Book Review: Sold by Blair Denholm

Nothing like a bit of noir to make you feel better about your own circumstances…

He and Maddie should simply disappear from the Gold Coast. The gaudy city masqueraded as paradise, but sometimes it was hell on Earth.

Gary Braswell is a ball scratching Gold Coast car salesman, a chain smoking compulsive liar with drinking and gambling habits, and he’s not averse to a bit of illicit drug taking either. His act now, worry about consequences later approach to life have left him in debt to a loan shark, Jocko, whose hired muscle is the worst kind of ex crim. Gary thinks his luck has turned when a wealthy Russian couple buy four cars from him that enable him to pay back his debt to Jocko, but Jocko wants Gary to run a little package to Bali for him as a late payment penalty. If he refuses Gary’s wife will be paid an unwanted visit from Jocko’s muscle.

When it came to heterosexual couples and serious vehicle purchasing Mr usually did the talking and Mrs the listening, and sometimes the eye-batting, lip-licking and hair-twirling. There were rare exceptions, about as rare as Gary tipping the first try scorer. He imagined the ‘work’ the woman referred to might be pole dancing or selling pot.

While Gary’s trying to work out what to do, his wife goes to stay with her mother for her own safety. Meanwhile Gary gets a new job as a real estate salesman chasing bigger returns with his bullshit, and his best mate agrees to help him hatch a plan to get him out of his pickle with the help of the federal police, some of whom are as dodgy as Jocko’s muscle. Of course Gary just ends up in deeper shit involving dodgy money laundering Russians, and his life spirals more and more out of control on sex, drugs and booze.

Snot dripped from his nose. He placed a hand to his forehead. Temperature seemed normal, but his arsehole was red raw. And if that wasn’t enough, the itchy balls were back.

Blair Denholm’s novel published by Clan Destine Press is quintessentially Australian noir with plenty of Aussie expletives. Denholm, who has an interesting past himself, crafts a protagonist who is wholly unlikeable, but redeemed for the reader by his habitual haplessness and a huge dose of gaudy humour. I’m just glad I’m not Gary Braswell’s wife, Maddie.

Gary’s bag of excuses was empty. He stared at Foss and gathered his thoughts. Suddenly his arms and legs started to jerk like Peter Garret at a Midnight Oil concert. In one rapid motion he collapsed and curled his body into the foetal position. He pulled his arms in by his sides and, unseen by Foss, pinched the soft skin on the inside of his bicep, and launched into a juddering, rocking motion. He grunted out primal-sounding noises which soon escalated into unearthly wailing.

Sold is not for the faint hearted, or those who are queasy about body fluids – it’s no cosy mystery – but it is a fun romp of a read if you like a walk on the wild side, and it could make your isolation seem not so bad after all. The sequel, Sold to the Devil is due out soon.

Book Reviews: Bitter Wash Road and Peace by Gary Disher

Australian veteran author Garry Disher has written over fifty books in a range of genres: crime thrillers, literary/general novels, short-story collections, YA/children’s novels, and writers’ handbooks. Disher produces about a book a year and was recognised for his extensive work when awarded the Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award, 2018.

I recently read Bitter Wash Road (2013) and Peace (2019). Stand alone crime fiction novels, though they both have the same protagonist and are set in the same town. Bitter Wash Road was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Awards, Best Crime Novel, 2014. Both novels are complex slow burners with multi layered plots that keep the reader engaged and guessing.

It was heart-stopping, seeing Wendy Street at a Hills Hoist set in the lawn, battling a great flower head of white sheets onto the line. They flung themselves about, enveloping, licking and taunting, flattening against her body and filling with air again. He watched her wreathe and dance, fighting, feeling blindly for the pegs and the line.

Bitter Wash Road

Constable Paul Hirschhausen (Hirsch), the protagonist in these two books is a whistleblower cop who was demoted and sent to remote, dusty Tiverton, three hours north of Adelaide off the highway in South Australia. Other cops don’t trust him and internal investigations keep hounding him. Hirsch spends his days trying to do the right thing and stay out of trouble trawling the country roads and building relations with the locals, doing welfare checks and resolving small grievances until more serious crimes take place and all hell breaks loose.

