Surrogacy & The Night Ferry: Life imitating crime fiction

Night_070531123240552_wideweb__300x462Last week, as I read Michael Robotham’s dark and gripping thriller The Night Ferry, another scandal came to light that made me wonder whether crime writers can ever hope keep pace with reality when it comes to the murky world of overseas commercial surrogacy.

In The Night Ferry, an orphaned Afghan asylum seeker is given a choice between prostitution and surrogacy as a means of repaying her debt to the human traffickers who have brought her to Amsterdam. The young girl, Samira, a virgin and devout Muslim, chooses surrogacy; and in what is referred to as a ‘ritualised form of medical rape’, she is implanted with two embryos belonging to a couple in the UK.

The surrogacy is brokered by a charitable organisation, run by Julian Shawcroft, who believes he is ‘saving’ babies by facilitating their adoption, even if it involves cutting corners, breaking the law, and money changing hands. Meanwhile, the genetic mother of the embryos, Cate, is faking a pregnancy in preparation for the handover of the newborn. But she’s pretending to have one baby and Samira, the Afghan surrogate, is pregnant with twins. When Cate and her husband are killed in a hit and run, Cate’s friend, Detective Constable Alisha Barba, sets out on a mission to understand why Cate died and to find her child(ren).

Just when I was wondering about the plausibility of the plotline, news broke that an Australian couple, who used a surrogate in India to bear them healthy twins in 2012, had refused to take both babies home on the basis of gender preference. According to the ABC current affairs program Lateline, Australian consular officials in New Delhi alleged ‘the baby [boy] was passed to another family and that a sum of money changed hands’; they also alleged that a senior Australian federal politician intervened on the couple’s behalf to allow them to return with only one twin.

Not for the first time in the course of conducting my research into commercial surrogacy, I experienced shock at the lengths people will go to not only to have a child, but to have the child they want – lengths to match, if not exceed those imagined by crime writers like Robotham.

Cases such as this latest (which I’ll call ‘Baby Y’) and that of baby Gammy strengthen calls for a national inquiry into overseas commercial surrogacy with a view to greater regulation. For when a baby can be abandoned with the alleged collusion of a federal parliamentarian, possibly even sold; and when a convicted child sex offender can bring a newborn baby girl home from Thailand and leave a disabled child behind, what little regulation does exist in Australia seems woefully inadequate.

But regulation alone is unlikely to prevent abuses. Some states in Australia already have laws in place criminalising engagement in overseas commercial surrogacy. Yet, despite an increase in the number of babies born to Australians through overseas surrogacy in recent years, according to a recent Four Corners report, not a single prosecution has taken place. No doubt authorities in Australia, much like the characters in Robotham’s novel, are reluctant to initiate legal proceedings where they risk having to separate children from parents to whom they are genetically related, because they were born through illegal means. Not surprisingly, research shows the current laws do not deter Australians from seeking overseas commercial surrogacy services.

The issue seems to be not what legal protections are in place, but the lengths people will go to in order to get around them.

In The Night Ferry, DC Alisha Barba struggles to come to terms with how her late friend Cate, someone she knew and loved, might have knowingly participated in something as abhorrent as forced pregnancy and child trafficking:

It sounds preposterous but I’m still trying to justify Cate’s actions, trying to conjure up a friendship from the afterlife. She was an inept thief, a childless wife and a foolish dreamer. I don’t want to think about her any more. She has spoiled her own memory.

The other effect of cases like Baby Y and baby Gammy is that they stretch empathy for the plight of ‘intending parents’ to breaking point. While I genuinely feel for childless couples (and singles) who long have a baby, it hasn’t escaped my notice that in neither of the abandoned twin cases was surrogacy the solution to childlessness: the father of baby Gammy and his twin sister has grown up children from a previous marriage, the other couple said to have rejected the male twin because they already had a son.

The more I read, the more overseas commercial surrogacy looks less like a ‘pathway to parenthood’ for childless couples, and more like a marketplace where human beings are made to order and rejected if they fail to meet consumer satisfaction — if not what one of Robotham’s characters refers to as a ‘Goebbels-like fairy tale’.

It strikes me that among the questions that need to be addressed as part of a national inquiry is whether, as the Shawcroft character in Robotham’s novel believes, the ends justifies the means. Or whether, with each new scandal, the price we pay as a society for overseas commercial surrogacy becomes simply too high to justify the benefits for a select few.

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham (2007) is published by Sphere.

Posted in crime fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Wine and Crime: A celebration of all things noir

1410924039343I took an instant liking to the fabulous Kirsty Manning-Wilcox of The Reading Tree and Bellota/Prince Wine Store fame when we met at a couple of writers festivals in regional Victoria this year. When she invited me to be part of a literary event called ‘Wine and Crime: A celebration of all things noir’, it proved ours was a true meeting of the minds.

‘Wine and Crime’ brings together two of my favourite things in one literary event. I’ll be joining Text Publishing stablemate Jock Serong (left), whose debut novel, Quota, has been garnering great reviews, to chat over dinner about all things noir. As Kirsty puts it:

Author shot_Paul X StoneyThere will be readings, conversation and a lot of laughs as diners will see that crime writers really have the most fun! Gather at award-winning restaurant Bellota for a delicious 3-course meal matched with wine … Pinot Noir, of course!

Bellota Wine Bar and Restaurant also garners great reviews and, frankly, the whole thing sounds like my fantasy literary event.

For further information and to book tickets, click here.

Posted in Literary Festival | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Scarlet Stiletto Awards shortlist 2014

photoI’m thrilled to share news that my short story, ‘The Elephant Thief’, has been shortlisted by Sisters in Crime Australia for the 2014 Scarlet Stiletto Awards.

It’s the third time I’ve entered a story in the Scarlet Stiletto Awards. First time around was 1998, when my story, ‘The Mole on the Temple’, set in Bangkok, took out third prize. This modest success put the idea of trying my hand at writing a crime novel. I took the central character and made her the PI, Jayne Keeney, in my first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar. Jayne has since appeared in two more novels, The Half-Child and The Dying Beach. But if it wasn’t for the Scarlet Stilettos, she might never have seen the light of day.

The second time I entered the awards in 2011, I was lucky enough to take home the coveted ‘red shoe’ — the Scarlet Stiletto trophy. My winning story was called ‘The Teardrop Tattoos’ and was set close to home in inner suburban Melbourne.

With this year’s entry, ‘The Elephant Thief’, I return to Bangkok, circa 2013. Here’s the blurb I wrote for the Sisters in Crime:

Police Colonel Suthep responds to a call from Officer Kanokwan, one of Thailand’s newly minted female police cadets, who has detained a middle-aged Australian woman for trying to steal an elephant in an infamous red light precinct in Bangkok. Suthep quickly spots an opportunity to make money; but the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, especially when rats and women are involved…

I’m grateful to the Sisters in Crime for doing me the honour of shortlisting my story, especially knowing the calibre of other authors among the shortlistees.

Awards night is Friday 21 November 2014.

You can read my piece on the history of the Scarlet Stiletto Awards here.

By the way, that’s not the Scarlet Stiletto trophy in the photo. That bottle stopper is among the awesome merchandise available from Sisters in Crime.

Posted in Awards & Short lists | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Goddess of Tartan Noir

It was my great pleasure to interview the “Goddess of Tartan Noir” (we all agreed “Queen” was just too, well, royalist) Val McDermid during her recent visit to Melbourne at an event hosted by Sisters in Crime Australia in collaboration with Melbourne’s Athenaeum Library.


All photos by Carmel Shute

Actually, I had the pleasure not only of interviewing Val in front of an audience of around 140 fans, but also chatting with her beforehand in the Green Room and having dinner afterwards together with about 30 other Sisters in Crime.


Leigh Redhead, myself & chick magnet Val McDermid. Photo: Carmel Shute

This was Val’s sixth event with Sisters in Crime Australia. She makes a point of scheduling events with the Sisters whenever she’s in Melbourne and not only that, writes nice tweets about it afterwards:

No wonder we think she’s a goddess!


In addition to talking about her wonderful new novel The Skeleton Road, giving us her take on the Scottish Referendum, and discussing rough justice, Val had some great practical advice for writers. This included making regular time to write — whatever time works for you, provided you get the writing done.

Asked about the research she does for her books — and there’s a hell of a lot of it — Val says she reads widely in preparation, then writes without going back to the source material unless it’s to check for accuracy. She suggests the salient information stays with you, and if you can’t remember the detail, chances are it isn’t necessary in the story. I found this idea particularly helpful, given the amount of research involved in my current WIP [Work In Progress] and plan to put it into practice.

And speaking of my WIP, I recently read Blue Genes, the fifth novel in Val’s Kate Brannigan series, which is tangentially related to my thesis topic on commercial surrogacy. Interesting that Val anticipated by several years scientists’ ability to fertilise human eggs with genetic material from cells other than sperm.

Goddess strikes again!


Posted in Literary giants | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

I’d Like to Know What You’ve Learned*


Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of Margot Kinberg and her blog, Confessions of a Mystery novelist. Here I share Margot’s wonderful recent post on raising children who read.

Originally posted on Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...:

ChildrenreadingRay Bradbury is said to have made this observation:

‘You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.’

If you think about it, that quote makes some sense. No matter how many truly fine books there are available, if people don’t read them, they have no impact.

I’m quite sure I don’t have to convince you of the value and the joy in reading. After all, I don’t think I’m the only one who has a staggering TBR list (and no, you don’t get to know how many books are on mine. So there. ;-) ). The real challenge is passing on that love of books to future generations.

And it’s not just teaching decoding skills either. It’s not even teaching skills like identifying characters, remembering information and the like, as important as they are. It’s thinking about the ideas in books…

View original 1,308 more words

| Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Val Down Under: Talking with the Queen of Tartan Noir

Media release from the Sisters in Crime Australia website

Skeleton RoadTartan Noir Queen Val McDermid will be in wild and wonderful conversation with Australian crime author, Angela Savage, about her latest psychological thriller, The Skeleton Road, at Melbourne’s Comedy Club, 6 for 6.30 pm Wednesday 24 September 2014.

In The Skeleton Road, McDermid, the creator of ITV’s Wire in the Blood, turns her hand to a cold case involving detective Karen Pirie who has the task of identifying decades-old bones discovered hidden at the top of a Victorian Gothic building in Edinburgh scheduled for renovation.

“I’m thrilled to be in conversation with the Scottish Queen of Crime when she visits promote her new standalone novel, The Skeleton Road,” Savage said.

“I’d be terrified if it weren’t for the fact I met Val briefly on a previous visit to Australia and know her to be a warm and witty person, and a strong supporter of Sisters in Crime and women crime writers.”

“As well as interrogating her about her new novel, The Skeleton Road, I’ll be asking Val about violence in crime fiction, being a granny pirate, and whether or not she agrees with our Prime Minister on the issue of Scottish Independence.”

Sisters in Crime Australia has joined forces with the Athenaeum Library to present Val Down Under.

McDermid is the author of 27 bestselling novels, which have been translated into more than 30 languages, and have sold over 11 million copies. She has won many awards internationally, including the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and the LA Times Book of the Year Award. She was inducted into the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame in 2009 and was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for 2010. In 2011 she received the Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award. She has a son and a dog, and lives with her wife in the north of England.

This will be McDermid’s sixth event with Sisters in Crime.

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. All three of her Jayne Keeney PI novels were shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards, with The Dying Beach also shortlisted for a Davitt Award. She won the 2011 Scarlett Stiletto Award.

Comedy Club, 2nd Floor, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne (has lift). 10% discount for members from the Sun Bookshop bookstall.

