For three days last week, a stretch of Collins Street in Melbourne’s CBD between Swanston and Russell Streets was transformed into a literary precinct, a string of new venues hosting the return of the Reader’s Feast Crime and Justice Festival.
My festivities kicked off Friday afternoon with the launch of The Readers’ Walk, an alliance of Kay Craddock Antiquarian Booksellers, Reader’s Feast Bookstore and the Melbourne Athenaeum Library, representing old, new and borrowed books. The Reader’s Walk Hands in Print project, also launched on the day, will see prominent authors’ hands rendered in brass and placed with the precinct.
‘Through their hands, writers touch the world,’ says Mary Dalmau.
The participating artist is Bridget Nicholson, who is currently working on an intriguing project, Touch This Earth Lightly.
Festival patron Ian Rankin was the inaugural inductee of the Hands in Print project, despite protesting that he’s ‘the world’s worst two-fingered typist’.
Rankin described himself as being ‘in love with words — the sort who reads the dictionary for fun’. As if the Edinburgh accent wasn’t already enough to endear him.
Saturday I participated on the first of two panels, on this occasion as chair of a session featuring Kerry Greenwood, Leigh Redhead and Fiona Young. Called ‘Ladies of the Night’ and held in the Collins Street Baptist Church — I didn’t know whether the dress code called for Madonna or whore — around 100 people turned up to hear us discuss why we write crime fiction, and whether women bring anything special to the crime genre. While I can’t do justice to our hour-long, broad ranging discussion, several comments have stayed in my head.
For Kerry Greenwood, the appeal of crime fiction lies in its structure: a puzzle to be posed and solved. Real crime, she said, is not like that, amusing the audience with an anecdote from her legal aid work in which a would-be bank robber held up his local branch, wearing a sheer stocking over his face and handing the teller a note that said words to the effect of ‘milk, bread, cat food’ — the demand written on the other side of his shopping list. Greenwood had no hesitation in ensuring the judge that ‘this man posed no threat whatsoever to society.’
Leigh Redhead’s taste in crime fiction leans to the hard-boiled but she grew tired of novels where ‘the women were all femme fatales who got killed in the end.’ She created her kick-arse PI character Simone Kirsch as a corrective, retaining the feature of the hard-boiled tradition that requires a PI to use physical as well as intellectual skills to solve cases.
Felicity Young was candid in explaining her shift from contemporary to historical crime fiction. ‘My agent said I needed to get out of Australia,’ she said. England was the logical alternative as it was where Young grew up, though she’d left as a child. Writing crime fiction set in the early twentieth century allowed Young to satisfy her passion for both literature and history. The result are novels with Britain’s first (fictional) female autopsy surgeon, Dr Dorothy (Dody) McCleland, as the lead character.
Dody — or at least her backstory — came to Young in the form of her grandmother’s memoirs. The real Dody McCleland’s family moved from the UK to a British enclave in Russia, a progressive and eccentric family whose members included the first English translators of Tolstoy. When I asked Felicity why she didn’t use this material to write a sprawling family saga, she said, ‘It didn’t even occur to me. I guess I’m programmed to write crime.’
American writer Tess Gerritsen created a stir at the Melbourne Writers Festival a few years back when she suggested the reason women like to read crime fiction is because they like to imagine themselves as victims. Greenwood vehemently disagreed.
‘I don’t identify with the victim, I identify with the hero,’ she said.
Young suggested part of the appeal of reading crime fiction comes from its neat resolutions — if not revenge — that is often lacking for women in real life.
There’s a scene in Redhead’s most recent Simone Kirsch novel Thrill City set at a writers’ festival, where a character quotes Ian Rankin no less, to explain crime fiction’s appeal. ‘If you want to know what’s going on in a society, read its crime fiction.’ I had hoped Redhead, in an example of art imitating life imitating art, might quote this scene. Instead, she gave us a hilarious account of the real-life Literary (with a capital L) writer who dissed Redhead on a panel at a writers’ festival, thereby becoming the inspiration for the victim in Thrill City.
And that, all of us concurred, explains a large part of crime fiction’s appeal as both writers and readers: the endless possibilities for wish fulfilment.
More on this theme in Part 2 of my Crime & Justice Festival de-brief…