I’m still on a high following Death in July. That sounds so wrong, but it feels so right.
We were warmly welcomed on a cold Friday night by representatives from Ballarat Writers, MADE, City of Ballarat and Sisters in Crime. Yours truly gave the keynote address, ‘Beyond Dicks versus Dames: The state of Australian women’s crime writing’, in which I suggested there is “a unifying thread – albeit gossamer thin – that runs through Australian women’s crime writing. And that thread is moxie, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘force of character, determination, or nerve’.”
I said that while some leading characters in Australian women’s crime writing have moxie, “[m]ore than the characters they create, to my mind, it’s Australian women crime writers themselves who demonstrate the moxie.” I suggested there is moxie at work in the way writers re-cast as heroes characters who traditionally appear in crime fiction as victims. There is moxie in terms of the creative choices women writers make in terms of narrative points of view. There is moxie in the work of women who do not shy away from getting dark and gritty, and who subvert the stereotypes of the genre.
You can read the whole paper by clicking on this link: Beyond Dicks versus Dames_FINAL_Angela Savage. [I will upload a link to the video when available].
Another highlight of the launch was the screening of Chapter One of Blood On Ballarat, a serial short crime fiction story that got off to a running start thanks to Leigh Redhead, with nine Ballarat authors contributing subsequent chapters. Filmed by Yum Studio, each session during the festival was bookended by further episodes. A clever concept, brilliantly executed (no pun intended). Click here to view Chapter One.
The first session Saturday morning was Gum Shoes or High Heels? a discussion of trends in women’s crime fiction with Annie Hauxwell, Maurilia Meehan and yours truly again, chaired by Leigh Redhead. The discussion touched on geography; I voiced my theory that talking about place in crime fiction is what we do to avoid talking about the crimes. I was delighted when someone in the audience later asked a question about what crimes I dealt with in my novels.
We discussed how plots have moved from obsessions with serial killers and paedophiles to cover a broader range of crimes, notably family violence. We talked about how feminist PI characters have become less ‘perfect’, both more flawed and socially connected. We noted that Australian and UK female PIs tend not to be as armed and dangerous as their counterparts in other countries. We also talked about the pros and cons of writing series, which is what publishers seem to prefer. (Maurilia admitted to having four different publishers for her body of work, due to her propensity for trying new things). We touched on whether it is the role of the writer to be socially enlightening or simply to entertain, and I complained that there’s not as much political crime fiction in Australia as I’d like.
Click here to watch the ‘Gum Shoes or High Heels?’ panel on YouTube.
The second panel, Get ‘Em While They’re Young brought Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell and Nansi Kunze together with Lindy Cameron to talk about YA crime fiction. I was too absorbed in the discussion to take much in the way of notes, but I do remember Nansi saying that many adults read YA fiction as a preference for the pace, plots and “less jaded characters”. Ellie added that 55% of YA fiction is bought by over 25s to read themselves. Simmone noted that young people’s almost obsessive (self-)focus and less uncluttered lives makes them attractive as characters: they can legitimately focus on a case with few distractions. Interesting discussion, too, on sex and violence in YA fiction — specifically that the bar is higher for sex than it is for violence. Publishing in the USA, as Ellie will soon do, requires what to me sounded like elaborate warnings about language and sex scenes. For the violent scenes, not so much. Go figure!
Click here to watch the ‘Get ‘Em While They’re Young’ panel on YouTube.
After a wonderful reading by Judith Rodriguez from her novel The Hanging of Minnie Thwaites, Vikki Petraitis chaired the panel Boffins, Ballistics and Bones with forensic pathologist Dr Shelley Robertson, Detective Superintendent Tess Walsh and award-winning true crime writer and journalist Liz Porter. This was a fascinating panel on how “the CSI effect” has distorted public opinion, and even jurors’ expectations, about the ways crimes are solved.
As a crime fiction writer who knows little about forensic science, I admit to taking some comfort from Det Supt Tess Walsh’s comment that “old fashioned detective work not forensics is what solves crimes”; in this she included team work by police and assistance by the general public. Tess also spoke of (minority) cases in which forensic evidence has been crucial, and Liz Porter noted that her true crime books on the subject concern “the one per cent of cases” where this is so. Liz also gave examples of where cases based on DNA evidence has “spectacularly failed” — notably in the Farah Jama case.
Liz had a wonderful line on the “beautiful lies” crime fiction writers tell. These include the way we play with timeframes — real-life forensic tests, when they occur, generally take weeks to produce results — and the way we grossly underestimate suspects. She spoke of cases where police have interviewed 200 “persons of interest”, whereas in fiction, especially on television, suspects tend to be kept to small, manageable numbers.
Click here to watch the ‘Boffins, Ballistics and Bones’ panel on YouTube.
I had to leave the last session during the audience Q&A in order to frock up for the final event of the festival, The Great Crime Writing Debate: Dames vs Dicks, which saw Vikki, Leigh and I, arguing that ‘dicks’ do crime fiction better, against Robert Gott, Jarad Henry and Andrew Grimes, arguing that ‘dames’ do it better. Last time I attempted one of these comedy debates, I bombed, so I was nervous going into another one. But it turned out to be the most fun I’ve had in ages.
Vikki is simply one of the funniest women I know. Leigh — who, like me, was dressed as a 1950s housewife — channelled a Southern US Bible belt belle, and read hilarious passages on sex written by male crime writers; while I put forward the scientific case for considering reading and writing to be unnatural for women. Robert argued that women do everything better than men, Jarad talked about women being better at killing by castration, and Andrew brought the house down with comments like: “Times change and the world with it, but some things remain the same. There still ain’t nothing like a dame. There are however, many things like a dick. And these can be found online and in specialist retail outlets.”
Half the fun for me was watching the audience reaction from my vantage point on stage. People were laughing with tears rolling down their faces. Priceless!
Crime Writer Sandi Wallace writes more about the Saturday afternoon sessions here.
Photos and video links to follow. Meanwhile, congratulations to everyone who made Death in July such a brilliant success, especially Jill Blee and Carmel Shute.