Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 5: Crime

When I decided to write this sub-series, the genre that nearly stopped me before I started was crime, because I knew I’d have to do it! CRIME is so-o-o big that it’s hard to know where to start … so, I’m just going to dive in, share a select number of ideas, and let the rest of you, as you always do, fill in the gaps.

Crime, as you know, is not a key genre for me, but over the years, for one reason or another, I’ve read a number of crime books, ranging from cosy crime to police procedurals, from classic crime to true crime, from rural noir to literary crime, from – well, you get the picture. In other words, for someone not drawn to crime, I’ve read and, I admit, enjoyed more than I would have thought when I started this blog. I have also written separate posts about Sisters in Crime Australia and their Stiletto awards.


Angela Savage, The dying beach

Crime, being the popular genre it is, features regularly at writers festivals around Australia. It would be rare, methinks, to attend a festival and not find at least one panel devoted to crime. I’ve written on a couple myself – a crime panel convened by Angela Savage at the 2020 Yarra Valley Writers Festival, and a true crime one at the 2019 Canberra Writers Festival.

But, there are also festivals devoted specifically to crime, including these three held or to be held in 2021:

BAD Sydney Crime Writers Festival

To be held from 2-5 December, 2021. As far as I can tell, this is an annual festival that started around 2017. It “explores what crime can tell us about human beings today and in the past”, or, what BAD describes as “”the dark side that is part of being human”. They suggest that Sydney is particularly appropriate “because it was founded by convicts and their guards” and “has been significantly affected by crime and corruption for much of its history”. On the 2017 festival page, they argue that “you cannot understand this city completely without its vital criminal subculture”. The 2021 festival will feature “some of the biggest names in crime fiction, true crime and social justice advocacy”, including Jane Harper, Michael Robotham, Garry Disher, Chris Hammer, Xanthé Mallett, as well as Melissa Lucashenko, Robert Drewe, Richard Glover, Tony Birch, Larissa Behrendt and Stan Grant. This is a face-to-face festival, but all sessions will also be Zoom-ed.

Rural Crime Writing Festival

Held as an online festival on 12 June 2021, by the New England Writers Centre. Calling it the “very first of its kind”, they hope to repeat it. Participants included Emma Viskic and Yumna Kassab. Carmel Shute of Sisters in Crime convened a panel which discussed “the rewards of literary awards”. Would love to have heard that.

Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival: CSI: Tasmania Digital Festival

To be held as an online festival on 27 & 28 November, 2021. Described as Tasmania’s International Crime and Mystery Literary Festival. Like BAD, TARWF, which is located in the Huon Valley, offers a range of live, live-streamed and virtual events throughout the year. CSI Tasmania is their second festival, following their successful Murder She Wrote festival in 2019. It features Australian writers like Gary Disher, Sulari Gentil, Candice Fox and Anita Heiss, and international writers like Val McDiarmid and Ann Cleeves. TARWF’s founder and current director is crime writer L.J.M. Owen, and the organisation is volunteer-run.


Crime is also a genre that seems well served by awards and prizes.

  • Danger Award, offered by BAD. An annual award, established about 2018, I think, for “the best book, TV series, podcast or film about Sydney crime” (so not “just” books).
  • Davitt Awards, offered by Sisters in Crime Australia, since 2001. Prizes are offered in several categories for writing by women.
  • Ned Kelly Awards, run by the Australian Crime Writers Association and established in 1996. They offer prizes in several categories, including true crime, debut crime and YA crime.
  • Scarlet Stiletto Awards, also run by Sisters in Crime Australia, since 1994. This award is limited (devoted) to crime and mystery short stories “written by Australian women and featuring a strong female protagonist”. Clan Destine Press has now published eleven collections of winning stories.

AWW Challenge

Many of you know that I’ve been involved in the Australian Women Writers Challenge pretty much from its inception. It collects on-line reviews, mostly by bloggers and GoodReads readers, of books in all forms and genres written by Australian women. And crime, of course, is a big genre. An important aspect of the challenge is our Book Review database, which you can search via the Books Reviewed search page. Clicking this link, however, will take you immediately to a list of the reviews posted for over 950 crime books by Australian women writers. It’s quite a database now.

