Locked in

Melbourne’s been back in lockdown, so a post on locked-room mysteries seems appropriate.

Locked-room mysteries are a sub-genera of crime fiction in which a seemingly ‘impossible crime’ is committed. The circumstances surrounding the crime make it implausible that the perpetrator committed the offence at all, or if they did, it seems unlikely they could evade detection. The crime scene is sealed from the inside with no way out (unless they were Houdini).

These stories usually involve a closed circle of people with a limited number of suspects and a whimsical detective to keep us guessing as they investigate. The solution is always right there, if only we could lay our eyes on the sleight of hand that plays on our curiosity. They are great mysteries for lovers of puzzles and a world away from gritty police procedurals or thrillers about psychopaths and the more brutal side of humanity. They are more cosy-supernatural-gothic.

Think a group of acquaintances getting locked up together on a remote property. They are caught out when the weather turns bad, making leaving impossible and bringing communications down. Keith, who had been driving everyone mad, is found dead in the garden shed. The garden shed has no windows and is locked securely from the inside. When the group break the door down they find Kieth lying on the floor with a bullet wound to his head. Strangely there’s no gun in the shed…Lucky one of the group is also a brilliant detective.

Locked-room mysteries were hot in the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. Agatha Christie perfected the genera, but Edgar Allan Poe is credited with invention of its long form in 1841 with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, although some say John Dickson Carr pre-dated him with The Hollow Man in 1935.

Casting even further back, the style was evident in short stories. In Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op story Mike or Alec or Rufus that appeared in the January 1925 issue of Black Mask, the action takes place in an apartment building and the private investigator tries to solve the crime through interviewing suspects; Wilkie Collons’ The Moonstone (1854) is also credited as contributing to development of the sub-genre. Elements can even be found in the Old Testament story of Bel and the Dragon in which an idol who eats food offerings from a sealed room is worshiped. The stories hero Daniel, exposes the secret entrance used by the priests who are taking the food for themselves.

In a Guardian article from 2014, Adrian McKinty nominated his top ten impossible murder novels, ranging from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) to La Septième Hypothèse by Paul Halter (1991). Interestingly there are a lot of locked room mysteries with a French origin.

Contemporary novels in this sub-genre are dominated by women writers and include Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (2016), The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall, The Last by Hanna Jameson, Nine Perfect Strangers by Laine Moriarty, The Last Resort by Susi Holliday, and One by One by Ruth Ware who must like four walls, a ceiling and a floor.

Locked room mysteries are concerned with psychology and relationships between people in high pressure environments. They study what can happen when we are forced to spend more time with other’s than we would choose to. When we see one another more clearly that we ever have before and it becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable because we are cut off from the outside world. Under these conditions our masks and defenses fall away and our true selves are revealed, warts and all. The evaporation of the veneer of civility creates a perfect environment for a mysterious crime. And of course there must be a brilliant detective to keep everyone contained until they solve the case.

I hope your lockdown was less dramatic, but if you can’t get your fill of a locked-rooms in lockdown try one of these:

  • The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-room Mysteries by Otto Penzier – collection of 68 of the all time best
  • Miraculous Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards – anthology
  • Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey – a bibliography of the problem and solution to 1,280 locked room crime novels and short stories

Know where you live

I was listening to Melissa Lucashenko interviewed on The Garret podcast about her novel Too Much Lip whilst I laboured in the garden. The novel won Melissa the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award amongst other accolades.

Too Much Lip is the story of Kerry Salter, a First Nations Woman, who returns to the place she has been avoiding all her adult life – her hometown. She heads south on a stolen Harley for one last visit to see her dying Pop. The novel is a dark, political, funny and fast paced story about the Salter family, love and redemption, set in fictional Bundjalung country.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip

During the interview Melissa spoke about relationships to land, connection to country, and the cultural differences in that connection and knowing. It occurred to me, with a little embarrassment, that despite having lived in the same place and admired the same fabulous view every day for twenty-five years, I did not actually know the names of all the distant landmarks. So I did a bit of research to educate myself. Sadly my efforts returned very little about the Indigenous culture of the specific mountains I can see from my balcony, though all fall within the Wurundjeri and Taungurung lands of the Kulin Nations.

One Tree Hill (372m), Christmas Hills.

One Tree Hill

Europeans named Christmas Hills after David Christmas, an emancipated convict shepherd who got lost in the area in 1842. Gold was discovered at One Tree Hill in 1859 causing a brief gold rush until 1964. Remnants of the mining activity are still visible if you meander along Happy Valley Walking Track through the bush and along the creek of that name. The reserve is home to the large bent-wing bat, eastern horseshoe bat, the carnivorous marsupial phascogale, and powerful, and barking owls.

Yarra Ridge (241m), Christmas Hills

Yarra Ridge is not just a wine label, though being part of Victoria’s first wine growing district most of the information online is about wine. The regions viticultural history goes back to 1838 when the Ryrie Brothers planted a vineyard at Yering Station and produced their first drop in 1845. Vines were first planted at the original Yarra Ridge vineyard by lawyer Louis Bialkower in 1983, though Yarra Ridge wines are now just a brand, having been taken over by Foster’s Group.

Yarra Ridge the place is part of the Great Dividing Range. The Watsons Creek catchment runs along the southern spur downstream form Kinglake National Park and is home to the Growling Grass Frog, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Common Dunnart and the Barking Owl.

From my balcony on 7 February 2009, I could see the glow of the fire that swept along Yarra Ridge which carried it down to devastate the Steels Creek valley. Alice Bishop, author of A Constant Hum, a book which grapples with the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, grew up at Christmas Hills.

Mount Graham (271m), Christmas Hills

Mount Graham overlooks Sugarloaf Reservoir, built in the 1970s to supplement Melbourne’s domestic water supply. The dam is fed by the Yarra River and the Maroondah Aqueduct that runs past the base of Mount Graham via the Sugarloaf pipeline.

There is a 14km walking track around the reservoir that skirts the base of Mount Graham. The more adventurous can take the steep climb along a rough track over native grasslands and through fern thickets to the top of the mountain.

Mount Tanglefoot (1024m) and Mount St Leonard (1100m)

Mount St Leonard

Mount Tanglefoot is just north of Mount St Leonard in the Toolangi State Forest. The two peaks are connected by a 10km saddle.

Toolangi is an aboriginal word meaning tall trees, a nod to the Mountain Ash and Myrtle Beech trees in the area that attracted the paling splitters and timber cutters who moved there in the 1890s. At least one of the giant beauties was spared – Toolangi Forest is home to the 400 year old, 65m high Kalatha Giant, a mountain ash that is the seventh largest tree in Victoria. The forest also houses a sculpture trail that takes in sculptures formed from materials taken sustainably from the forest.

Toolangi even has a bit of literary history. One of Australia’s most famous poets, CJ (Clarence James) Dennis the author of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke published in the early 20th century, lived in a hut at Toolangi in the early 1900s. He published his first volume of poems, Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, whilst living there.

Book Review: Maggie Terry a novel by Sarah Schulman

This pulp fiction novel bleeds desperation, anxiety and struggle and takes place during a relentless New York summer whilst a madman called Trump is in the White House.

Maggie Terry’s life is a mess but she’s been given a second chance. It’s her first day on a new job as a private investigator at a small law firm run by a guy who’s son she tried to save and failed. Now he’s saving her following the loss of her job as a cop after her partner was killed and 18 months in rehab after being sectioned by her now ex-partner who won’t let her see her child anymore.

Whoever had thought up date night for long-term couples should have been shot on the spot. It was all about creating pressure and then shining a light on everyone’s inadequacies. There was pressure to prove that one was loveable, pressure to keep up her end of the conversation, to show she was interested, to ask the right questions, to try to get the fucking discussion going in a way that would bring them closer. Not to fall into old traps of unresolved conflicts and problems that never went away, that was not the goal of date night.

All Maggie’s emotional energy is exhausted by being angry at her ex, missing her daughter and trying to stay sober by attending 12-step meetings intermittently throughout the day. She struggles with simple day to day tasks like buying teabags whilst trying rebuild her shattered life and take stock of all the changes in New York.

What was she supposed to do? Find a way to get foolish bravado out of mint tea, or find a way to be terrified all the time and let that be okay?

Famous actress, Lucy Horne, turns up at the law firm on Maggie’s first day seeking the discrete investigation of the murder of a strangled minor actress. Horne identifies the actresses famous novelist and boyfriend as a potential suspect.

