Volume 35, No. 2, Summer 2019
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- The Thing About Eyeball-Paul … by Finn Bell
- Tasmanian Gothic Convict Breaks the Chains by Carmel Bird
- Terror Australis — Great Stories, Plus Kangaroos! by Aoife Clifford
- Down-Under Death Traps — Criminal Inspiration in the Antipodes by Alan Carter
- Just a Small-Town Girl by Nikki Crutchley
- On a Whim by Sulari Gentill
- Finally Exploring My Dark Side Down Under! by Lisa de Nikolits
- The First Novel by Robert Gott
- A Little Too Close: Writing Turbulent Wake by Paul E Hardisty
- On Phryne Fisher by Kerry Greenwood
- Finding Common Themes by David Kilner
- Murder in New Zealand by Sara Johnson
- Consultant Turns to Crime by Mark McGinn
- I Still Call Australia Home by Jennifer Lane
- A Beautiful Place for a Murder by Trish McCormack
- Mastering the Craft by Thomas Ryan
- Real Crime to Crime Fiction: An Aussie Ex-Cop Turned Crime Novelist by A.B. Patterson
- God in a Swivel Chair by Jock Serong
- New Zealand’s Lovely Darkness by Nalini Singh
- Kiwi Crime — Our New New Zealand Reality by Vanda Symon
- A Nice Place To Do Crime by Peter Temple
- From Classical Music to a Deaf Detective by Emma Viskic
- The Convict Streak by Dave Warner
- Murder in Retrospect: Reviews by Tuhin Giri, Vinnie Hansen, L.J. Roberts, Susan C. Shea, and Craig Sisterson
- The Children’s Hour: Mystery Down Under by Gay Toltl Kinman
- In Short: Mysteries Down Under by Marvin Lachman
- Crime Seen: Six Feet Down Under by Kate Derie
- Real Crime Down Under by Cathy Pickens
- Murder, Past Tense: Patricia Carlon, Woman of Mystery by Sue Feder
- From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph
Eyeball-Paul wasn’t actually named Paul. He was also missing an eyeball.
These two facts made the nickname almost inevitable (that’s prison humour for you I’m afraid).
He was an aging, old school gangster: Big. Ugly. Generally menacing. Wrinkled scars and prison tattoos fought for supremacy where other people had faces and so on. He’d had, by all accounts (many being witness statements to the police) a long, interesting life.
Once, notably escaping from prison only to shortly afterward be caught trying to break back in (which you’d think would be somehow ok again but wasn’t).
He once told me: “I’m good at bad things and bad at good things. Kind of built for gangstering really. The bad shit I’ve done don’t bother me. The good stuff I didn’t do, that’s the problem.” (This also wasn’t the thing about him, but we’ll get there.)
To clarify matters, at this point, we need to consider the patently Buddhistic nature of good crime fiction and Mr Cuddlebum.
Mr Cuddlebum was (despite the name) a cat violently opposed to almost all human contact and affection (bad even for a cat). He lived wild, scavenging garbage on a massive landfill next to the prison (you’ll often find landfills next to prisons, possibly because town planners like things to be neat). Considered from a certain perspective Mr Cuddlebum was the ideal pet for a man like Eyeball-Paul (but we’ll get back to them).
Which leaves us with the Buddhistic nature of crime fiction. Although first, we should talk about why we’re talking about it. I love both crime fiction and fact equally (reading it, writing it, covetously fondling it in bookstores — you get the idea). This is not too unusual but when set against a working life already spent focussed on crime and criminals (in prisons, courts and working with the police) possibly needs looking at.
What I want to know is why I keep coming back to it (there should be a word for something halfway between obsession and compulsion). There’s a lot about it I don’t like (more I downright hate) but I always come back. Always. Being suspicious of any sane sounding answer I could come up with I set out instead to find ideas from other people’s heads.
Enter Buddhism (and no I’m not one) but do contend that both it and good crime fiction achieves the same thing:
Acceptance of the world as it is.
That’s a big thing (bigger even), trying to honestly fathom the entire spectrum of humanity from good to bad, wondrous to grotesque — that’s ‘the world as it is.’
It is, in fact, so hard to do that I believe most of us fail, instead ending up with a subjective reality or world view that’s our personal blend of what’s really true and what we just really want to be true (the individual combination of fact and fiction probably a function of our strength of character).
Buddhism says the world is imperfect. Again, vastly understating the immeasurable fulcrum of suffering and pain humanity can create. Also, provocatively going further, stating this is ok, how it should be, because there is no ‘should’ (I know right).