Finally …

If you’ve been paying attention, and I’m sure you have, you will have realised that there are many organisations in Australia devoted to supporting crime, including the Australian Crime Writers Association, Sisters in Crime Australia, BAD, and publishers like Clan Destine Press.

And, just to round it all off, this article in The Conversation provides a neat history of Australian crime – in case you are interested.

Do you read Crime? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction.

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 2: Defining moments – True Crime Panel

The reason for my second choice for the day – a panel discussion on true crime – may not seem quite so obvious as my first, so I’ll explain. I don’t read a lot of crime, but I do watch it, and I have a slightly more than passing interest in true crime. I loved Truman Capote’s In cold blood, I also love Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s consolation and This house of grief, and I have watched all of the Underbelly television series (for which one of the panel members, Felicity Packard, wrote). Is that justification enough?

Picture of the panelThis session was recorded for ABC RN’s Big Ideas program, and the host of that show, Paul Barclay, moderated the panel. The panel members were

  • Hedley Thomas, investigative journalist who has produced a highly successful podcast The Teacher’s Pet about the disappearance and probable murder of Lynnette Dawson.
  • Felicity Packard, screenwriter on Underbelly and other successful television series.
  • Rachel Franks, academic specialising in true crime, including from Australia’s convict and colonial eras.

Paul Barclay commenced by commenting on our penchant for true crime, and that it can be a “guilty pleasure” for many. These crimes range from the criminal slaughter of indigenous Australians in colonial Australia to twentieth century crimes such as the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, the famous Pyjama Girl case, and Canberra’s most famous one, the as yet unsolved murder of Colin Winchester.

Felicity Packard, on what interested her about true crime, said that the story comes first. She loves a good story, but she has also always been interested in crime. She wants to get into the minds of the criminals, not to glorify them, but to represent – and understand – them as people. She also said her aim was not to judge them. Their actions speak for themselves! Fair enough.

Hedley Thomas, on why we love true crime, said that his wife liked it because she wanted to understand crimes against women with a view to identifying how women might protect themselves. More women read, watch and listen to true crime, Thomas said. They tend to empathise more and want to protect themselves. For “the rest of us”, there’s voyeurism, but also an awareness of the fine line, of how easily we could lash out ourselves.

Rachel Franks, on whether our convict origins contribute to our interest in true crime, felt that yes, it was a contributing factor! Everyone back then knew a crook, she said! Crimes broke routines, and people followed them closely in the newspapers.

The conversation then discussed:

  • the role of the pursuit of justice, and of revenge, in our interest in true crime.
  • women as victims: why we are more interested in crimes against the young and the beautiful, and why, even, we see such crimes as more heinous. Packard saw the focus on beauty as a sad indictment on society, and Franks said the focus on the young dying taps into the notion of loss of potential.
  • the fact that some crimes captivate people more than others, such as that of Allison Baden-Clay, whom Thomas knew personally: this story captivated us, he suggested, because they were an ordinary suburban couple (on the surface at least).

Barclay asked Packard what she’d learnt about criminals, given she’d spent time with many during her research for Underbelly. Her answer was enlightening, though, I suppose, not surprising. First, though she clarified that the crimes she dealt with were mercantile, rather than domestic/personal ones, and were from “organised crime” (though she’d call them “disorganised”). These criminals are characterised by lack of impulse control, greed, a sense of entitlement, and a determination to protect their patch. She did not see these criminals as particularly loyal or as part of a brotherhood, as Mafia movies suggest. She saw some loyalties, but these tended to be self-interested and short-lived.

Regarding whether it is easier or harder to write fictional versus true crime, Packard said that with true crime you have the bare bones but huge knowledge gaps. She therefore needs to invent – but in good faith. She’s not making documentary.

