sensationalised violence, offer important opportunities to reflect on crime and crime control.
Many true crime writers today – including numerous women, working in a once male-dominated market – have been biographers, coroners, detectives, historians, journalists, lawyers, and psychologists. These backgrounds bring a style of storytelling that educates us about, not just merely entertains us with, crime. Importantly, many privilege complex and nuanced storytelling over simplistic stereotypes of women as just “bad” or just “good”.
The first Australian true crime stories were transmitted orally, jotted down in journals, and entered into official records. George Howe, editor of our first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, enthusiastically embraced the topic of crime: the paper’s first issue in 1803 included stories of fraud, attempted murder, and the brutal rape of 17-year-old Rose Bean.
The first Australian publication dedicated to true crime is Michael Howe: The Last and the Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land (1818), by T.E. Wells. This short work is also the story of Howe’s companion, then victim, Mary Cockerill a young Indigenous woman. Cockerill supported Howe in a landscape forbidding and wild to the European settlers. After being betrayed by Howe – he shot her as they were being pursued, facilitating his own escape – Cockerill then used her knowledge of the bush to help authorities. Howe was captured and killed in 1818, bringing his bushranging career to an end.
In the colonial era, a woman’s status as a victim was upheld, or denied, based on her character and her ability to conform to social mores of the time. Today, women are often still judged by what they say and what they wear; their education and their occupation. How many sexual partners have they had? Are they too emotional? Are they not emotional enough? Likewise, some perpetrators have been seen as more heinous because they are women.
Women as perpetrators
In Captain Thunderbolt & His Lady (2011), Carol Baxter skilfully tells the story of Frederick Ward (“Captain Thunderbolt”), a bushranger in the mid-1800s, and his Indigenous partner-in-crime Mary Ann Bugg (“Mrs Thunderbolt”). Bugg – an intelligent, gutsy, trouser-wearing woman – is brought vividly to life, as she breaks the law and defies the feminine expectations of her time.
As Baxter notes, Bugg was dissatisfied with the social status quo, and, like many bushrangers, she received support and sympathy from the wider population. She was not all “bad” but not all “good” either. Indeed, some suggested Mrs Thunderbolt was merely blamed for the deeds of her husband. Bugg outlived her outlaw partner by 35 years, dying in obscurity in Mudgee in 1905.
One of the more dramatic true crime tales of the late colonial period, is the story of Louisa Collins. Caroline Overington looks at the life, and death, of Collins in Last Woman Hanged (2014). Accused of murder, Collins famously endured four trials in 1888, which, as Overington argues, were effectively trials of all Australian women. If women wanted equal rights, including the right to vote, “then, such equality had to be universal: women, too, would hang for murder”. In the first three trials, the juries failed to deliver a verdict. In the fourth trial, the jury found her guilty and Collins was hanged in 1889.
The Worst Woman in Sydney (2016) by Leigh Straw documents the life of Kate Leigh, born Kathleen Beahan, an icon of Sydney’s underworld from the 1920s through to the 1950s. A “famed brothel madam, sly-grog seller and drug dealer”, she is best known for her involvement in the “Razor Wars” when Sydney gangs used razors instead of guns. Leigh could handle a rifle (or any other weapon) and was “an intelligent criminal entrepreneur” who quickly capitalised on opportunities as they emerged. A hardened crook (who was in and out of prison), Leigh was also very generous; her Christmas parties for poor children, in Surry Hills, were legendary for the food and presents given out.
In Nice Girl (2011), Rachael Jane Chin looks at the many dreadful secrets kept by Keli Lane. Found guilty of murder and of lying under oath, Lane’s case is one that is still difficult to believe. Gender, and gendered ideals, stand out within it. Chin unpacks how Lane was a solid, middle-class young woman. She had her boyfriends but was not promiscuous. She was a teacher and had worked hard to become an elite athlete.
But underneath Lane’s “good upbringing and clean-cut appearance”, which earned her the benefit of the doubt from those around her, were five secret pregnancies during the 1990s. Two pregnancies were terminated, two infants were put up for adoption and one baby, Tegan, was murdered. Lane is serving her prison sentence, the crimes she committed as shocking now as when they were discovered. She will be eligible for parole in 2023.
Women as victims
In 1921 the body of 12-year-old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke was found in an inner-Melbourne alleyway. Colin Campbell Ross was charged with rape and murder, as described in Kevin Morgan’s Gun Alley (2005, updated 2012). We learn the victim, just a child, was quiet but also clever and creative. As readers, we cannot help but speculate who Tirtschke could have grown up to be.
Ross was hanged in 1922: a result of false allegations, a flawed investigation, and a trial held in the press and in the courtroom. He received a posthumous pardon in 2008. This case is particularly important in the history of Australian true crime writing because, as Tom Roberts explains, it highlights the commercialisation of crime, focusing on the headline of the defenceless female, and media-driven moral panics.
One of Australia’s most famous crimes is the “Pyjama Girl Case”. In 1934 the remains of Linda Agostini, born Florence Platt, was found. She had been shot, beaten, and burnt. Most notably, Agostini was wearing yellow, silk pyjamas, patterned with a dragon: a flamboyant garment in Depression-era Australia. Agostini’s body was placed on public display in an attempt by the police to discover the name of the murdered woman but it took 10 years to identify the victim. In the 1940s and 1950s, Frank Johnson published his Famous Detective Stories series, which included The Pyjama Girl Mystery. Like many of Johnson’s true crime storytelling efforts, the woman at the centre of the criminal case is presented as a sexual object.
The story of Anita Cobby, born Anita Lynch, has been told many times. The first major telling of the brutal rape and murder of the 26-year-old in 1986, is Julia Sheppard’s Someone Else’s Daughter (1991). Sheppard contrasts Cobby and her numerous contributions to the community, as a charity worker as well as a nurse, with the senseless cruelty of the men who took Cobby’s life. Stories like this one, which have stayed in the public imagination over decades, highlight how the impacts of crime extend beyond the victim, family, and friends. They also show how women can be victims of completely random acts of violence.
Many women are victims of domestic violence. The murder of Lisa Harnum, by her fiancé Simon Gittany, is described by Amy Dale in The Fall (2014). Gittany threw Harnum to her death from their apartment balcony, situated on the 15th floor of an inner-Sydney building in 2011. This is a story of control, surveillance, and toxicity. Harnum was trapped in an untenable position: too frightened to leave but also too frightened to stay. When she did try to escape, the result was tragic. Gittany was sentenced to 26 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 18 years.
Changing true crime narratives
The once “either/or” binary of “bad/good” women has given way to demands from readers to see women as complex figures within these works. As a result, more and more writers are now increasingly focussed on the human cost of crime.
Women are also telling their own stories, as seen in Lindy Chamberlain’s work Through My Eyes (1990). Chamberlain was falsely imprisoned for the murder of her baby daughter, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980. This book delivers a very personal account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Australian history.
Crime is never without context and is never straightforward. Many writers – women and men – know that simplifying these stories with stereotypes, female or male, is just not good enough: for the innocent, for the guilty, or for readers.