I believe good crime fiction does the same thing (pick your genre favourites to test against this rubric). The story allows you to experience what is bad / wrong / sin (choose your label) then have it be explained, but not undone, not fixed. That’s the true utility of the genre for me, unlike romance or fantasy or so many other genres, we don’t end up anywhere else than where we started.
Everything that happened stays happened, the crime is never undone, the dead don’t come back. The world is as bad at the end of the book as at the start. Worse even, because now we know better. Unlike many other genres we don’t really change either — we need it this way I think — but (and it’s an important ‘but’) crime fiction gives us a way to contain that experience of evil, shore up the irrational with a rational explanation. Make sense of it. So that we can tell ourselves the difference at the end isn’t that things are better or that bad things won’t happen again but that we’ll be better at dealing with them when they do. There is no magic, no miracles, no life changing plot twists or loopholes making everything better. On the last page there’s just the same-old us, getting a little better at living in a bad world.
For reasons beyond my knowing this felt very nearly right to me, almost. But there was still something missing (I’d know it when I found it).
Which (obviously) brings us back to Eyeball-Paul and Mr Cuddlebum.
Like many prisons, theirs was on a farm in the wilds, where prisoners work the land. Nobody knows how it started between them but somehow it became a wholly unlikely kind of love. It went on for two years.
It was sweet in its way: Eyeball-Paul threatening prisoners to get rostered on farm work, beating up others to steal their lunches for Mr Cuddlebum.
But life (like crime fiction and Buddhism) includes imperfection. One day Mr Cuddlebum was missing (you see where this is going).
Now at this stage Eyeball-Paul only had three months left on his sentence. This was a good thing. Because Eyeball-Paul was getting old. A bad idea in a prison full of people you’ve dominated and brutalized for years.
His logical choice would have been to accept the world as it is (minus Mr Cuddlebum) and get out of prison in one piece.
But Eyeball-Paul was neither a Buddhist nor a crime fiction reader (but did have his own special way of seeing things) so on the second day without Mr Cuddlebum he promptly escaped.
At the time no one assumed that this was about Mr Cuddlebum, no one assumed anything. This was crazy. Eyeball-Paul would get another two years for escaping, but he did it anyway. So out went the helicopters and search parties to find not a trace of him.
Until they encountered Mr Cuddlebum’s grave. Neatly marked. Name carved out. Flowers. Shortly afterwards, Eyeball-Paul was caught trying to break back into prison.
There’s just something about certain people isn’t there? Something undeniable you sense without ever really knowing what it is you know. And while you’re certain they’re no different than the rest of us you also know they indefinably definitely are. Changing the people around them without meaning to (for better or worse).
And you have those puzzle piece moments where everything suddenly, effortlessly falls into place in your head and you know, with that know-it-in-your-bones feeling, that this is real. Is true. The thing you missed.
Because it’s about more than just accepting the imperfect world for what it is, always has been (you just didn’t know what you knew until somebody else said it).
How Eyeball-Paul said it to me was: “Look. The world’s a bad place and I’m no better. That’s just true. No getting around it. Only way to make it all OK and not go crazy is to do good for the people you love. No matter how much it costs you.”
Even if your person’s a dead cat and it means two more years on your sentence.
Finn Bell is an Amazon-best-selling, award-winning author. After a career in the criminal justice system he writes books based on a scaffold of personal experiences, actual events and true crime drawn from police records, old case files, court reports and prison interviews.
I’m delighted to be part of a ‘Murder Down Under’ issue. Every so often Aussie crime writers have tried to come up with a snappy identifier for our crime fiction similar to the ever popular Nordic Noir, Scotland’s Tartan or New Zealand’s #yeahnoir. While ‘Terror Australis’ is currently popular, we’ve argued about ‘gum leaf’, ‘kangaroo’ and even the tongue-in-cheek suggestion of ‘dingo noir’ for books with bite.
But the real issue is why should American audiences read ‘dingo noir’ when you have so much wonderful crime fiction of your own?
I would suggest it is the ability to travel somewhere entirely different without leaving your couch. Save your airfare and curl up with some great Australiana instead.