Barclay asked Franks about colonial Australia and particularly about the 19th century baby-farmer crimes. Franks explained that baby-farming grew largely as a response to the stigma faced by unmarried mothers. Often these “baby-farmers” would neglect or even kill outright these babies. A particularly heinous couple were Sydney’s John and Sarah Makin from the 1890s. They apparently killed 12-13 babies, and yet few of us know this story. The outcry over the Makins’ case resulted in some changes to legislation, such as banning the paying for babies, but it took much longer to reduce the fundamental cause, the stigmatisation of unmarried women.

Franks said that the main value of true crime is that it forces us to have a conversation about it, including how did the crime unfold, what policies or behaviours supported it or allowed it to happen.

Different true crime spaces (for want of a better word)

Barclay asked whether some crimes are too horrible to adapt for television. Packard said that child murder and sexual abuse (particularly child sexual abuse) are too hard to turn to entertainment, which is the space she works in.

Thomas’s space is different, investigative journalism, specifically in cold case crimes. It’s painstaking work, as journalists don’t have police tools, and difficult because the people involved are elderly or even deceased. His Teacher’s Pet podcast brought more people forward. So, he said, if he used the podcast model again he would start broadcasting it before he finished it (which is something filmmakers/documentary-makers can’t do.) Media, Thomas believes, can play an important role in ensuring justice. It’s incumbent on journalists to try to make a difference.

Regarding the impact of media on fair trial, Thomas said it depended on whether you are talking to defence or prosecuting lawyers! He also said that accused people can apply for a judge-alone trial to avoid prejudicial jury, but overall he believes that jurors are sensible and can be well instructed by judges. Packard talked here about the court process still being in train when the first Underbelly went to air. Free-to-air broadcast of it is still suppressed in Victoria.

Barclay asked about the impact of the series on the criminals. Mick Gatto was concerned and didn’t enjoy the notoriety, Packard said. Those who were played on screen by someone attractive were less bothered, and those on the looser end of illegality enjoyed the notoriety (and did quite well out of it!)  Overall, though, she said it’s a nasty brutish world, in which every male is dead or in gaol by the time they’re 35. There are glamorous moments but they’re brief.

Franks works in the history space. She said that crime shows can teach us to be most frightened of the serial killer but for women the greatest danger is at their front door. These are the stories that need to be told. True crime can be high-jacked for entertainment, but the serious stories – indigenous massacres, and domestic violence for example – can be reframed as history, or documentary.

And, just to make sure we all knew we were in Canberra, we finished with the point that the murder of Colin Winchester is a great story that needs to be investigated and told.

It was a fascinating session. I particularly enjoyed its teasing out the different “spaces” in which true crime operates. It’s a more complex “genre” than I had realised.

Richard Lloyd Parry, People who eat darkness (Review)

ParryDarknessCapeCommenting on my review of Helen Garner’s This house of grief, Ian Darling recommended Richard Lloyd Parry’s People who eat darkness: Love, grief and a journey into Japan’s shadows. I’m ashamed that I rarely follow up the great recommendations I receive here, and I admit that it’s odd that when I did this time it was for a genre I rarely read, true crime. But, I was intrigued because it’s about a crime in Japan, and Japan is a country that I love to visit. Fortunately, Ian didn’t lead me astray. It’s a fascinating book.

I’m not a big reader of crime, in fiction or non-fiction form, but I have read a small number of true crime books over the years, starting, long ago, with Truman Capote’s In cold blood. True crime books vary in emphasis, but the ones that attract me are those that throw light on character and society. This is certainly the case with Parry’s People who eat darkness which tells the story of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old English woman who went missing in Tokyo in the summer of 2000 and whose remains were found that winter. Parry writes early in the book that “the story was familiar enough – girl missing: body found: man charged – but … it became so complicated and confusing, so fraught with bizarre turns and irrational developments, that conventional reporting of it was almost inevitably unsatisfactory, provoking more unanswered questions than it could ever quell”.

And so Parry attempts to answer these questions. In so doing he covers a lot of ground. He gives us biographies of both Lucie and the man convicted of killing her, Joji Obara; he exposes Japanese discrimination against Koreans; he explains the role of “hostesses” in modern Japanese culture; he explores Japanese policing and the wider justice system; he looks at the media; and he tells the story of the devastating impact of the murder on Lucie’s family. He’s a good writer and tells it well, but I felt we didn’t need as much of Lucie’s biography as he gave. We needed to know a little about her, of course – including why she was in Japan working as a hostess in Roppongi – but, while it was relevant to delve into Obara’s life, I did wonder about the relevance of telling us about, for example, Lucie’s various friends and earlier boyfriends. Did he include all this to balance out the space he was giving to the perpetrator? Why should Obara get more airplay, after all? The victim is often invisible enough. Still, it’s a long book and could have been tightened a little in this area.

However, this is a minor niggle, because Parry has written a compelling story. I must say that I feel uncomfortable using the word “story” for such a devastating event, and even more uncomfortable calling it “compelling”, but I can’t think of any alternative language, so will just have to continue. What makes it compelling is that this is a crime story that departed the usual scripts. Parry analyses the hows and whys of these departures.

“conquest play”

The first “script relates to the murder: it was not, it seems, premeditated but a date-rape (or, “conquest play” as the perpetrator so chillingly called it) that went terribly wrong. Obara had been practising for many years his perverted idea of “conquest play” in which he invited (or lured) women to spend time with him, during which he would sedate them with chloroform or date-rape drugs to enable him to carry out sexual acts. His behaviour had resulted in the death, in 1992, of an Australian woman Carita Ridgeway, but her death had not been recognised as a “murder”. This, together with the failure of the police to follow up a number of complaints about Obara, meant that Lucie was the next unlucky one to not survive Obara’s gruesome idea of “play”. Obara, though, argued to the end that she died of a self-administered overdose.

“not Japanese”

The next “script” is the trial, which did not run the typical Japanese course. Trials in Japan, Parry tells us, “do not resemble fights, battles or sporting events, as the adversarial logic of its laws seems to prescribe, but rather ‘ceremonies’ or ’empty shells’, devoid of even minor disagreements.” However, Obara fought his case vigorously. Parry describes in great detail Japan’s justice system, from policing to the trial and appeals. In Japan, he says, “you are not innocent until proven guilty”. He quotes sociologist David Johnson’s statement that “Prosecutors, like just about everyone in Japan, believe that only the guilty should be charged and that the charged are almost certainly guilty”. Consequently, in Japan, over 90% of those committed to trial are convicted – and a confession is expected. Parry writes:

‘The police are experienced in persuading people to confess,’ a senior detective told me. ‘We make efforts to let the criminal understand the consequences of their actions. We say things like “The sorrow of the victims is truly deep” and “Have you no sense of reflection on what you have done?” But he was not that kind of person. With him those tactics would never work.’ The detective had no difficulty in explaining this quirk in Obara’s character, although he hesitated a little in spelling it out to a foreigner. ‘It is hard for you to understand, perhaps. But it’s because he is . . . not Japanese.’

Obara was of Korean background, you see, and, as Parry details, Japan does not treat its Korean citizens well. Why Obara was the way he was is too complex to discuss here – though Parry makes a good attempt in the book – but from the police point of view, he was “not Japanese” and, once arrested, did not follow the expected path of a charged man.

“the most terrible, terrible event”

Finally, Lucie’s family, rather than presenting “a tight-knit” unit as is so often presented in post-tragedy media reporting, was bitterly divided. Her parents had been divorced many years before her murder, but it was not amicable. Lucie and her two younger siblings, Sophie and Rupert, lived with their mother Jane, while father Tim lived on the Isle of Wight. Lucie was close to her mother, and often kept the peace between her sister and mother. If all this was a sad situation before Lucie died, it was devastating after. The parents could agree on nothing, from how they responded to the media to how they would inter Lucie.

