Crime, Place and Politics

I met author Rowena Holloway during my recent visit to Adelaide for CrimeFest and was delighted when she subsequently invited me to be interviewed for her wonderful series, Writer’s Block: Author Interviews. With Rowena’s permission, the first part of our interview is reproduced below, complete with her terrific graphics and a link to her site.

Note, too, the special offer on iBooks for all three of my Jayne Keeney novels at only $4.99 each (until 22 Aug). Buy them here: Behind the Night Bazaar, The Half-Child and The Dying Beach.

Crime, Place and Politics: Interview with Angela Savage

Situated in an open-fronted bar on the famous Walking Street of Pattaya, the Coconut Club isn’t a place I’d normally inhabit. Especially not alone. Still, after the late afternoon humidity of Pattaya I’m grateful for the chill airconditioning. A slender Thai beauty works her grass skirt and flirtations on the leering blokes, using drinking games and flattery to keep the beer flowing. At the bar PI Jayne Keeney is on a case, looking pale and interesting as she coaxes information from another of the waitresses. She hasn’t spotted me, which is fine, because I’m here to meet her creator, award winning Melbourne writer Angela Savage.

RH: Welcome, Angela Savage! Thanks for meeting me here, in your very own steamy corner of Writers’ Block. I hope you think my recreation captures the spirit of your novels.

AS: Thanks for having me here at Writers’ Block, Rowena. Your evocation is so spot-on, I’m not sure I believe you when you say the Coconut Club isn’t a place you’d normally inhabit.

RH: *laughs* As some of the patrons might say ‘Don’t ask; don’t tell’ *wink*. What can I get you? Beer, whiskey, water? Hopefully I can catch the attention of the bartender, because the girls are otherwise occupied.

AS: I’ll have a beer in this (virtual) weather, thanks. I find a cheerful smile and a 500 baht note will usually get you noticed.

RH: Beer sounds good to me. *Pulls notes from pocket* That’s much better than the twenty bucks it takes in Australia!

AS: Actually, 500 baht is the equivalent of twenty Australian dollars, Rowena. But here, we get change.

RH: *laughs and blushes* Oops!

RH: I’ve really enjoyed my armchair trip to Thailand via Jayne Keeney’s investigations. Other readers feel the same. Your work is praised as being “taut, edgy and vividly realised…”, “a stunningly different kind of crime novel…bursting with moral complexity”, and as having “…dark themes handled with a deft touch”.  Your first novel Behind the Night Bazaar won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Unpublished Manuscript and each of your novels has been shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Crime Award. Congratulations! Share with us how it feels to receive such glowing reviews and whether such success helps or hinders your creative process?

AS: Thanks Rowena. I love hearing that readers enjoy the books. I was fortunate to win a Premier’s Award for the first novel I seriously tried to get published (by no means the first novel I’d written), and to have had all three of the books in the series shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award is very encouraging. I’ll be candid with you: awards, shortlists and glowing reviews haven’t really translated into significant sales for me. But they keep me going through the dark times. They also make it easier for me to talk about my books. I can say to people, ‘You don’t just have to take my word for it that they’re worth reading.’

RH: It’s a pity they haven’t yet translated into sales, because your novels are definitely worth reading…

RH: We must talk about Jayne Keeney as a character. Tough yet vulnerable, clever and resourceful, Jayne is also her own worst enemy in some regards, particularly with men. She speaks French and Thai and is capable of ‘vanishing’ even though her foreignness makes her stand out. From reading your biography it seems that you’ve drawn very much on your own background in sexual health and international development to shape your stories, so I’m interested in how Jayne developed as character. Did she come to you fully formed or did she grow as you wrote? How much of her character was shaped by the setting?

AS: Readers, especially those who know me personally, think Jayne and I are one and the same, because I made the mistake of giving her dark, curly hair like mine. I should’ve made her a blonde but, at the time, while I could imagine myself inside the head of a Thai cop or an Australian Federal Police Officer, a blonde seemed like a bridge too far…

RH: *laughing* As a fellow brunette I know all about that bridge!

