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.’
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?