Jane is a more shadowy figure, because she largely kept to herself. Tim though, with Sophie, was active in the search for Lucie, using whatever resources he could garner. Parry clearly got to know him well, and presents to us an intriguing, sometimes contradictory, man, one who said that the death of his daughter was “the most terrible, terrible event of my life” and yet who could say he felt sorry for Obara. Parry writes of this that:

Nothing better caught the complexity of Tim’s own character, his stubborn unorthodoxy, which to me was so likeable and admirable, but which to many people was repellent. Almost on principle, he refused the obvious point of view and the temptations of conventional morality. The high ground was his for the taking, but instead of marching ahead to claim it, he dawdled and skirted around it, finding shades of pathos and ambiguity where others could see only black and white. Onlookers were not merely puzzled by this – they were appalled.

Parry’s portrait of Tim is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, but his picture of a family destroyed is heart-wrenching. Here is Sophie on the day Lucie’s remains were interred:

What was most glaringly obvious was how Lucie’s death had changed the relationships between all of us, and how as a brother and a sister, and a mum and a dad, we were just four strangers sitting round a table.

It’s a desperately sad story, which had longterm ramifications for Lucie’s siblings.

“the drive to pass judgement”

Parry, an English journalist based in Tokyo, spent around ten years researching this book. He attended the very lengthy trial, spoke to family, friends, police and others involved, and read a lot of written material including letters, diaries and emails. He tells the story from a first person point of view, sharing his research process along the way. He is not actively “in” the story like, say, a Helen Garner, but we can discern his hand.

Humans, he writes

are conditioned to look for truth which is singular and focused, hanging for all to see, like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nut. But as a subject, Joji Obara sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut; but the surface of the shell turned out to be fascinating in itself.

Near the end, he suggests that the “drive to pass judgement was one of the extraordinary effects of the case”. It is to his credit that he manages to steer an astutely observed but even course through unexpected scripts to capture the complexity of its “actors”, and thus of humanity. There is value in reading a book like this.

Richard Lloyd Parry
People who eat darkness: Love, grief and a journey into Japan’s shadows
London: Jonathan Cape, [2011]
404p. (in print ends.)
ISBN: 9781448155613 (ePub)

Helen Garner, This house of grief: The story of a murder trial (Review)

Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

Courtesy: Text Publishing

Well you might ask why you would want to read a book about the trial of a man accused of murdering his three sons by driving his car into a dam and escaping the car himself? Indeed, Helen Garner was asked why she would want to attend such a trial – and write about it. But Helen Garner is made of strong stuff, having previously written The first stone about the sexual harassment of two girls at Melbourne University’s Ormond College and Joe Cinque’s consolation about the trial of a woman accused of murdering her boyfriend via a drug overdose. I’ve read and appreciated both these books, along with novels and short stories by Garner, and so was keen to read this, her latest.

For those of you who don’t know the story, here’s Wikipedia’s summary of what happened:

… as Farquharson was returning his children to their mother after a Father’s Day access visit, his white 1989 VN Commodore vehicle veered across the Princes Highway between Winchelsea and Geelong, crashed through a fence and came to rest in a farm dam where it filled with water and submerged. His three children, Jai (10), Tyler (7) and Bailey (2), were unable to free themselves and drowned. Farquharson managed to escape and alerted another driver who took him to nearby Winchelsea. Police divers recovered the boys’ bodies about 2 am the next day. They were still inside the vehicle and unrestrained by seatbelts.

Farquharson claimed that he did not intend to kill his children, that he had blacked out during a coughing fit (a condition known as cough syncope). However, he was tried and found guilty, tried again after winning an appeal and found guilty again, and was then refused leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia.

Garner sat through both trials, the first one lasting around 7 weeks, and the second one 11 weeks, and managed to condense it all into 300 pages of lucid prose. One of the reasons I was keen to read the book was to see what approach she’d take. In The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation, Garner’s opinion is pretty clear from the beginning – and I didn’t fully agree with her (for very different reasons in each of the books). However, in This house of grief, Garner is more measured. She doesn’t want to believe that Farquharson is guilty – “longed to be persuaded” otherwise – but is gradually swayed by the evidence to believe it must be so. She doesn’t engage emotionally with the participants in the intense way she did in Joe Cinque’s consolation, but she is emotional. How could you not be in such a case? There are two reasons I like Garner – her tight, evocative prose, and her fearless honesty. And so, in this book, she tracks her own response as she listens to the evidence – from her disbelief that a father could do such a thing, and her sentimental desire to believe Farquharson, to her horrified admission that any doubt about it is “no more substantial than a cigarette paper shivering in the wind”.

So, let’s get back to the original question. Why read such a story? There are a few reasons, but I’ll discuss my two main ones. The first is to gain insight into, and understanding of, human behaviour. Why do people do what they do? It’s so easy to judge people out-of-hand, but even horrific events have nuances, and I want to understand those. Not to excuse, because it’s impossible to excuse taking the lives of those in one’s care, but to be able to empathise in some way. Isn’t this what literature is about?

Garner achieves this by not demonising Farquharson. As she watches him in court, and listens to the evidence – professional, personal, expert – she presents a picture of a man who was “emotionally immature, bereft of intellectual equipment and concepts, lacking in sustaining friendships outside his family”. At the end of the first trial, the judge speaks kindly to Farquharson, and Garner writes:

Farquharson nodded to him, courteous and present. For the first time I saw him as he might have been in ordinary life, at work, at school. It touched me. Again I felt shocked, as if this response were somehow illegitimate.

(Interestingly, Garner did not accord such recognition to Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s consolation. Yes, different case, very different people, but the principle still stands I think.) A little earlier in the trial, Garner quotes “a tough American prosecutor” who’d said to her:

‘If I were appearing for him, I’d try to make his family see that loving him doesn’t have to mean they believe he’s innocent’.

But, how tough that would be, eh?

My second reason is to understand the workings of courts and justice. I have never (yet anyhow) been called for jury duty. Oh my, oh my, after reading this, I’m even more desperate that I never am. Although it’s pretty obvious that the right verdict was achieved in this case, the process was not reassuring. Garner’s reporting of evidence and cross-examination reads very like those court dramas you see in film and television. There’s drama, police mistakes, twisting of the truth, character assassinations, conflicting expert opinions – and, in this case, a lot of complicated and sometimes obfuscatory technical evidence about cars and tire tracks and steering inputs, about arcs and gradients. And it goes on for weeks.

Garner keeps it interesting by focusing on the people and their reactions, reporting some dialogue, and summarising the critical (which, she makes clear, is not always the most relevant) points of evidence. Her descriptions of the defence and prosecution team are drawn with a novelist’s eye for character. Sometimes Morrissey, the defence barrister, is “as jumpy as a student undergoing an oral exam”, while at other times he’s “less flustered … more in control of the content and tone of his discourse”. His “waxen” appearance at the second trial is quite different from the beginning of the first when he’s presented as a hearty “spontaneous, likeable man” whose “stocks were high”.

She also pays a lot of attention to the jury. Of course we cannot know what they thought or discussed but Garner watches them, noting when their attention flags and when it picks up, when emotions get the better of them. She writes, for example, of one witness that “the jury liked him … he was one of the witnesses they instinctively trusted”. During her report on the second trial, she quotes American writer, Janet Malcolm who wrote that “jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character”.

Partway through the book, Garner comments that the question “Did he do it?” is the “least interesting question anyone could ask.” Later, between the first and second trial, she quotes a grandmother from another murky situation in which a father was suspected of killing his children via a house fire. The grandmother asks:

‘What’s worse? — living with suspicions and various possibilities and never knowing the truth, or living with the truth of something too horrible to contemplate.’

Books like Garner’s enable us – nay, force us – to contemplate such questions. They show us that trials are less about retribution, perhaps even less about justice, but more about the truth. What we are to do with the truths we so glean is another question – but that question, Garner suggests, is our “legitimate concern”, and I agree.

awwchallenge2014Helen Garner
This house of grief: The story of a murder trial
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922079206

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)