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Monday musings on Australian literature: June Wright, Crime novelist

January 18, 2016

Regular readers here may be surprised to see this subject for a Monday Musings given I’m not known as a crime aficionado, but never let it be said that I’m not open-minded. I came across June Wright last year in my role as convener of the Literary and Classics area of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and was reminded of her again when I wrote my 2015 wrap-up for the challenge. It occurred to me then that she was worth introducing to you!

Dorothy June Wright, née Healy, was born in 1919, and died only recently in 2012. She wrote six crime novels in the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Sydney Morning Herald‘s obituary, she was born in Melbourne, and went to school at Kildara Brigidine and Vaucluse convents, Loreto (in Adelaide), and Mandeville Hall (in Toorak). She worked from 1939 to 1941 as a telephonist at Melbourne’s central exchange – a significant fact as you will soon see – before marrying Stewart Wright in 1942. They had six children.

WrightTelephoneExchangeHutchinsonNow, here comes the significance of her job: her first novel, published in 1948, was Murder in the telephone exchange. Wright told a reporter at Melbourne’s Advocate that one of her co-telephonists at the Exchange had once said to her “‘You know you could write a book about this place!” The Advocate goes on to tell her publication story:

June Wright wrote her novel in the midst of busy household duties and a toddling, growing family. When the English publishers, Hutchinsons, announced a £1000 detective story competition Mrs. Wright sent along her manuscript, with a sceptical and open mind on its chances. The competition closed on June 30, 1944, but no manuscript, of the thousands submitted, was awarded the prize. Several, however, were recommended for publication by the judges … Among them was June Wright’s “Murder in the Telephone Exchange”. The publishers are evidently so impressed with her gifts as a story-teller that they have not only signed a contract with her for the immediate publication of the competition manuscript, but have also signed options on her next two novels.

Hmmm … not good enough for a prize but they chose to publish? Still, I’m sure the authors were happy to be published. The next two novels were So bad a death and The devil’s caress. Wright went on to be, apparently, more popular in Australia than Agatha Christie – and yet died pretty much unknown.

Reissued in 2015

The reason Wright has come to our attention now is that her novels are being reissued by US publisher Verse Chorus Press under their Dark Passage imprint, with three published in 2015. That’s not how I learnt about them, though, as I don’t have my ear to the crime genre ground. I heard about Wright through Karen Chisholm’s article on her in The Newton Review of Books.

However, before I tell you about Chisholm’s article, I want to share an excerpt from an article in Perth’s The Daily News. It describes an address June Wright made to the Housewives’ Association:

‘Yes, I have four small children, do my own house-work, and am now writing my third book,’ she told association members. ‘I began my telephone exchange murder story when my first child was a year old, entered the novel for an English competition and was delighted when it was selected for publication.’ Mrs. Wright thinks that housewives are well qualified for writing. They are naturally practical, disciplined and used to monotony — three excellent attributes for the budding writer.

Haha, love it!

I shared this first because it provides a good lead-in to Chisholm’s article. Chisholm, unlike fraudulent me, has read the three reissued novels, and she makes some interesting comments. She says, for example, of Murder in the telephone exchange that the protagonist, Maggie Byrnes “is the first of Wright’s strong female protagonists and we can’t help but assume that there is much of the author herself in Byrnes”. Nagaisayonara, writing at the Crime Fiction Lover website, argues that “it’s a complex, dark novel with a female detective who was far ahead of her time”, and believes that Wright is more like Dorothy L Sayers than Christie. Moving on to So bad a death, Chisholm tells us that Maggie is now married and looking for housing. She writes:

Wright’s family of six children is often remarked upon in interviews when she talks about the workload of writing she maintained, as are the connections between the life of her first character, Maggie, and her own life. Certainly that search for housing during the post-war shortage, and the slightly desperate search for distraction from the day-to-day sameness of childraising and housekeeping, is informed by experience.