Savage Jayne quote square

AS: Jayne first appeared in a short story I wrote for the 1998 Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards, called ‘The Mole on the Temple’, set in Bangkok. Winning third prize was enough encouragement to make me think I should have a go at writing crime fiction. Jayne subsequently acquired the surname Keeney (after the friend who suggested it, though I changed the spelling) and came along for the ride.

My previous attempt at a novel had been a transparently autobiographical account of a twenty-something Australia woman’s experience of Laos in the early-1990s. In order to get away from autobiographical writing, I gave secondary characters in Behind the Night Bazaar some of my traits, like Didier’s workaholism/passion for HIV education (in Behind the Night Bazaar) – traits that Jayne found annoying. This proved a good way to distance myself from my main character.

I’m getting to know Jayne more with each new book. I’ve blogged about whether Jayne Keeney and I would like each other if we met in real life. One reviewer described her as ‘an appealing character, emotional and yet capable of cold-eyed action. She smokes too much, speaks Thai fluently and likes a drink and a shag.’ I figure that’s one reason we’d get along: shared hobbies.

RH: *Tries to cover blush with laughter* Well, I don’t smoke or speak Thai but I reckon she and I would get along too…

Read the rest of the interview here…

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Review: Stay With Me

Stay With Me Stay With Me by Australian YA author Maureen McCarthy is narrated by Tess Browne, who has been living outside Byron Bay with her violent and abusive boyfriend, Jay, since she finished school. At the age of 21, a chance meeting with a couple on their way to Melbourne gives her a means of escape. She takes her three-year-old daughter, Nellie, and heads off to be reunited with family she hasn’t seen for four years, all the while knowing Jay will kill her if he catches up with her.

I know there are people who read the last page of a book first, and then go back to the beginning because otherwise they get too tense to enjoy the story. I am not one of those people. But Stay With Me is so suspenseful, I did find myself on occasion scanning the pages ahead, terrified of what might happen to Tess and Nellie.

Women escaping domestic violence often struggle to have their story believed, and I read a lot of crime novels that play with the idea of the woman being an ‘unreliable narrator’ (I’m looking at you, Gone Girl). But reading Stay With Me, I was never in any doubt that Tess was telling the truth. Her paranoia and panic attacks only added to the authenticity of her voice.

With a Royal Commission into Family Violence currently underway in Victoria, Stay With Me may help shed light on the phenomena behind the news headlines, such as why women in abusive relationships don’t ‘just leave’, and why women should not be treated as unreliable narrators in their own experience of violence.

That said, there is nothing preachy about this novel. Maureen McCarthy shows the brutal reality of family violence in the context of an absolutely thrilling read, with a cast of characters I could really care about. Highly recommended.

I will be interviewing Maureen McCarthy about Stay With Me at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Mon 24 August 2015 as part of the Schools Program. Feel free to suggest any questions you might have for Maureen in the comments box below.

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Melbourne Writers Festival 2015 Program

The Melbourne Writers Festival 2015 program is live. This year, I’m chairing three panels as part of the main festival program, and another three as part of the schools program.

I’ll also going to be joining Italian crime writer Simonetta Agnello Hornby for readings at the Italian Cultural Institute on Mon 24 August, 4.30PM — though (sadly) I’ll be reading in English, not Italian.

If readers of this blog would like to weigh in with questions for any of the guests on my panels, please feel free. I’m, particularly interested in thoughts about Gone Girl and other ‘edgy psychological thrillers with complex female protagonists’ (see below).

2015-brown-honeyAfter Gone Girl
Honey Brown & Ann Turner
Sun 23 Aug 10.00AM, ACMI Cinema 1
Was Gone Girl a game-changer? Or did edgy psychological thrillers with complex female protagonists already exist? Honey Brown and Ann Turner talk about the book that influenced a genre and discuss their own thrilling novels. In conversation with Angela Savage.


Secrets & Lies
SJ Finn & Tracy Ryan
Fri 28 Aug 10.00AM, ACMI The Cube
A marriage where subterranean cracks surface as stalking and affairs. A community where uncomfortable truths emerge, in public and private. In their novels, SJ Finn and Tracy Ryan chart the murky territory of secrets and lies. On stage, they’ll tell all. In conversation with Angela Savage.

