Southern Cross Crime by Craig Sisterson
The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film, and TV of Australia and New Zealand.
Brace yourself for more antipodean crime fiction in the next few years, we’ve just discovered it but they’ve been writing good stuff for a long time. Expect more “Yeah Noir/Outback Noir”* to muscle its way on to the shelves of our reopened bookshops. You may already be familiar with Vanda Symon, Emma Viskic, Chris Hammer, Jane Harper, JP Pomare, Sulari Gentill, and/or Liane Moriarty. If you want a get a heads up on what’s coming this guide is the book for you.
Antipodean crime writing is as old as…well, crime writing. This is something Southern Cross Crime highlights. Mary Fortune, from a remote Australian goldfield, wrote the world’s first police procedural in the early 1870s and the best selling crime novel of the nineteenth century was Melbourne based The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) by Fergus Hume. John Sutherland described it as: ‘The most sensationally popular crime and detective novel of the century.’ From an historical perspective I was curious about when aboriginal characters came into antipodean crime fiction and how they were portrayed there. I learned that Arthur Upfield’s Aboriginal detective Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte first appeared in 1932. There are plenty of fascinating details here to set the scene but this is about now, new/recent fiction, films and tv. The names I mentioned at the top of the piece are the latest crop of successful authors from down under, we are not looking at a phase or a fad, Southern Cross Crime is here to stay because they are producing quality writers and original novels. As early as 1980 Peter Carris melded hardboiled crime fiction with an Australian setting to create a distinct and authentic slice of noir in his Cliff Hardy novels. The use of the Australian/New Zealand setting has become more popular since then.
Southern Cross Crime is a fitting companion to the excellent Pocket Essentials Noir series created by Barry Forshaw. In fact Sisterson describes this collection as the ‘Pavlova’ to Forshaw’s ‘Buffet’. It came about while Forshaw was writing the latest in the series, Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide. It was Barry Forshaw who introduced Sisterson, a Kiwi and expert on antipodean crime fiction, to his publisher Ion Mills of No Exit Press and this book subsequently took wings. It’s ‘a comprehensive introduction’ written ‘magazine’ style, easy to read and very clear. A little bit of biography, a synopsis, and a review for each entry. This book includes historical crime fiction, (Eleanor Catton, Dame Fiona Kidman), and has a significant section on Young Adult and juvenile fiction, (Ken Benn, Ella West, Sheryl Clark):
“Anyone encourages kids to develop a love of reading, who opens those early doors to a whole world of learning and stories and imagination and possibility, is a rock star in my books.” [Sisterson]
The book, which focused specifically on the last twenty-five years, is broken down into broad categories with over 300 individual entries. Mean Streets deals with big city crime, (PM Newton, Marele Day, Paul Thomas, Fiona Sussman, Freda Bream, Leah Giarratano). In the Wop-Wops is about small town and rural crime, (JP Pomare, Chris Hammer, Jane Harper, Garry Disher). Home and Away (see what he did there?) is about the international settings, (Stella Duffy, Neil Cross, Paul E Hardisty, Hannah Kent, Maxine Alterio). Then there’s the section on Film and TV, (personal favourites include Underbelly, Jindabyne, Top to the Lake, Lantana, Mystery Road and Jack Irish but the must watch according to Sisterson is Animal Kingdom, ‘alive with menace, it raised the bar’). The book rounds off with some very interesting interviews with crime fiction big hitters, all very enlightening and entertaining. We learn that Peter Corris got the idea for his novels from the Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series and the city of San Francisco, he realised a PI story could work in Sydney. Paul Thomas took Shane as an inspiration for his detective and Emma Viskic took inspiration from the Grand Canyon.
The index is easy to use and the introduction by (literary) mass murderer Michael Robotham is entertaining, it also shows the respect writers have for Sisterson and his powers as a critic. Curiously a distant relative of Michael, George Robotham, was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1827.
I thought I knew antipodean crime fiction, I mean not just the popular guys also; Charlotte Grimshaw, Zane Lovitt, Marshall Browne, Barry Maitland, Paul Thomas and Emily Maguire. It turns out my knowledge, my reading only scratches the surface. There’s so much here, so many writers I didn’t know until now, until reading Sisterson’s guide. I didn’t know that Charlotte Jay was the first Australian winner of an Edgar for Beat Not the Bones in 1954. The list of authors new to me is very long indeed and I didn’t know of Adrian McKinty antipodean connection, or that Neil Cross and Marshall Browne are from down under.
Sisterson has a keen sense of quality in crime fiction, his comments are concise, well pitched and incisive. Peter Temple is the ‘gold standard’, Jane Harper is a ‘special’ writer, Garry Disher should be wider read, Chris Hammer writes with ‘sociological insight’. Readers will get a sense of the themes that preoccupy antipodean crime fiction: history and colonialism, (like Britain/unlike Britain), race, Australia versus New Zealand, rural issues, city issues, poverty and corruption, bad politics, climate, and drought.
This book is entertaining, informative and very readable for a guide. I get the sense there is much more to come from down under and that’s a good thing. Have this guide ready to be in the know. Morris West, Tom Keneally, Clive James, Ngaio Marsh and Peter Carey got me into antipodean writing now I’ve got a whole load of new authors to chase down thanks to Craig Sisterson and Southern Cross Crime.
*Michael Robotham introduced me to the term ‘Yeah Noir’ in his foreword to this book but I picked it up wrong, so just to clarify: it’s a New Zealand term, Outback Noir is Australian. Southern Cross Crime is both together.
Review by Paul Burke
No Exit Press – Paperback
ISBN: 9780857304001 September