This close to Christmas, the mid-north sun had some heft to it, house bricks, roofing iron, asphalt and the red-dirt plains giving back all the heat of all the days.

Peace

Disher knows rural SA intimately having grown up there and invokes the isolation of a small country town and its inhabitants beautifully, using economical pared back prose to show the climate, distance, inhabitants and challenges of remote towns. Disher’s plotting is subtle and the years developing his skills shine through in these well crafted novels with complex characters.

Book Review: The Fragments by Toni Jordan

Who doesn’t love a writerly mystery novel?

Popular Austrian-American author Inga Karlson and her publisher were killed in a mysterious warehouse fire in New York in 1939, along with every copy of Karlson’s highly anticipated novel. The two were believed to be the only one’s who ever read the manuscript and all that remains are a few page fragments. Over the next forty years Karlson becomes a cult figure and the fragments become much studied and analysed.

And in the end, all we have are the hours and the days, the minutes and the way we bear them, the seconds spent on this earth and the number of them that truly mattered.
― Toni Jordan, The Fragments

Caddie Walker was named after a character in Karlson’s first novel and works as a bookstore assistant in Brisbane in 1986 after dropping out of university because of a failed love affair with a professor. When the Karlson fragments are bought to Australia and put on display in a Brisbane museum Caddie meets an old woman who calls herself Rachel and quotes what sounds like additional text from the book fragments that supposedly no one has read, and a mystery is born which Caddie is determined to solve.

“To spend her days reading and growing things. Could there be any better life?”
― Toni Jordan, The Fragments

The Fragments tells Karlson and Caddie’s stories across two different time periods, both of which Jordan brings brilliantly to life through her use of sights, sounds, smells and carefully selected cultural references. The character’s stories unfold at a pace into a twisty intermeshed climax. Part historical novel and part contemporary mystery the two stories are held together by the fragments and the theme of loss that runs through both characters lives. The Fragments is a page turner, and highly recommended.

“Books are time travel and space travel and mood-altering drugs. They are mind-melds and telepathy and past-life regression. How people can stand here and not sense the magic in them – it’s inconceivable to her.”
― Toni Jordan, The Fragments

The Fragments (2018) is Melbourne author, Toni Jordan’s fourth novel and the first I have read, but I’ll certainly be reading more her other work. Her debut Addition (2008) was long listed for the Miles Franklin Award, her second Fall Girl (2010) was optioned for film, Nine Days (2012) was named the Indie Book of the Year by the Australian Booksellers in 2013, and Our Tiny Useless Hearts (2016) was long listed for the International Dublin Literary Award.

Review: Adelaide Festival Theatre and WOMADelaide

On my annual pilgrimage to Adelaide for Adelaide Festival, Adelaide Writers Week and WOMADelaide, there was so much to see I’ve milked a couple of weeks worth of blogs from it. I had only been there a little over twenty four hours and my brain had already been thoroughly exercised.

Being immersed in a diversity of creative arts of all kinds provides inspiration and motivation for writing. This blog covers the theatre I attended and WOMADelaide music festival.

The Doctor By Robert Icke

The Doctor starring Juliet Stevenson, is an adaptation, by Robert Icke, of the play by Viennese dramatist, short story writer and novelist Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 production Professor Bernhardi, a portrait of antisemitism.

The adaptation broadens out the focus of the play to be about identity politics (gender, sexuality, race and class), ethics (medical, religious, parental) and power dynamics. The director extended the issues and really messed with the audiences head, perceptions and biases by casting women as men, white people as black and black as white.

The protagonist Ruth Wolff is a Alzheimer’s medical practitioner and secular Jew. She prevents a priest seeing a fourteen year old girl dying of sepsis as the result of a self administered abortion. He was called by the parents but the girl is not in a state to decide for herself if she wants to see the priest. The incident goes viral and provokes a petition and TV debates, that jeopardise Ruth’s career and the medical institutes funding. ‘The incident’ itself had some of the qualities of The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas in its impact.

All the characters in the play claim righteousness in their own positions and all are shown to be potentially compromised by their own characteristics or beliefs. The playwright employs an exquisitely torturous interrogation of the use and misuse of language, and the play was an exhausting, mind bending, and brilliantly performed piece of theatre that I will be pondering for some time. If you ever get a chance, go and see it.

Dimanche by Chaliwaté and Focus

The Belgian theatre production Dimanche (meaning Sunday) was both beautiful and harrowing. The almost wordless performance was delivered through the mediums of film, acting, sound and puppetry and depicts three friends tracking and filming the cataclysmic impacts of climate change.

It begins with three filmmakers journeying in an imaginary truck to the arctic to document the breakup of ice flows. Only two survive the experience and we cut to life size polar bear puppets on a futile search for food as their habitat disintegrates. The set switches to a couple living with an elderly relative in extreme heat. As they swelter under fans, the furniture melts, and eventually the elderly woman succumbs to the elements.

With each new scene, another of the friends falls victim to the impacts of climate change until the final scene which depicts the world under water. It was a stunning piece of theatre, precisely executed. I am very glad I went to see it despite leaving feeling like a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water.

WOMADelaide

WOMAD is a four day music, arts and dance festival held in Adelaide’s shady Botanic Park and a chance to immerse oneself in what feels like a parallel universe. Around 20,000 people per day and hundreds of artist from around the world gather each day to celebrate the diversity or music and arts with performances across eight stages scattered through the park.

My favourites included music by The Blind Boys of Alabama, Tami Neilson, Mavis Staples and Spinifex Gum; acrobatic performance by Gravity and Other Myths; and climate talks by Cristiana Figures the former UN Secretary for Climate and reflections on climate optimism by film maker Damon Gameau, scientist Will Steffen, environmental lawyer Michelle Lim and Adelaide Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor.

I departed Adelaide full of creative inspiration and having done some internal plotting and written a few scenes for my next novel, which will have an environmental theme and be set partly in Melbourne, partly in East Gippsland. Watch this space.

Theatre images from the internet

Book review: The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde

I almost drowned in the beauty and tragedy of this watery novel. The End of the Ocean is two stories that converge twenty-four years apart, either side of climate change induced environmental and societal collapse.

They talked, the two men, and the mountain ate up their words.

The End of the Ocean

In 2017, seventy year old Norwegian sailor, journalist and environmental activist Signe visits the place of her childhood. Once a place of great natural beauty, the river and waterfalls have been diverted for hydro electricity, events that destroyed the habitat of much flora and fauna, her parents marriage and her own first relationship. The glaciers are melting and she discovers her old love, whom she has never gotten over, is contributing to their destruction by selling glacial ice to the Middle East as a luxury item. She is infuriated and tips most of a load of ice into the ocean to melt and sets off in her sailing boat, Blue, with the remaining twelve non-degradable blue plastic containers in search of her old lover so she can dump them in his yard.

It is strange—no, surreal, surreal is the word—that I’m one of them, the old people, when I am still so completely myself through and through, the same person I have always been; whether I am fifteen, thirty-five or fifty, I am a constant, unchanged mass, like the person I am in a dream, like a stone, like one-thousand-year-old ice. My age is disconnected from me, only when I move does its presence become perceptible—then it makes itself known through all its pains, the aching knees, the stiff neck, the grumbling hip.

The End of the Ocean

In 2041, twenty five year old David worked at a desalination plant until the drought became so severe he had to flee with his family. He is a climate refugee in a French refugee camp trying to find his wife and infant son who he and his six year old daughter Lou became separated from when they had to abandon their home due to the drought and a massive fire. Once they have reunited they will head north to the water countries.

But the power came and went, the stores were emptied of food staples and the city became emptier, quieter. And hotter. Because the drier the earth became, the hotter the air was. Previously the sun had applied its forces to evaporation. When there was no longer any moisture on the earth, we became the sun’s target.

The End of the Ocean

Signe’s journey is fuelled by anger and despair at humanities destruction of the environment and personal sadness about her own relationships. As she encounters many perils on her sea voyage she reflects on her own life and relationships, and why she lives such an isolated existence. David’s journey is driven by desperation and the longing to be reunited with his wife and son as he tries to provide for himself and his daughter in a world where climate change and water shortages means day to day survival is tenuous. Gradually the two stories converge across time when David and Lou stumble across an old sailboat under tarps at an abandoned house far from the sea.

I have really tried, I have been fighting for my entire life, but I have been mostly alone; there are so few of us, it was futile, everything we talked about, everything we said would happen has happened, the heat has already arrived, nobody listened.

The End of the Ocean

The speculative fiction novel is a meditation on human destruction of the environment, climate change, family relationships and human resilience. The End of the Ocean, translated from the original Norwegian by Diane Oatley, is beautifully written yet a frightening rendering of what a future world might look like in the face of climate change. The ambiguous ending contributes to the haunting sadness infused throughout, a must read, but not a feel good one. Lunde, a climate change advocate, is also the author of The History of Bees (2015) and Przewalskis Horse (yet to be translated), both of which I will add to my reading list.

Book Review: The Dark Lake By Sarah Bailey

Secrets are at the heart of a good mystery and Sarah Bailey packs them into her debut psychological mystery, The Dark Lake.

The house turned out to hold more of Robbie’s secrets than I had ever expected, though I am sure there are many more that we will never know

The Dark Lake

Gemma Woodstock is a cop in Smithson, the small town in New South Wales where she grew up. She’s good at her job but a personal train wreck, which stems back to the suicide of her first boyfriend at the end of high school ten years earlier. Her relationship with her loving partner and father of her child is distant, she is sleeping with her married work partner Felix, struggles to be a good parent to the son she loves, and drowns her emotions in booze.

Probably I should move away, leave Smithson, but starting over has never been a strength of mine. I have trouble letting go.

The Dark Lake

When high school drama teacher Rosalind Ryan, who Gemma went to school with, is murdered, the small town is shocked. Gemma and Felix start to investigate the crime and the intertwined secrets of Rosalind and Gemma start to emerge. The investigation almost undoes Gemma in her effort to keep her own history and emotions separate from the case.

I allow myself to process the fact that Rosalind Ryan is dead. I suddenly feel startled to find myself a fully grown adult.

The Dark Lake

The book is a well written slow burner and hooks you in with a compelling and complex story line. It’s character driven with a well drawn cast who are easy to like and/or hate. The story shifts from the present to ten years earlier, gradually revealing the interlinking stories as the secrets are revealed.

Set in between a burst of mountain ranges, Smithson is a little oasis of greenery in the middle of endless fawn-colored acres of Aussie farmland.

The Dark Lake

I liked it enough that I will read the next in the series, Into the Night.

Dames of Crime: Helen de Guerry Simpson

Australian born of French heritage, Helen de Guerry Simpson (1897-1940) achieved much in her relatively short life. Simpson moved to England as a teenager and was educated at Oxford where she studied music. Her education was interrupted by the war, and in 1917 she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Services to work as an interpreter and decoder, unscrambling secret messages for the British Admiralty.

Simpson met and became close friends with another female crime writer, Dorothy L. Sayers in London. Both women were early members of the Detection Club along with other well known British detective writers like Agatha Christie. Sayers contributed to two of the Detection Club’s round-robin works The Floating Admiral (1931) and Ask a Policeman (1933) and the creative non-fiction The Anatomy of Murder (1936).

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?

Oath of the Detective Club

Simpson was a woman with dynamic energy and broad interests. She was known to be a good fencer, an accomplished horsewoman, and a student of witchcraft. She played the flute and piano and was an excellent cook and wine maker using ancient recipes to make her brews which she stored in the cellars under her London house. She also worked as a radio broadcaster, a playwright and ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate on the Isle of Wight in 1938.

Simpson was a versatile writer, publishing poetry, writing plays, short stories, crime fiction, historical fiction and historical biography and non-fiction. Her first book, Aquittal (1925), was written in five weeks as the result of a bet. Five of her novels were mysteries, three of which were written in collaboration with English novelist and playwright Clemence Dane (also known as Winifred Ashton) whom Simpson named her own daughter after. The authors first collaborative work was Enter Sir John (1928), followed by Printer’s Devil (1930) and Re-Enter Sir John (1932) set in the English theatre world with protagonist, amateur sleuth and actor Sir John. During this period Simpson also wrote the dark political novel Vantage Striker (1931).

Simpson won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for her 1932 novel Boomerang which was her first big success. Two of Simpsons novels and one collaboration were turned into movies. Enter Sir John (1929), written with Clemence Dane, was filmed as Murder! (1930) by Alfred Hitchcock; Under Capricorn (1937) set in NSW was turned to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1949 and starred Ingrid Bergman and Michael Wilding; and Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935) was filmed in 1948.

Simpson died age 42 in October 1940 after a short illness.

Bibliography

Novels:
Acquittal (1925)
Cups, Wands and Swords (1927)
The Desolate House (1929)
Enter Sir John (1929)(with Clemence Dane)-filmed as Murder! (1930) by Alfred Hitchcock
Printer’s Devil (1930)(with Clemence Dane)
Vantage Striker (1931)
Re-enter Sir John (1932)(with Clemence Dane)
Boomerang (1932), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize
The Woman on the Beast (1933)
Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935, produced as a film)
The Female Felon (1935)
Under Capricorn (1937, produced as a film in 1949)
A Woman Among Wild Men (1938)(with Clemence Dane)
Maid No More (1940)

Biographies:
The Spanish Marriage (1933)(with Clemence Dane)
Henry VIII (1934)(with Clemence Dane)

Collections:
Philosophies in Little (1921)
The Baseless Fabric (1925) Short stories
Mumbudget (1928) short fairy stories for children
Heartsease and Honesty: Being the Pastimes of the Sieur de Grammont (1935). Translation from the French

Drama:
Masks (1921)
A Man of His Time (1923)
Pan in Pimlico, collected in Four One Act Plays, edited by AP Herbert (1923)
The Women’s Comedy (1926)
Gooseberry Fool (1929), with Clemence Dane
Oxford Preserved (1930), with music by Richard Addinsell

Non-fiction:
The Waiting City: Paris 1782-1788 (1933), an abridged translation of Le Tableau de Paris by Louis-Sebastien Mercier
Has Russia Hoaxed the Worker?. Billings Gazette, 15 January 1933
What Communism Does to Women. Los Angeles Times, 29 January 1933
The Happy Housewife (1934)
The Witch Unbound. Collected in The Boat Train (1934), edited by Mary Agnes Hamilton
What’s Wrong with Our Hospitals?. Time and Tide, 1934
The Female Felon (1935)

Short fiction:
[Title unknown]. Nash’s Magazine, December 1928
My Daughter’s Daughter. Sphere, 1 December 1929
London in June. Sphere, 14 June 1930
Death Versus Debt. Broadcast as a reading by Simpson. BBC National Service, 29 June 1934
Puss in Boots. Collected in The Fairies Return (1934)
No Jewel Is Like Rosalind (1938). Broadcast as a reading by Simpson on the BBC (1938)

Translation:
A selection from Louis-Sebastian Mercier’s Le Tableau de Paris under the title ‘The Waiting City’ (1933).

Images: from the web

Book review: Into the Woods by Anna Krien

Deep down in our bones we must know – we must know that nothing we do is done in isolation. Cause and effect: how did it get so noisy in between?

Into the Woods

It’s hard not to talk about the climate and weather when it’s so in your face, and you spend a significant amount of your spare time cleaning up after it. We had a hailstorm with the ferocity of a tempest last weekend. One moment I was in the vegetable garden doing a bit of weeding, the next I was running for cover as hailstones the size of golf balls were hurled from the sky. Water tanks overflowed, gutters strained under the weight of the ice, paths washed away and torrents of water formed creeks where none had run before.

It was another of those moments, increasing in their frequency, where I marvelled at the awe inspiring ferocity of nature as she strives to demonstrate for humanity that climate change is real. Meanwhile many of our political leaders still grasp desperately to denial and the power bestowed on them by lobbyists, the powerful elites in the mining industry, and the likes of the Murdoch Press.

…those that have the power to change the situation are too scared to do anything in case they lose that power.

Into the Woods

I am half way through reading Anna Krien’s beautifully written narrative non-fiction book Into the Woods about the struggle over Tasmania’s wilderness areas, the people who exploit them and the people who try and protect them. Krien’s work is an exploration of the polarised and conflicting convictions, motives, emotions, power dynamics and allegiances of those involved in the struggles over the forests.

On the rear window of almost half the cars I see, there are stickers in eternal argument with on another. ‘Tasmania: The Corrupt State’ and ’Save the Styx’ versus ‘Greens tell lies,’ ‘Greens Cost Jobs’ or simply ‘Green Scum’ – slightly tamer versions of older stickers that read ‘Keep Warm This Winter: Burn a Greenie.’ It is said each glut of car stickers in Tasmania signals a new chapter in this intense and deeply personal debate that has been going for forty years.

Into the Woods

Krien speaks to everyone on her investigative search for information and understanding: activists, greenies, loggers, politicians, resident citizens. The only obviously absent voice, because they refused to speak to her, is Gunns who hold the economic monopoly over the logging and wood chipping industry in the state.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that deforestation and forest degradation contribute 17% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions

Into the Woods

Reading Into the Woods has echoes of the debates that happen all over the world in places where natural heritage and human greed come into conflict. Big companies chasing profits by selling products for humanities insatiable appetite for consumption of oil, coal, gas, timber, minerals, and land. Big public companies motivated by shareholder profits that have significant influence over the politicians they lobby and fund, stand in opposition to the passionate defence of forests and rivers and oceans by activists and environmentalists, with politicians riling the camps to maintain conflict in order to further their own agendas. Because conflict demands taking sides and creating allegiances, and allegiance translates into votes.

The activists tread a fine line between drawing attention to threatened areas and provoking resentment that can ultimately backfire against the forest.

Into the Woods

We are all complicit in the supply chain that leads to the destruction of our environment. We influence it in the day to day decisions we make about consumption, by how we vote, what we will tolerate, and what actions we are prepared to take to preserve the natural environment that sustains us. Krien’s work meditates on the world we have made and the complexity of the choices we must make. Into the Woods has astonishing resonance for the current re-ignition of the climate change debate in Australia as bushfires continue to rage across the country.

Most people travelling through Tasmania will never know of the long-running game of hide-and-seek taking place in the labyrinth of logging roads beyond the bitumen.

Into the Woods

It is often not until something impacts us in a direct and personal way that we take notice. This summer it seems that Australia is getting a taste of the future. It is an experience that has bought the issue of climate change into the fore again, while politicians of the day continue to try and smooth the way for them to get back to doing very little about it.

If anything there appears to be an indignant kind of mateship here, a loyalty that precludes empathy

Into the Woods

As I have been reading Into the Woods and Krien’s struggle to understand Tasmania’s relationship with the wilderness I had been pondering our current governments stance on climate change. Is it some kind of misinformed ideology? Religious beliefs? Naivety? Ignorance? Shape-shifting party power dynamics that mean being bold would result in loss of power, possibly being knifed by your own colleagues with the help of the Murdoch Press?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a logger or a greenie,’ she says, ‘it’s the fact that our government thinks its electorate are a bunch of dimwits.’

Into the Woods

The rhetoric about maintaining the coal industry is about jobs, but I am reminded of a section in Into the Woods where Krien notes the primary argument for logging in Tasmania was jobs. Then she goes on to write that in reality machines may be a bigger threat to timber jobs than ‘any greenie’. I suspect the same applies to the coal industry, which is increasingly automated. Then I saw a piece of Michael West’s investigative journalism called Dirty Power made for Greenpeace. It’s a social network analysis of connections between the Coalition and the Coal Industry, and is fascinating viewing. After seeing it I concluded the primary motivations to maintain the status quo must be a particular blend of allegiances, greed and power.

Standing on a lookout with the maps spread out around us, I can imagine how easily deals might be done in boardrooms, where wilderness is reduced to abstract numbers of hectares and its fate sealed with a handshake.

Into the Woods

While Krien was writing her book, I was studying climate change at university; reading Thoreau, studying bushfire behaviour with Kevin Tolhorst, and reading documents like the Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change reports predicting would happen without action to reduce greenhouse emissions. I am sad to say it all appears to be starting to come to fruition in a much more obvious way.

Why Tasmania?’ Barry Chipman once asked me. He’s right–in the greater scheme of things, the island is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But its story is universal–and what goes on in Tasmania goes on in the mainland, goes on in the Pacific islands, in other continents, until it comes straight back over the ice to Tasmania again. You can follow its story like a ball of wool, get tangled in it and unravel it.

Into the Woods

Once the summer is over and the fires are out, when the smoke has cleared and the first green shoots start to appear in the charred remains of Australia’s forests I can’t help wonder what will happen. Will we all breathe out a sigh and go back to doing what we’ve always done as our memory of what happened fades? Or will our collective shock at what we have done to our planet, and its consequences maintain enough rage to motivate citizens to drive our coal loving, climate change denying political leaders and their allies to take steps to make the changes we need to at least try to get a different outcome?

Some scientists are beginning to describe the modern geological era as the Anthropocene, the sixth in a series of mass extinctions, all said to be caused by extreme phenomena, in this case the harmful activities of humans. Perhaps even more poignant is biologist Edward O. Wilson’s description of the period that will follow. Wilson says it will be ‘the Age of Loneliness’–a planet inhabited by us and not much else. In his version of the future there is no apocalypse, no doom, no gates of hell, no wrath of god or mass hysteria, only sadness. I wonder if perhaps the Age of Loneliness has already begun, its effects far more complicated than we realise.

Into the Woods

I highly recommend reading Into the Woods, for its insights into Tasmania, the politics of forestry, its resonance with the global debate about climate change and for the beauty of its writing.

Dames Of Crime: Dorothy Salisbury Davis

This post continues my Grand Dames of Crime series exploring some of the best women crime writers from history.

American mystery writer Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2014) was born in Chicago and adopted out to a tenant dairy farmer and his Irish immigrant wife. Davis grew up in Illinois and Wisconsin, only finding out she was adopted in adulthood. She studied English and History, graduated in 1938 in the middle of the Great Depression and secured a job as a magician’s assistant, an experience that emerged in her novels which often included a seedy magician. Eventually she moved on from magic after finding a job in public relations and become a magazine editor. She married character actor Harry Davis (The Fortune Cookie, America America) in 1946 and they moved to New York where she began to write.

We reveal more of ourselves in the lies we tell than we do when we try to tell the truth.

A Death in the Life

Her first novel, the Judas Cat was published in 1949. The story opens with the mysterious death of a recluse in a small town, his bloody demise witnessed only by his cat. Davis often murdered people and animals in the first pages of her books, but her tautly crafted stories generally contained little violence otherwise, though they were not cosy mysteries. The author relied on plots driven by psychological suspense and portrayed complex characters and strong women.

Flattery makes fools of the best of us

A Death in the Life

A Gentle Murderer, Davis’s third novel published in 1951 was selected to be included in the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones of Crime as one the 125 best mysteries ever written. She was nominated eight times for the renowned Edgar Award for best novel, and served as the president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1956. In 1985 Davis was awarded the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award for her body of work, and was one of the founding members of Sisters in Crime along with Sara Paretsky in 1987, an organisation dedicated to supporting women who write crime fiction. In 1989, she earned the Lifetime Achievement Award at Bouchercon, and in 1994, Malice Domestic named her their Guest of Honor.

Davis wrote twenty novels and more than thirty short stories during her five decade career. Apart from the Mrs Norris series (three books) and the Julie Hayes mysteries (four books), Davis novels were stand alone, which along with her mysteries containing little violence made her unusual in the world of crime fiction. Most of her work was in the mystery genre, though she also wrote a number of historical fiction novels including Men of No Property (1956), set in Ireland during the potato famine, The Evening of the Good Samaritan (1962) set during and after the Second World War, and God Speed Night (1968), a suspense about Nazi resistance during the second world war.

Beware of feelings, Father. They are the biggest liars in us. They make truth what we want it to be.

Where the Dark Streets Go

After her husband Harry died in 1993, Davis stopped writing novels but continued to produce short stories. The last one titled Emily was written when she was 91 for the 2009 Mystery Writers of America anthology to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. In 2013, the year before her death, Open Road Media reprinted twenty two of her novels including her most commercially successful novel A Gentle Murderer, first published in 1951 about the psychological disintegration of the young murderer of women. Davis died in 2014 aged 98.

Books by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Grand dames of crime: Mary Roberts Rinehart

Born in the same year as Custer made his last stand, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, first trained as a nurse then took up writing post marriage in 1903 at the age of twenty-seven, spurred by financial necessity. Her first mystery novel, The Circular Staircase, was published in 1908 and her second The Man in Lower Ten published the following year. These two pulp novels were very successful, and are the earliest works by an American author still in print purely for entertainment, (as opposed to being classics or literature), a testament to her storytelling capabilities.

…a man may shout the eternal virtues and be unheard forever, but if he babble nonsense in a wilderness it will travel around the world.”

The Red Lamp

A feminist, Rinehart created middle aged spinster Tish in 1910. Tish become the central protagonist in a serious of comic long short stories that ran over thirty years. The series was about the wild adventures of the protagonist and her friends, Aggie and Lizzie, who did all the things women were not supposed to at the time, like race cars, do stunt work, and hunt.

The author (web image)

Rinehart’s work has much in common with hard boiled crime and scientific detection in style and subject, and she utilised realism to depict life and social issues of the time, such as class and gender. Her writing often combined murder, love, surrealism and humour, and she wrote a series of love stories dealing with nurses and hospital life, as well as several Broaway comedies. The most popular stage production, Seven Days, written with Avery Hopwood in 1909, was a farce based on Rinehart’s novella of the same name, and became a runaway hit.

…at last she drew on her gloves, straightened her hat, and went away with that odd self-possession which seems to characterize all the older women of the Crescent. Time takes its toll of them, death and tragedy come inevitably, but they face the world with quiet faces and unbroken dignity.

The Album

During the First World War Rinehart became a correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post and after using her nurse training to earn Red Cross credentials was allowed to got to the front where she visited hospitals, toured “No Man’s Land,” and interviewed both the king of Belgium and the queen of England.

The chef did it (web photo from Crimereads)

The biggest cliche in mystery writing, the Butler did it is often attributed to Rinehart’s novel The Door, published in 1930, in which the Butler turns out to be the villain, although the phrase itself does not appear in the text. An obliging mother, Rinehart wrote The Door in a hurry whilst recovering from an illness in hospital to help her sons fledgling publishing house. Rinehart was the near victim of a servant herself in 1947, when her chef tried to shoot and stab her in the library of her home. She was saved from injury by the brave intervention of her butler and some other servants. So apparently, it was the chef who did it in the library after all.

People that trust themselves a dozen miles from the city, in strange houses, with servants they don’t know, needn’t be surprised if they wake up some morning and find their throats cut.

The Circular Staircase

Her last book, The Confession, was published the year after her death in 1959. At the time, her books had sold more than 10 million copies, which is partly why she is often compared to Agatha Christie.

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