When I sat down to write Second Sight, I knew the setting would be a small country town. When international readers think of Australian crime fiction, it often conjures up bush settings, small towns and hot dry weather. In reality, most Australians live in large coastal cities. However, I did grow up in a country town, so it was important to me to capture not just what is bad about a country town (inevitable when writing about murder), but also what is good. Not only the feeling of isolation, but also the sense of humour, which is as dry as our weather. How a single event can knock a place off its axis and yet the strong sense of community and resilience still remains to rebuild. That contradiction of how the safest and most affordable place to bring up a family is also the most stifling for a teenager. ‘There is nothing more dangerous than a bored teenager in a country town,’ is an opening line in my book and is as true today as it was when I was growing up.
Small towns work so well for crime fiction because it is plausible for the characters to know everything and everyone (or at least think they do). There are a limited number of suspects, which allows the reader to play armchair detective. I decided that the person trying to solve the murder wouldn’t be some dispassionate stranger who rides into town and at the end of the novel leaves. Instead my protagonist, Eliza Carmody, has grown up in her town, Kinsale, left to study law (just as I did myself), and reluctantly returns because of an important case for her career. She thinks Kinsale holds no secrets for her but discovers that she doesn’t even know her own family history.
Using a rural setting meant I could use the inherent drama in our Australian landscape. I live down in the south-eastern tip of Australia, the bushfire capital of the world, and fire is a feature of most of our summers. A strong childhood memory was being put with a bunch of other kids on a flatbed truck and driving to some exhausted fire-fighting volunteers to give them wet hessian bags to fight the fire on the other side of the hill. The heat, smell, danger and excitement of that day stayed with me. But it’s not just our landscape, our unique Australian fauna, kangaroos, cockatoos and galahs are actually crucial to my plot.
Now country towns might be small but it doesn’t mean they are simple. Australia is a multicultural society with over a quarter of Australia’s population born overseas, just like I was. Even though I knew my protagonist would be a local girl, I wanted to tip my hat to my heritage and have an Irish stranger arrive in town and cause mayhem. Paul Keenan appears at the start as a charismatic knight errant (in a novelty green hat) who rescues a damsel in distress. Almost immediately he is caught up in a fight and killed with a ‘king hit’, a phrase I had to explain to my American publisher and is something akin to your sucker punch. Branded a saint before his organs are transplanted, his story becomes bleaker as the book continues. I modelled him on another polarizing Irish import to Australia, the infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly, who also suffered a violent death, except his was by hanging. When Ned was only eleven, he saved a young boy from drowning and was awarded a green sash in recognition of his bravery. Fourteen years later, he was wearing that sash under his armour at his last shootout with police at Glenrowan. The poignancy of that image has never left me and I wanted Paul to have that hero/villain complexity.
When it came to editing my book for an American audience there were a few things I had to explain to my editor about life ‘down under’. My favourite response from him was that he didn’t know what it meant to ‘shout someone a drink’ and yet he was sure he would like it. The magical alchemy of reading a book involves not just the mind of a writer but also that of the reader. Beneath the unusual slang, the extra vowels in words, the opposite seasons, are themes that are universal. My book concerns what the American writer Faulkner described perfectly: ‘the past is not dead; it’s not even past’. As we edited the book together, events that I was exploring in a small Australian town often were an uncanny echo to real life, whether it be the Kavanagh confirmation hearings where two competing narratives about the one event years later had devastating consequences for those involved, or the 2018 California wildfire season being the deadliest and most destructive on record for that area.
Which is to say, read Australian crime fiction because while it will take you to a place unlike anywhere else in the world, what you will discover there are recognisable characters, understandable motives and most importantly of all, great stories, just like in American crime fiction. Great stories, plus kangaroos.
Born in London of Irish parents, Aoife Clifford’s second novel, Second Sight, will be published in the US and UK in 2019 by Pegasus Books. Her best-selling first novel All These Perfect Strangers was long listed for the Australian Industry General Fiction Book of the Year and the Voss Literary Prize. Her short stories have been published around the world and she has won the two premier short story competition prizes for crime fiction in Australia — The Scarlet Stiletto and the S.D. Harvey Ned Kelly Award, and been short listed for the UK Crime Association’s Debut Dagger, among other prizes.
What makes New Zealand crime fiction (or Kiwi Noir or Yeah Noir as we like to call it) stand out from the crowd? Is it our “wear your jandals [flip-flops] to your cousin’s wedding” informality? (Actually, the last wedding I went to, it was the bride wearing jandals under her wedding gown). The exotic Hollywoodness of writing murder and mayhem from “Middle Earth”? (No Hobbits were harmed in the writing of this novel.)
