Another popular genre in Australia is crime fiction. Australians read crime fiction to be entertained, yes, but also to be reassured that criminals will be brought to justice. Crime fiction in Australia is an integral part of the literary landscape, perhaps inspired by the convict history linked with the inception of the colony in 1788. 1830 saw the publication of Quintus Servinton by Henry Savery, and since then crime novels in Australia have explored crimes committed from colonial times to the present day.
Australian crime fiction often takes place in Sydney or Melbourne. For example, Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair books are set in Sydney during the 1930s, although the characters don’t always stay there. Rowland and his friends (Milton Isaacs, the Jewish Communist poet who plagiarises other poems instead of writing his own, sculptress Edna, and fellow painter, Clyde) often find themselves in Yass, or on a ship, or in the dark days of the beginnings of Nazi Germany, investigating murders and subsequently getting into scrapes and danger that Rowland’s friend, Detective Delaney, or his brother, Wilfred, must get them out of. Kerry Greenwood, author of Phryne Fisher, has her heroine investigating in Melbourne. Rowland is an amateur detective of the 1930s and Phryne of the 1920s. Both represent the larrikin attitude of Australia, though Rowland is perhaps more restrained. Another amateur detective is Cass Lehman of the Cass Lehman series by Melanie Casey – Hindsight, Craven and Missing. Set in Adelaide, Cass has visions of death when she passes by a place where a death has occurred. Detective Ed Dyson often calls on her to help with investigations. Where Cass has a gift that she uses to help solve crimes, though it can put her in danger, the other two seem to stumble across the deaths and find themselves involved in the investigations.
Australian crime fiction, such as the three mentioned above, is influenced by the laconic humour, and an ambivalent attitude towards authority – the latter stemming from the convict history of the nation, and underlying and on-going attitudes towards authority figures and the way some people view them, even in literature. The settings within Australia can inform the plot and the murder. In Australia, Australian crime novels compete strongly against international titles. Because of this interest in Australian crime stories, awards such as the Davitt Awards, celebrating crime fiction by female authors, have been created. The Davitt Awards are named after Ellen Davitt, whose crime novel, Force and Fraud (1865), was first serialised in The Australian Journal, starting with the first issue.
The previously mentioned Rowland Sinclair novels by Sulari Gentill, and Phryne Fisher by Kerry Greenwood cross the historical fiction and crime fiction divide. They sit alongside amateur detectives such as Miss Marple, and are therefore only constrained by the limits of their curiosity and whatever restraint they may have. Rowland often has the misfortune of being in the right place at the wrong time to become embroiled in the investigations. As the series is set against the political turbulence of 1930s Australia, Gentill often injects real life historical figures into her works, such as Francis de Groot and the New Guard. Kerry Greenwood, through Phryne Fisher, tackles issues such as racism, how young, unwed mothers were treated, and the conditions for factory workers as her heroine solves crimes. Both Rowland and Phryne are able to devote their time to crime solving as they have family money that allows them to do whatever they please, and they represent the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian nature of Australians to a degree, much to the chagrin of older family members determined on ensuring they toe the line.
Another aspect of Australian history that may have influenced the enjoyment of crime fiction is the bushranger history, and Ned Kelly. Though a criminal, he is a national hero because he eschewed establishment and authority. It is a strange juxtaposition: people who fought against the law are seen as national icons and heroes, yet there is a desire to see justice being served. Perhaps it has something to do with who is murdered in the novels mentioned. Did they deserve it? As Rowland and Phryne, and indeed other detectives in Australian crime fiction investigate, the story of the victim can become entangled with controversy, the criminal usually has a darker story that can be related to the victim. Justice is still served; the victim is still mourned by some.
Australian crime fiction allows the reader to become an amateur investigator alongside the police and other characters looking into the crime. There is a satisfaction in finding out the clues as the characters do, and piecing them together, drawing up a list of suspects and trying to solve the crime before the characters do. Crime fiction serves to reassure readers that at the end of the book, order will be restored, and all will be well.