Ethics of True Crime
Matthew Condon & Alecia Simmonds
Sun 23 Aug 1.00PM, Deakin Edge, Federation Square
True crime is hugely popular for its ability to combine gripping storytelling with insights into the human mind. But what are the ethics of turning real-life crimes into page-turning reads? Matthew Condon and Alecia Simmonds talk about the responsibilities of the writer. In conversation with Angela Savage.


Schools Program

2015-divaroren-demetGrowing Up Muslim
Demet Divaroren & Amra Pajalic
Mon 24 Aug, 10.00AM, ACMI, Cinema 2
How does growing up in the Muslim faith shape you? Meet two writers who know what it is to meet teenage hurdles while living a Muslim faith. Look beyond the stereotypes and hear some stories that may surprise.

Secret Sydney
Justine Larbalestier
Mon 24 Aug, 11.15AM, ACMI The Cube
In Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier explores the underworld (and otherworld) of Surry Hills in the infamous 1930s. She’ll talk to Angela Savage about the gangsters, ghosts and painted ladies who populate her novel, which was influenced by Ruth Park’s classic, Harp in the South.

Stay With Me
Maureen McCarthy
Mon 24 Aug, 12.30PM, ACMI The Cube
Teenager Tess left school and moved to Byron to start life afresh, but when the dream turns nightmare, she is faced with tough choices. For Tess, answers for a brighter future lie deep in the past. Share the journey with legendary writer Maureen McCarthy.

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Crime Fest debrief

Gabrielle Lord, Andrew Nette & Derek Pedley

Gabrielle Lord, Andrew Nette & Derek Pedley

At the risk of writing a sentence that sounds all wrong, it was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of #CrimeFest in Adelaide last weekend. I enjoyed the whole event from start to finish: the wonderful hospitality of our hosts, SA Writers Inc; the engaging panels that I both participated on and observed from the audience; Sunday afternoon’s workshop on ‘Setting in Crime Fiction’, while enabled me to get up close and personal with some terrific established and emerging local writers; even the wacky Murder Mystery dinner on the Saturday night.

The program opened on Saturday with a panel called ‘From Cosies to Courtrooms’, featuring Australia’s ‘queen of crime fiction’ Gabrielle Lord, crime writer and freelance journalist Andrew Nette (also my partner), and journalist and true crime writer Derek Pedley, chaired by SA Writers Director Sarah Tooth. The panel discussed the conventions of the genre and how to bend them. The #CrimeFest Twitter feed highlights a comment from each of the panelists that stayed with me:

Derek Pedley said that in writing true crime, he doesn’t shy away from writing about violence, but he tries to write with compassion, remembering that family members of the victims will be reading.

Andrew Nette said in response to a question from the audience that if you have to ask if your novel is too graphic and violent, it probably is.

Gabrielle Lord said she couldn’t pursue writing from the criminal’s point of view as the voice was so strong, it blitzed all others. As she put it, ‘The devil has all the best tunes.’

Me with writers Katherine Howell & Liz Porter & Bethany Clark from SA Writers

Me with writers Katherine Howell & Liz Porter & Bethany Clark from SA Writers

I was part of the second panel, ‘Writing Goodies and Baddies’, together with my Sister in Crime Katherine Howell, SA writer Diane Hester, and forensic psychologist Dr Michael Proeve. Our discussion explored characterisation in crime fiction, and the importance of motivation in creating believable characters, ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

The audience members, who were mostly emerging crime writers themselves, were keen to pick Dr Michael Proeve’s brain about psychopaths, which I found interesting. Michael pointed out that true psychopaths make up maybe 1% of the general population, possibly 25% of the prison population; and despite attempts to characterise such people as ‘evil’, they do tend to have a history of trauma and abuse. His insights supported my theory that how crime writers write ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ speaks volumes about their own perceptions of what causes crime. I’ve always seen crime as predominantly a failure of education and mental health care (and I’m by no means the only one); but much crime fiction portrays criminals as sick individuals, rather than products of social inequality.

There was also some interesting discussion between panelists and audience members about ‘detached’ characters (people on the autism spectrum) in popular fiction and whether they make good additions to investigative teams. One thing that emerged most clearly for me from the weekend is that the inverse appeared to be true: time and time again, what made a difference to the success of an investigation was the depth of feeling and commitment on the part of police and other key players.