The question of what makes Down Under crime fiction unique was posed to an eclectic mix of Aussies and Kiwis at the recent Newcastle Noir Crime Festival in Britain. The tone was set early on in the piece by the panel chair tossing expletives around during the introductions, and the first thing to come out of the mouth of one of my favourite Aussie authors was “well f*#k me dead.” It should be noted that during this panel we bribed our way into the affections of our audience by handing out New Zealand biscuits to those who got spot-quiz questions right. But despite our brash and uncouth antipodean ways, the discussion brought up a number of salient points.
One of the definers of what made Down Under fiction unique was the influence our physical environment had on the characters, and how it often informed the crime. From the harsh realities and desperation of drought-stricken rural Australia, with its extreme fire risk, to the inescapable dampness of the rain-sodden West Coast of New Zealand. Southern Cross writers have long realised the value of having settings with extremes like no other. And what creates challenges and obstacle also offers beauty and fascination — our unique flora and fauna, wide open countryside and splendid isolation. We have the ability to transport our readers to an almost alien landscape.
Down Under fiction also carries an unmistakeable vein of black humour. We do not take ourselves seriously as a nation, and this comes through in our crime fiction. In fact, in New Zealand it is an offense to take yourself too seriously, punishable by ridicule and public humiliation. The same is true in Australia. (As an aside — we New Zealanders like to refer to our Australian neighbours as The West Island.) This is reflected in our fiction, where it has a rich seam of humour, and even in the darkest of places manages to find a way to elicit a wry smile. This in no way diminishes the seriousness of our works, or the underlying social themes and issues discussed in them, instead it strengthens and enhances them. A reflection of our resilience and fortitude.
Hand in hand with resilience is optimism. As a nation we are generally optimistic. Not “glass half empty”, or even “glass half full” people, more “hell, pass us the bottle will ya”. I have read works from authors that are unflinchingly bleak, and as a Kiwi reader that upsets me. I balk from reading authors who I know take such a pessimistic stance. As a country, we are a mix of peoples, from our tangata whenua [Maori “people of the land”] to our most recent immigrants and refugees. With this mix of ethnicities comes a mix of culture, religion, beliefs, and glorious diversity. As a nation, we strive to embrace everyone, and value our differences as well as our similarities. This attitude breeds an element of positivity. Again, this is reflected in our literature. Our crime fiction, although often brutal and harsh, still breathes hope.
Another perspective that struck us about Down Under crime fiction was our sense of being slightly separate from the big bad world and the awful things we saw broadcast on the world’s news every day. For New Zealand, our physical isolation as a group of temperate islands in the Southern Pacific ocean gave us a sense of safety and security. As a writer, it gave the luxury of murder being rare. Therefore its effect on the people and communities we were writing about would be truly shocking, devastating, pivotal.
All that changed on the 15th of March 2019 when a gunman entered the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch and opened fire on members of the Muslim community as they were at Friday prayer. Fifty-one people were killed, and many more injured. The craziness of the world had found its way here. Our perception of being safe was shattered.
New Zealand is a small country with a small population. Instead of there being seven degrees of separation, there is one degree of separation. We all know someone directly affected by the events of that day. My son lives in Christchurch — he was in lockdown at The University of Canterbury while the gunman was at large, while I sat here in Dunedin feeling sick and anxious. My nephew is a doctor in Christchurch — he was called into the hospital to treat the mass of injured victims. The killer had lived in Dunedin before he travelled to Christchurch to carry out his plan. He lived less than a kilometre from my home — I may have passed him in our local supermarket.
As a nation our sense of outrage was overwhelming, as was the wave of support and solidarity for our Muslim community. Our leader was unequivocal in her condemnation of the killer, and urged us to render the attacker nameless, and instead to speak the victims’ names, to recognise them. It brought us together as a nation, united in our shock, grief and outrage that someone could target a group of our community — men, women, children while at worship. It also caused us as a nation to take a good hard look at ourselves, and to ask the tough questions about how, as a society, were we as accepting and multicultural as we thought we were? How did we create an environment where racism and religious intolerance lead to such far-right extremist views?
So how will this watershed moment affect how New Zealand crime writers view the world, and approach their writing? How will it change Yeah Noir?
Those core underpinnings are still there, our pride in our sense of place and the unique physical environment we inhabit. Our sense of humour is unshaken, as is our underlying optimism and faith in human nature. But the reality is that our illusion of being somehow separate from global issues of extreme acts of violence has been shattered. This is something we have to come to terms with as a nation, and it is something that will undoubtedly be discussed through the medium of our literature.
Vanda Symon is New Zealand crime writer. Her novel Overkill has been longlisted for the 2019 CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger.