Southern Cross Crime Craig Sisterson.
The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film, and TV of Australia and New Zealand.
They’re coming for us, it’s an antipodean assault. It’s “Yeah Noir/Outback Noir”* carpet bombing the bookshops of the northern hemisphere: Vanda Symon, Emma Viskic, Chris Hammer, Jane Harper, Liane Moriarty, the list goes on. It’s an invasion that comes out of nowhere!
Well actually it didn’t, antipodean crime writing is as old as…well, crime writing. This is a secret Southern Cross Crime let’s readers in on. 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, (not Sherlock or Dupin). John Sutherland described it as: ‘The most sensationally popular crime and detective novel of the century.” I was curious about when aboriginal characters came into antipodean crime fiction and how they were portrayed. I learned that Arthur Upfield’s Aboriginal detective Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte first appeared in 1932. Even if you just stick with the modern invasion Sisterson would date that earlier than you might think. The names I mentioned at the top of the paragraph are just the latest crop. What this book demonstrates is we are not looking at a phase or a fad, Southern Cross Crime is here to stay. As early as 1980 Peter Carris melded hardboiled crime fiction with an Australian setting to create a distinct and authentic slice of Yeah Noir in his Cliff Hardy novels.
Southern Cross Crime is a fitting companion to the excellent Pocket Essentials 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 to his publisher Ion Mills of No Exit Press and this book subsequently took wings. It’s ‘a comprehensive introduction’ written ‘magazine’ style, easy and clear. A little bit of biography, a synopsis, and a review for each inclusion. 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.”
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 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 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 mass murderer Michael Robotham is entertaining, it also shows the respect writers have for Sisterson and his power 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, 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 who knew Adrian McKinty, Neil Cross, and Marshall Browne are antipodeans?
Sisterson has a keen sense of quality in crime fiction, his comments are concise, well pitched, incisive and not repetitive. 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. 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.
NO EXIT PRESS PAPERBACK 9780857304001 SEPTEMBER, EBOOK available now.