Chisholm adds that the new Foreword for So bad a death states that Wright “would joke with interviewers how writing bloody murders was a good way to avoid infanticide”! She sounds like a woman with confidence and presence, doesn’t she?

Adelaide’s The Mail reviewer writing in 1952 about her third novel, The devil’s caress, says that

Mrs. Wright’s new and third work, which concerns odd doings on a Victorian peninsula, is outstanding in one respect. It has a powerful character study of a woman doctor — a commanding, aloof, and in some ways completely misunderstood person, who is married to a surgeon, the antithesis of herself. …  Mrs. Wright’s reportage is as ever brisk and competent. But I eagerly await the day when she concentrates more upon genuine, plausible detection and less upon melodramatic situations.

I wonder if this is why this book was not the third to be re-released last year, although I understand all will be eventually?

Meanwhile, Chisholm writes that in all the three books released so far, the third being the previously unpublished Duck season death, “there has been an underlying sense of fun being poked” and “hints at a wicked, very Australian sense of humour”. She concludes that June Wright was “one of the writers who forged the way for an Australian crime fiction scene that’s vibrant, varied and extremely engaging” and argues that she deserves to be “better remembered and more accessible”.

I must say I’m tempted … are you?

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2016 12:01 am

    Strong female lead, underlying sense of fun, I think I’ll have to pester my local bookshop to find me one. As for Wright’s interview, geology daughter (in her pre-PhD days) with one daughter at school and two babies at home, wrote a novel “to fill in the time”. She says I can read it but I am yet to receive a download.

    • January 19, 2016 7:10 am

      Wow, good on geology daughter!

      You never order online? Booko.com is a great source for finding books online, ordered by price including delivery fee.

  2. January 19, 2016 3:39 am

    Sounds like someone didn’t want to hand over the thousand quid.

    • January 19, 2016 7:12 am

      Exactly what I thought, Guy. Good way to attract some enthusiastic new authors …

  3. January 19, 2016 4:38 am

    Excuse my horrible, horrible self-promotion, but I read Duck Season Death recently and will be putting a review on my blog this Wednesday – it’s a huge amount of fun that anyone with an interest in classic detective fiction will get a lot from. I’ve not read the other reissues yet, but I absolutely will, and am hoping her remaining books are also put out by Verse Chorus Press as Wright seems to’ve had talent in spades. A wonderful discovery, I heartily recommend her!

    • January 19, 2016 7:14 am

      Thanks JJ … happy for you to self-promote, particularly if it means promoting Aussie writing too. I think I’m going to have to try one too.

      • January 19, 2016 8:11 am

        Oh, I’m uncovering a rich vein of Aussie and Kiwi authors of late – Norman Berrow, Max Afford, Constance and Gwenyth Little…there’s a lot of superb crime fiction in the classic mould coming to light of late. What a country!

        • January 19, 2016 9:46 am

          Thanks JJ for sharing these. Other rime readers here in particular will be keen to know these names.

  4. January 19, 2016 6:11 am

    I hope to read this one this year!

    • January 19, 2016 7:16 am

      You mean it was already on your list Orange Pekoe? Whatever the reason, it’s great that a new (old) voice is attracting such interest.

      • January 19, 2016 8:24 am

        Yes, it’s on my list believe it or not! There was one lonely AWW review for it last year which took my interest.

        • January 19, 2016 9:48 am

          Haha OrangePekoe, yes there was. Hopefully with some recent highlighting here and at the challenge there’ll be more this year. We want to encourage publishers to continue reissuing older books.

  5. meg permalink
    January 19, 2016 6:13 am

    So Bad a Death is at my library. I will try to borrow it today. Sounds interesting, and couldbe a fun read.

    • January 19, 2016 7:17 am

      Exactly what I thought Meg. Do come tell what you think, if you manage to get it.

  6. adevotedreader permalink
    January 19, 2016 7:38 am

    Thans for the background info Sue, the quotes are terrific. I’ll have to dig out my copy of Murder in the telephone exchange.

