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Issue #1641      June 4, 2014

Culture & Life

A working class murder mystery

Australian writers early developed their own tradition of realism. Encouraged by the editors of The Bulletin, they wrote of the reality of life and work in the bush, on the one hand, and in the mean little houses and grimy factories of the cities on the other. This realist literature was popular among Australian workers, but did not find favour with right-wing academics like Dame Leonie Kramer.

From the cover of The Bitterbynde Trilogy Book III, The Battle of Evernight.

As Frank Hardy wrote in April 1985, “as professor of Australian literature at Sydney University, she [Dame Leonie] has fostered a conservative, elitist approach to literature and a belief that creative writing should be judged by words, images and symbols and should not concern itself with injustice, with contradictions in society, or the real world of men and women.

“As editor of the so-called Oxford History of Australian Literature, professor Kramer has consolidated her hegemony: the book denigrates the mainstream school of Australian literature from Henry Lawson to the present-day realists and fosters the formalist school from Christopher Brennan onwards.” Lawson was Dame Leonie’s “number one target”, says Hardy. “She has surrounded herself with staff who assertively attack the work of Lawson and later writers influenced by his tradition.”

Instead, Dame Leonie and other right-wing academics regularly championed the work of the middle class obscurantist Patrick White. Another of Dame Leonie’s cohorts, Professor Adrian Mitchell, wrote of Lawson’s prose in the aforementioned Oxford History: “Some of his stories catch brief glimpses of the old bush life, with the vantage point being that of the common man rather than the gentle reader.” Talk about damning with faint praise.

Mitchell also attempted to denigrate Lawson by saying “he took the side of the downtrodden, the unfortunate, the dispossessed … [but] in a now rather declamatory fashion.” As Hardy was quick to note, declaiming against injustice does not diminish the literary merit of Lawson’s work.

The English writer and actor Peter Ustinov astutely noted that Australian realist writing reminded him most forcefully of Maxim Gorki. But there was another tradition that emerged at the same time as the works of Henry Lawson et al: the genre novel, beginning with Fergus Hume’s The Mystery Of A Hansom Cab in 1886.

The most popular genre form was (and remains) the crime novel, although fantasy is fast overtaking it today. I have just finished reading The Bitterbynde Trilogy by Cecilia Dart-Thornton which is very accomplished high fantasy by an Australian author of considerable talent (and imagination).

Genre novels are bound by the conventions of their particular genre. Readers know the conventions and expect their authors to follow them. Australian crime novels tended to abide by the conventions of their English counterparts initially, later taking up the conventions of the “hard-boiled” American school of private-eye novel and so-called police-procedural.

As any reader of crime fiction knows, for decades, the prevailing form in English detective novels dealt with murder amongst the well-to-do, with posh house parties disturbed by the discovery of a body on the tennis court or in the library. They were very seldom set amongst working class people engaged in their day-to-day work. Writing for television has to some extent changed that, but not nearly as much as one would like to see.

American crime fiction also favoured crimes involving celebrities or wealthy employers. American crime writers were not afraid to venture into the world of ordinary working class people but usually it was to illustrate an excursion into the “criminal underworld”.

Which makes the work of Australian crime novelist June Wright (1919–2012) particularly interesting. She wrote her novels while working full-time as a telephonist at the Central Telephone Exchange in Melbourne (and raising six children), and her debut novel, Murder In The Telephone Exchange (1948) was set in the exchange.

The protagonists, including the feisty narrator-cum-amateur-detective, are drawn from the men and (mainly) women who work there. One of the attractions of the book is the authentic glimpse it gives of a now-vanished workplace and technology, the arcane world of the manual telephone exchange.

Also authentic, of course, is her depiction of working life in the first years of the post-war decade, when young women flocked to the cities from the country in search of jobs. She shows us a world of boarding houses, trams, dances and “the pictures” for entertainment.

Even the murder weapon is a now-vanished piece of equipment: a “buttinski” (a device that allowed supervisors to interrupt the calls being handled by the telephonists).

Murder In The Telephone Exchange was the best-selling mystery in Australia in 1948. Its debut author must have been decidedly chuffed by the fact she actually outsold Agatha Christie. Regular readers of my columns will know that I am not a fan of Miss Christie, but she was at the time the undisputed “queen of crime”, so it was no small achievement.

The mystery of who brutally murdered an unpopular supervisor in the ladies’ loo is handled quite well, with the heroine becoming a target for the killer as she gets closer to the truth. My only quibble is the excessive amount of explanation that the author sees fit to provide after the killer has been revealed.

When June Wright died at the age of 92, her novels were largely forgotten. However, they are being republished by Dark Passage, an imprint of Verse Chorus Press. Murder In The Telephone Exchange is the first to appear, to be followed later this year by a previously unpublished mystery, Duck Season Death. The publishers promise that “the other five novels will follow at intervals over the next two years”. The five novels in question are: So Bad A Death, The Devil’s Caress, Reservation For Murder, Faculty Of Murder, and Make-up For Murder.

Genre fiction is not everybody’s cup of tea, of course, but rescuing forgotten Australian authors is to be applauded in any case. Perhaps, if the venture is successful, someone will republish some of the realist novels originally brought out under the aegis of the Australasian Book Society.

Let us hope.

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