That was the problem with taking responsibility, Maggie remembered. Everything becomes deeper. It is not a way out of life, it is only a way in.

The novel explores police brutality, addiction, queer love and New York nostalgia. I found it an easy, enjoyable and fast read.

Grand Dames of Crime: Georgette Heyer

English novelist Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was best known for her Regency romances but she also wrote crime novels. Heyer was not as prolific in the crime genre as her better knows grand dames of crime contemporaries like Dorothy Sayers, Ggnaio Marsh and Agatha Christie, but twelve of the fifty-seven books she wrote over more than fifty years were country house mysteries produced between 1932 and 1953.

“I can’t imagine what possessed you to propose to me.”
“Well, that will give you something to puzzle over any time you can’t sleep.”

Behold, Here’s Poison

Heyer’s country house mysteries contained women who drank (cocktails), smoked, swore, wore makeup and drove fast cars. They also included characters more in keeping with her Regency romances who were droll and witty: The withdrawn, solitary, Aspergerish man; the heroine governess; the alpha male; the gold digger and so on. She liked to play up the haughty, self-entitled scoundrels of the upper class and her exceptional awereness of human nature meant her mysteries were brimming with complex characters and elaborate family dynamics.

If you set aside the racism, sexism and class consciousness of the era, most of Heyer’s novels have clever plots, good pace, and settings akin to books written by Dorothy Sayers. Heyer employed both amateur incidental detectives and eccentric professional policemen to solve her crimes novels which are excellent for an indulgent and frivolous afternoon read with tea and biscuits.

Two of her best mystery novels (many of which are still available) are Death in the Stocks (1935) and Envious Casca (1941).

Death in the Stocks (1935) is an English manor mystery and black comedy in which a gentleman in evening dress is discovered slumped dead in the stocks on the village green beneath a sinister moon hanging in a sky the colour of sapphires. The book is brimming with superb and complex dialogue and eccentric murder suspects in the self absorbed Vereker family.

People who start a sentence with personally (and they’re always women) ought to be thrown to the lions. It’s a repulsive habit.

Death in the Stocks

In Envious Casca, there are three Herriard brothers. Nathaniel spends his time accumulating money and self-riteous indignation . William got married, had two children then died, and Joseph ran away from his legal career to join the theatre and marry Maud from the chorus. The couple eventually return from overseas to sponge off Nathaniel. The family all come together in the family manor for christmas, which is where the story begins, and Nathaniel is found dead in his locked study.

It was Joseph who had been inspired to organize the house-party that was looming over Nathaniel’s unwilling head this chill December. Joseph, having lived for so many years abroad, hankered wistfully after a real English Christmas. Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical person bound to on another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.

Envious Casca

Heyer was intensely private. She did not give interviews or make appearances and even shunned fans. When asked about her private life her pat response was ‘You will find me in my work.’ That being said, she was also understood (according to two biographies written about her) to be a formidable character with strong views that she was less shy about expressing in correspondence.

Georgette Heyer Mysteries:

Footsteps in the Dark, 1932
Why Shoot a Butler?, 1933
The Unfinished Clue, 1934
Death in the Stocks (Merely Murder), 1935
Behold, Here’s Poison, 1936
They Found Him Dead, 1937
A Blunt Instrument, 1938
No Wind of Blame, 1939
Envious Casca, 1941
Penhallow, 1942
Duplicate Death, 1951
Detective Unlimited, 1953

The perils and possibilities of zoomies and zines

My writing companion suffered a workplace injury a couple of weeks ago, so I have had to lay low whilst she recovered. As a hound, her primary interests are sleeping, playing, receiving pats and eating – more or less in that order. Whilst cavorting by the river with a deerhound, she sustained a small puncture wound in her side. I wasn’t too concerned initially as the injury was only about the size of the end of my finger, so simply I washed it out.

The next day I took her to the vet as I was concerned the wound might become infected. Fourty-eight hours later she had a large bald patch, eight stitches, and what a friend refers as the ‘cone of shame’. I was given instructions to ‘keep her quiet’ for two weeks till the stitches came out.

Harper is by nature a lazy beast, but she is also young and athletic and weighs 46kg. As time ticked by and she started to feel better keeping her ‘quiet’ required some supervision on my part which kept us home-bound. On a positive note it created ideal circumstances for writing and cooking.

I dusted off and edited a couple of short stories which I sent off to competitions. I also submitted my manuscript for consideration to another publisher after another round of editing.

In exciting news, a short piece I wrote on the theme of ‘Trash and Treasure,’ was accepted for a zine due out in February in time for Festival of the Photocopier (FOTP). Festival of the Photocopier is a zine fair coordinated by the Sticky Institute. Zine is pronounced ‘zeen’, as in the shortening of magazine. A zine is an independent publications made on the cheap. FOTP is normally a two day fair hosting hundreds of zine’s but will be online this February due to COVID restrictions.

Summer is a busy time in the garden and being close to home has meant plenty of time for green thumbs. My peach tree produced a great crop this year, but it’s a short season and one person can only eat so many peaches… The fruit is great for drying however, and makes little sweet fibre filled wrinkled gems that are like healthy lollies. Drying is a simple task – you just cut the fruit in half, remove the stone, dip the cut side in lemon juice to hold the colour and wack them in a dehydrator for about sixteen hours. Meanwhile the apple tree is lining up it’s bounty.

Book review: That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

Who doesn’t love an Irish accent?

That Old Country Music is a collection of eleven beautifully written short stories by Kevin Barry. The book is his second volume of short stories and he has also written three novels.

The strongest impulse she had was not towards love but towards that old burning loneliness, and she knew by nature the old tune’s circle and turn – it’s the way the wound wants the knife wants the wound wants the knife.

In the first story a lonely man develops a crush on a Polish waitress at his local cafe and is unprepared for its impact; in another a young Roma girl runs away from a tormented life and finds herself in the care of a kindly old hermit; a writer inherits a cottage from an uncle and finds that his new life transforms him into a ladies man; a vagrant crouches by a dog at the edge of a town and observes people around him whilst he talks to the dog.

He had the misfortune in life to be fastidious and to own a delicacy of feeling. He drank wine rather than beer and favored French films. Such an oddity this made him in the district that he might as well have had three heads up on Dromord Hill.

The prose is lyrical and poetic with a wild humour that explores love, lust, loneliness, desire and doom in the wilds of western Ireland. Barry develops the characters quickly, infusing them with yearning and longing, set against a backdrop of rich descriptions of the environment.

The hills displayed with arrogance the richest of autumn and glowed, and I walked in a state of almost blissful sadness.

I listened to That Old Country Music as an audio book narrated in a lilting brogue, sprinkled liberally with the F$@&k word, by Barry himself and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Book review: Traffic by Robin Gregory

Traffic is a contemporary crime fiction story set in Melbourne and is Robin Gregory’s debut novel.

Private Investigator, Sandi Kent’s ex-girlfriend hires her to scout out and plan the rescue of a sex slave from an inner-city brothel. Simultaneously a lawyer friend hires her to seek out angles to defend a Colombian immigrant charged with murdering another sex worker.

Sandi struggles with a sense of loneliness and finds it difficult to resist her manipulative ex-girlfriends advances, making it appear that she is helping Cassy out for all the wrong reasons. Sandi’s desires, and her deep empathy for the vulnerability of others, weaken her professional boundaries and she soon finds herself in much deeper than she ever intended to go.

Gregory explores difficult themes in Traffic but manages to do so with enough humour to make the story an easy read. Issues such as domestic violence, the underbelly of human trafficking, the sex trade, and drug trafficking are traversed against a backdrop of cosmopolitan Melbourne. The story sets a good pace and Gregory’s voice is quintessentially Australian. I found it to be an enjoyable and entertaining read despite the very serious themes embedded in the story.

Out with the old, in with the new

Happy New Year amigos! And thank you for journeying with me through 2020.

The scariest moment is always just before you start.

– Stephen King
are we there yet?

Fruit bats sailed across the dusky sky and the shrill buzz of cicadas echoed through the cooling air. Two dogs rested on the sofa after a gambol around the park befriending picnickers and searching for scraps. The table was laid with a delicious spicy meal of fish, tahini potatoes, and an eggplant, braodbean and soba noodle salad. Roast rhubarb and the first peaches plucked from my tree in the afternoon lay in wait on the kitchen bench for desert.

2020 was prickly. It was a strange year, with the main beneficiaries being household pets who got to have their humans around more. Humanity had developed a COVID weariness, a yearning for a return to ‘normality’, and a tentative hopefulness as the year drew to a close.

Reflecting on 2020, I am most grateful for friends and family, a little disappointed that I did not get more writing done, and genuinely curious about what 2021 will bring.

I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.

– Anne Frank
waiting for action

I sent my completed first manuscript out into the world of querying early in 2020. One publisher contacted me and provided valuable feedback that resulted in some rework. I shelved the idea of sending it further afield as COVID-19 took hold, and the industry entered a state of uncertainty, though I did submit to a few unpublished manuscript awards. No success so far, but I will re-enter the world of querying in 2021.

There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.

– Beatrix Potter

The first draft of my second manuscript is half way through. This year I hope to reinvigorate my work on it after a few months of distraction. Most of my recent writing, other than this blog has been short stories and journaling about day to day life. I have written less than I hoped through the year, but I did read more. Curiously my to-be-read pile didn’t diminish however. A selection of reading highlights, in no particular order, included an eclectic mix:

happy place

New years eve was a companionable night with friends, but I didn’t quite make it to midnight. I drove into the new year. Fireworks erupted from a paddock as I cruised past, lighting up the night sky in psychedelics that startled me and caused the laconic hound to sit up and search for the source of the explosions.

Never one for new years resolutions, I did not make any, but I have promised myself to be open to possibilities, embrace opportunities, and of course to write more.

May 2021 live up to the promises you have made it, and write you a beautiful story.

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

– Louis L’Amour

main image: Mainstreet and full moon

Book review: Joan Smokes by Angela Meyer

Joan Smokes is a 68 page novella by Australian author Angela Meyer. Winner of the Mslexia Novella Award (2019), this story is a case of good things come in small packages.

She used to be someone else, but decided to become Joan after she arrived in Vegas, to start again, shut her past out. It’s the 60s and she decides Joan has dark hair, red lipstick and wears floral dresses. Joan is also a smoker, so she buys a packet of cigarettes.

Joan moves forward amongst the casinos and flashing neon, finds a job and meets new people.

She’d seen the Las Vegas  strip in a movie. It is just as technicolor in real life. The radio plays ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes and she flicks it off because love songs are ice. The lights make sound in her eyes. On one sign: the soprano crescendo of pink. On another, a swooshing fan of green-blue.

Her mother always said one man is as good as another. She forgets about Jack, tries to let things go.

You will want to know what Joan is running from, why she is on the edge of a breakdown and why she thinks becoming someone else will make her believe it didn’t happen. A sophisticated and emotional read that will make you wish the story was longer.

Review: The Dry by Jane Harper – book to film

I read Jane Harper’s The Dry when it first came out and really enjoyed it. So I was excited to go and see a special screening of the movie at Cinema Nova in Melbourne this week. It was also the first time I’d been near a cinema, or any kind of cultural institution since March (pre-COVID) which engendered a sense of novelty into the occasion.

Three members of a family are murdered in a small, parched, Victorian country town. This is the second significant tragedy to strike the town in twenty years and Kiewarra is seething with a hostile undercurrent of mistrust. The first incident involved the drowning of our protagonists teenage sweetheart twenty years earlier. Federal cop Aaron Falk returns to the town for the first time since the girls death to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler, after he receives a note from Luke’s father that says ‘You lied. Luke lied. Be at the funeral’.

It is believed that Luke killed his wife and son, and then himself in a murder-suicide. When Aaron arrives Luke’s parents ask him to look into what happened. Aaron reluctantly agrees and finds himself trying to navigate local hostility to solve two crimes.

It is only four years since The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. It’s been a speedy process from book to film after filmmaker Robert Connolly read the book and loved it. Connolly’s filmography includes: All Men are Liars, The Monkey’s Mask, Three Dollars, Balibo, Paper Planes, and The Bank.

Eric Bana plays Aaron and there’s plenty of pensive, moody moments of pent up emotion as he struggles with his own inner demons as well as those of the town. Other cast members include Genevieve O’Reilly, (Glitch, Rogue One), Keir O’Donnell (American Sniper, Ray Donovan) and John Polson (Tropfest founder)

The film was shot in the Wimmera and Castelmaine and is a great one to see on a big screen to get that sense of the expansiveness of regional Australia. Due for release in January 2021.