    The recent re-issue of overlooked Australian writers is providing a lot of enjoyment.

    • January 19, 2016 9:40 am

      Thanks Sarah … I reckon you will! (Sorry, Sarah, I wrote Elizabeth first … Another “devoted” blogger … And then though, no, this is Sarah. Nice to hear from you!)

  7. January 19, 2016 9:02 am

    I like her just reading these quotes. I think I would love to go to her house, sit in her kitchen with the kids running around and share a coffee with her.

    • January 19, 2016 9:44 am

      Haha, Pam, I love that response.

      • ian darling permalink
        January 19, 2016 9:08 pm

        There is only one Australian crime author i have heard of (but I haven’t read him). Arthur Upfield’s novels about the half Aborigine detective Napoleon Bonaparte were popular enough to be Penguinized in the 1950s/60s. Australia would seem to have all the ingredients to produce a strong crime scene – it has never quite happened. So no Ozzienoir! That may be a good thing in that crime fiction is almost too popular over here (it is one of the few genres of fiction that still seems to sell).

        • January 20, 2016 10:49 pm

          Oh yes, Ian, Great Britain has produced a swag of crime authors hasn’t it? I haven’t read Upfield – but I’m not a crime reader. However I did enjoy the TV series made of the books (though I wonder if I would today. I suspect they could have dated.) We have quite a few crime writers in fact, including Kerry Greenwood, Peter Corris, Peter Temple, and many others.

  8. January 20, 2016 7:36 am

    Wright sounds like quite the character! What a shame all her books, once so popular were forgotten. So glad they are being brought back. Do you think you will read one?

  9. January 20, 2016 8:10 am

    I just love this line: “Mrs. Wright thinks that housewives are well qualified for writing. They are naturally practical, disciplined and used to monotony — three excellent attributes for the budding writer.” Perfect in every way! Still chuckling.

  10. Moira Nolan permalink
    January 20, 2016 9:28 am

    Thank you Whispering gums – what will the duck shooting book feature, I wonder? (memories of my father’s duck shooting whistle, relic of his huntin shootin fishin days..); post war housing shortages and a writer who is not afraid to mention the sometimes deadening minutiae of child rearing and who is a keen observer of character (reminds me of reading about Barbara Blackman’s upbringing in boarding houses and ‘Portrait of a Friendship’ Letters between her and Judith Wright showing everyday life of an artist and mother; I could go on! Look forward to reading Murder in the telephone exchange which is at our state library.

    • January 20, 2016 5:08 pm

      Thanks Moira. I understand the Duck one is more in the mould of a country-house murder but it sounds like it has quite a bit of humour. I’m sort of keen to read it, I think, if I read any – though the telephone exchange is appealing too, particularly since she worked in one. I haven’t read Blackman. Another one for the list.

  11. January 22, 2016 5:25 am

    I love Mrs. Wrights thoughts on the attributes of a good housewife and mother being the same as a good writer.
    Interesting article, thank you

    • January 22, 2016 7:39 am

      Thanks Audiothing, she sounds fascinating doesn’t she.

      And welcome, nice to hear from you.

  12. meg permalink
    January 24, 2016 5:24 pm

    I have just finished So Bad a Death, and I don’t think I will be reading another one by June Wright. So Bad a Death stretches the imagination beyond belief and understanding; and far too many coincidences. Maggie whose husband is a Policeman at the end of the story says “Our methods may not be as dramatic as fiction would have them, as we don’t play to an audience.” However, June Wright does with this story.

    • January 24, 2016 5:33 pm

      Haha Meg, love that quote. Sounds like you agree with the reviewer who wants more plausibility and less melodrama. I thought if I read one I’d try Duck season death which sounds like it might be more tongue in cheek. It’s the one that wasn’t published in her time. Thanks for coming back to comment first hand on one of the books.

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