This was brought home most powerfully by former SA Police Deputy Commissioner Neil McKenzie, with whom I had the honour of sharing a panel in the afternoon on ‘Structure, Pace and Plot’. Although the panel was ostensibly discussing crime fiction, Neil brought new insights into the investigative process, having worked on two of South Australia’s most notorious mass murder cases: the Truro Murders, and the Snowtown Murders. Again, what came through clearly in his account was the difference the dedication of police made to the investigation.

I had one fellow panellist challenge my assertion that the serial killer plot is passe; and I had to concede that, for readers in South Australia, with its bizarre history of gruesome crimes, serial killer plots require possibly less in the way of suspended disbelief than for readers in other places. I think the interesting issue for South Australian writers is to figure out what it is about the place that gives rise to such crimes. This was Salman Rushdie’s take when he attended Adelaide Writers Week in 1984:

Adelaide is the ideal setting for a Stephen King novel, or horror film. You know why those films and books are always set in sleepy, conservative towns? Because sleepy, conservative towns are where those things happen. Exorcisms, omens, shinings, poltergeists. Adelaide is Amityville, or Salem, and things here go bump in the night. (‘Rushdie on Adelaide’; accessed here)

Thankfully, Adelaide’s underbelly’s remained hidden for the duration of my visit. I enjoyed the warm hospitality of the SA Writers Centre, and the great company of their staff, my fellow guests and the festival participants, discovering new writers and forging new friendships.

Besides, it’s more than thirty years since Salman Rushdie visited. These days, Adelaide doesn’t seem quite so sleepy and conservative…does it?


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It’s Not Often Easy and Not Often Kind*

Angela Savage:

Crime fiction blogger extraordinaire Margot Kinberg has come up with a wonderful plan for simple labels to help readers choose which crime novels to read — and which to avoid. Have a look at Margot’s suggestions and feel free to add your own in the comments. My favourite is the ‘improbability’ icon.

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

IconLabelsI’ll bet you’ve had the experience of reading a book (or part of one) only to wonder why you’d wasted your time. I know I have. And with all of the great books out there, it makes no sense to read (or finish reading) books that aren’t worth the effort. The problem is, though, that most of us don’t have a lot of time available to decide whether we want to read a book or not.

Wouldn’t it be nice if books came with simple labels that could help you make that choice? Ever civic-minded, I’ve come up with an idea that I think would help a lot: a series of easy-to-understand symbols that could be placed on books. Here are a few I had in mind. I know you’ll think of others:

Drunk and Dysfunctional

This symbol is the ‘drunk and dysfunctional’ symbol. It tells you that the
protagonist is a demon-haunted…

View original 544 more words

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Review: Razorhurst

RazorhurstIt’s a long time since reading a novel has made me gasp out loud, but it happened with Justine Larbalestier’s Razorhurst, a gripping, bloody, at times heartbreaking novel, set in Sydney’s inner east in 1932.

The term ‘Razorhurst’, as Larbalestier notes in the ‘Acknowledgements & Influences’ section at the end of the book, was coined and deployed by journalists at the whimsically named Truth newspaper, to describe a culture as much as a place in 1920s and ’30s Sydney, where razor-wielding criminal gangs waged war for control of trades in sly grog, illegal drugs, prostitution, gambling and extortion. The era, and particularly its infamous vice queens, entered the contemporary consciousness through Larry Writer’s award-winning non-fiction work, Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs, and the TV show, Underbelly: Razor, that it spawned.

While Larbalestier cites Writer’s book among her influences, together with Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, and Kylie Tennant’s Fouveaux, Razorhurst, as she describes it, is a ‘wholly imaginary book’ that manages to be thrilling, informative and moving all at once.

The narrative point of view in Razorhurst alternates between Kelpie, a Surry Hills street kid of indeterminate age who sees ghosts and, as she muses, hasn’t been looked after by the living in some time; and Dymphna Campbell, ‘best girl’ of local mob boss Gloriana (Glory) Nelson. The novel opens with Kelpie and Dymphna meeting over the bloody corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s erstwhile lover and Glory’s top standover man. The key suspect behind Palmer’s death is Glory’s arch rival Mr Davidson.

What unfolds over the following twenty-four hours makes up the novel’s intense and compelling narrative, as Dymphna takes Kelpie under her wing, and both young women struggle to distinguish friend from foe and survive the night.

Kelpie and Dymphna’s narratives are interspersed with short, sharp (no pun intended) chapters about minor characters, settings and vignettes — e.g ‘Standover Man’, ‘Kelpie’s Theories of Ghosts’, ‘Gloriana Nelson’s Doctor’ — that add colour and depth without sacrificing pace. Somehow Larbalestier manages to balance a light authorial touch, while conveying a substantial amount of information and nuance.

But the novel’s emotional punch comes from its characters: Kelpie and Dymphna are wonderfully rounded and convincing; but also engaging are writer and brewery work Neal Darcy; Mr Davidson’s Aboriginal standover man Snowy Fullerton; Old Ma, Kelpie’s esrtwhile carer; and Miss Lee, who taught Kelpie to read — not to mention Glory, Mr Davidson, and their respective entourages.

Also worth noting is that the violence in Razorhurst, while bloody and vivid, is neither gratuitous nor glamorous (unlike the violence in the Underbelly TV franchise). The  consequences of violence are shown to be brutal and heartbreaking. In a short chapter called ‘Funerals’, for example, Larbalestier writes:

     Hard to come back from burying your own child. They should not die before you. Parents die first, then children. That’s the natural order of things. Not in the Hills though. Not always. Sometimes it felt like not ever.
Flowers and a coffin and a nice little burial suit did not to a thing to ease the ache in your heart. That’s what the alcohol was for.
That and to put you a few steps closer to your own grave. Why live once your children were gone?

Razorhurst has won awards as Young Adult fiction for Older Readers, although I could see little to distinguish it from an adult read, apart from (possibly) the age of the main protagonists. Highly recommended.

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier (2014) is published by Allen & Unwin.

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Review: The Unbroken Line

Unbroken LineAlex Hammond’s cracking 2013 debut Blood Witness was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book. The Unbroken Line more than delivers on the promise of the first, a taut and intelligent thriller that poses big questions about legality, morality, privilege and justice without sacrificing pace or suspense.

Melbourne lawyer Will Harris is still recovering from injuries sustained at the end of Blood Witness, when he and his lover Eva are attached by masked men in the Burnley Tunnel. Eva is injured and Will is given a clear message to back off. It is a measure of the messiness of his professional life that he’s unsure who’s sending the message. Could it be the Bosnian crime family to whom he is unwillingly indebted?

His problems only increase when he is called before the Legal Commission to answer for his behaviour in relation to what the Commissioner refers to as ‘the grey trade in information that goes on with the justice system’ and a ‘pervasive culture of exploited privilege’. Will’s efforts to establish just how pervasive, not to mention deadly, this culture of exploited privilege is, forms one of the novel’s key plot strands.

Meanwhile, Will’s partner in their fledgling law firm, Chris Miller, seems to be more interested in hanging out with footballers and their pole dancing hangers-on (no pun intended) than he is in shoring up the business. Out of obstinacy as much as anything, Will agrees to look into a case involving the son of a judge, a family friend, who is accused of bullying a classmate to suicide.

Connections among these various plot strands emerge that are surprising, but entirely credible. And while The Unbroken Line might be classified as a legal thriller, it reads more like hard-boiled crime: there’s not a courtroom drama to be found.

Will Harris is a convincing character, someone who believes in legal principles but is not above making moral compromises in order for justice to be served. He is a boxer, both literally and metaphorically, a bare-knuckled fighter — I did wonder at times how much more beating his body could take — and not what you’d call a team player. Whether this changes in the course of the series — the sequel is tantalisingly flagged — remains to be seen.

The sense of place in the novel is vivid, making Melbourne seem like a character in its own right. Hammond’s Melbourne is multicultural and multifaceted, a place that smiles on some and snarls at others. And a set piece involving the Melbourne Cup is sensational!

It’s my pleasure and privilege to be in conversation with Alex Hammond about The Unbroken Line at Readings Carlton on Thurs 16 July. The event is free, but please book here to join in the discussion.

The Unbroken Line (2014) by Alex Hammond is published by Penguin.

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