$15/$10 (members of Sisters in Crime Australia, Writers Victoria & the Athenaeum Library/concession). Bookings

Tickets may also be available at the door (check websites).

Booking info: Athenaeum Library ph. 03 9650 3100

Posted in Literary giants | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Let Her Go

isbn9780733632228Dawn Barker’s novel Let Her Go is a psychological thriller about surrogacy and its consequences, set in contemporary Western Australia.

Surrogacy is a hot topic, given the recent case of the WA couple who paid a Thai surrogate to have their twins, only to take the healthy baby girl home and leave the boy, Gammy, born with Downs Syndrome, behind in Thailand – a scandal magnified when it was revealed the father had a criminal record for sex offenses involving minors.

But Barker’s novel consciously distances itself from commercial arrangements, exploring instead the risks and complications that can arise when surrogacy is altruistic and takes place within families.

Zoe and Nadia are stepsisters, raised together from a young age. Nadia, married to Eddie, is the mother of three children. Zoe and her husband Lachlan have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child. As the story opens, Zoe has just learned she will never be able to have a baby; her body has gone into early menopause as a result of medication taken for chronic illness.

Zoe quickly dismisses adoption on the grounds that she wants her ‘own child’, and because adopted children are damaged, ‘scarred by that loss’ of being given up by their mothers. Nadia shares Zoe’s misgivings about adoption, suggesting eligible children are ‘disturbed’.

The option of overseas commercial surrogacy is also mooted. But Zoe baulks at both the commercial nature of overseas surrogacy, and the idea of raising a child that was ‘Lachlan’s and someone else’s’:

Zoe had thought about it, but feared that she might never be able to love a child who reminded her of her failings every time she looked at it. (p. 37)

Again, Nadia’s attitudes reinforce Zoe’s. Nadia finds the idea of paying a stranger in a poor country both dodgy and distasteful.

‘I don’t trust anyone who’d want to make a profit from this. I want to give her a child because I’m family, and because she’d do it for me.’ (p. 54)

Although both husbands suggest it might be ‘easier’ to ‘use a stranger’, the women succeed in bringing the men around. Nadia acts as a traditional surrogate for Zoe and Lachlan and gives birth to baby Louise. A legal order is issued recognising Zoe and Lachlan as Louise’s parents, and everything seems fine.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes; and trouble is prefigured in the novel’s prologue describing Zoe’s flight to Rottnest Island by ferry on a stormy sea with baby Louise held to her chest.

Barker sets up a tense family drama and Let Her Go is a genuine page turner. The narrative point of view shifts among Zoe, Nadia and a teenage Louise, exploring the issues involved from each of their perspectives. Zoe struggles with the ferocity of her love for Louise, and her anxiety about Nadia’s claim on her. Nadia experiences the same grief from giving up Louise as women who relinquish their children for adoption. And Louise, for whom an ‘old familiar numbness’ has led to drug use and self-harm, feels like ‘a part of her [is] missing.’

Some heavy handed dialogue notwithstanding, Barker shares with authors like Wendy James and Honey Brown an ability to inject credible drama into ordinary people’s lives, encouraging readers to imagine what they would do in similar circumstances.

In reading group notes at the end of the book, Barker says she was drawn to write about surrogacy after watching a documentary on the topic and re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:

I personally felt conflicted: being a mother myself, I would never deny anyone the right to experience the joy of being a parent, but there are ethical issues to consider. I wanted to write Let Her Go to explore my own feelings about this complex issue. (pp. 331-332)

Let Her Go ultimately raises more questions than answers about surrogacy. But Barker’s novel can and should contribute to current national discussions about infertility, surrogacy, parenthood and the rights of the child.

Let Her Go by Dawn Barker (2014) is published by Hachette Australia. Click here for the podcast of my review for Radio National Books and Arts Daily, Wednesday 17 September 2014.

This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Posted in Reviews & Interviews | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments