Book review: The Nancys

Tippy Chan’s mum goes on holidays and her Uncle Pike and his boyfriend come to Riverstone, the small town in New Zealand where she lives, to look after her. When Tippy’s friend has an accident and her school teacher is murdered, the three bond over a common love of Nancy Drew and set out to investigate. Uncle Pike’s boyfriend Devon is a clothes designer and runs out a series of prototype matching Nancys T-shirt’s for them to try. The novel has subplots on grief and fashion and is brimming with quirky characters.The Nancys is a light, fun, queer romp told through the eyes of an eleven year old.

Uncle Pike’s plane was late and, and my hair was a sweaty mess thanks to the crimson anti-kidnapping jacket and hateful Santa hat mum had made me wear.

The Nancys is RWR McDonald’s debut novel and it was highly commended for an Unpublished Manuscript in the 2017 Victorian Premier Literary Awards. It’s unusual to find adult fiction told from an adolescent point of view and McDonald does an excellent job creating the voice of Tippy who narrates the story in first person point of view.

To create a convincing young voice, writers need to describe life from a developmentally appropriate context and keep their adult knowledge and experience from intruding. The mind of a teenager moves quickly from one idea to another and leaves little room for reflection. Adolescents can make perceptive observations untainted by extended life knowledge and they experience the world with literal immediacy. Tippy’s adolescent understanding of adult concepts and informal diction makes the narrative jump around in the way young people do and ads to the authenticity of the character. Random observations and snippets of thought to give the narrative a slightly jolty feel and insight into the randomness of Tippy’s inner life. There’s also a good dose of youthful humour and fun subplots.

The next morning Uncle Pike gave me a choice, I didn’t have to go to school if I didn’t want to. It was a no-brainer. Finally I was living the Nancy Drew life-with a mystery to solve and no annoying classes to get in my way. After breakfast Devon made us go to the driveway for a runway show. He modelled a new tight Nancys T-shirt. ‘Tada!’

The novel doesn’t roll at your traditionally fast crime fiction pace – it starts quite slowly and picks up pace as the story unfolds driving you to race through the final chapters. It’s small town expose, family saga and detective story wrapped up in a blend of teen and gay laugh out loud, slightly bawdy humour and is filled with the genuine warmth the characters have for one another.

The author was also interviewed on The First Time Podcast last week if you are interested to hear him talk about his book.

Rare crime

Each winter Melbourne hosts Rare Book Week which delivers a program of free talks and events across the city to celebrate the importance of books, literacy and literature. Twice this week I fought my way through the dark, windy and desolate streets of Docklands to Library at the Dock, which is a fabulous library and community hub if you are ever in the area.

The events I attended were The Knife is Feminine about Australian mystery writer Charlotte Jay, and Portraits of Molly Dean in conversation with author Katherine Kovacic on her true crime book about the murder of Molly Dean in St Kilda in 1930. This blog is about those two events.

The Knife is Feminine

A dagger…it had a curious hilt shaped like a woman’s torso, with wings, only she had no face, just a visor like a knight.

The knife is feminine, Charlotte Jay

I’d never heard of Charlotte Jay, but as it turns out she was one of Australia’s best crime and thriller writers and I will certainly seek out some of her work to read now. Panel members for this event were Carmel Shute (one of the founders and national convener of Sisters in Crime), author Katherine Kovacic (The Portrait of Molly Dean and Painting in the Shadows), Abbe Holmes (actor) and Chris Browne (convener of Rare Book week, former academic and a book collector with 12,000 books and counting).

Charlotte was born Geraldine Mary Jay in Adelaide in December 1919, she chose the author name Charlotte because she thought it sounded literary. She married Albert Halls, an Oriental specialist who worked for UNESCO, and she spent much of her adult life traveling the world with him. Initially she worked as a stenographer for twelve “terrible years,” according to an interview Carmel Shute did with her in 1992. When she realised she had a talent for frightening people and telling a good story so became an author. Carmel observed that in life Jay had a liking for gin and tonic and a habit of snorting when she found others ideas ludicrous.

The author wrote seven crime novels as Charlotte Jay between 1951 and 1964, one as Geraldine Mary Jay in 1956, and seven as Geraldine Halls between 1967 and 1995. The stories in her novels included exotic settings like Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Japan, Thailand, England, Lebanon, India, the Trobriand Islands, as well as Australia.

One of her books, A Hank of Hair was so risqué that Harper Collins refused to publisher it. The book was later picked up by Pan Publishing and released in 1964. Another novel, The Fugitive Eye written in 1953 was filmed for television and stared Charlton Heston. Her first novel, The Knife Is Feminine is out of print and there are only a handful of copies still in existence worldwide. We were lucky enough to get a couple of readings from one of those copies.

She wrote in the Gothic tradition and hearing her work, Charlotte Jay had a talent for the weird . She used slow, creepy build ups and detailed observations to tell cracker stories. She was the first winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Writers of America Award for Beat Not the Bones set in Papua New Guinea, which has some fascinating commentary on racism and colonial power in the 1950s. The following year Raymond Chandler won the award with The Last Goodbye.

The writer eventually returned to Adelaide and her last book was published in 1995, she died in October 1996. I for one shall look forward to reading some of her works, which are listed below.

Charlotte Jay novels

• The Knife Is Feminine (1951)
• Beat Not the Bones (1952)
• The Fugitive Eye (1953)
• The Yellow Turban (1955)
• The Man Who Walked Away (US Title: The Stepfather) (1958)
• Arms for Adonis (1960)
• A Hank of Hair (1964)

Geraldine Mary Jay novels

• The Feast of the Dead (US Title: The Brink of Silence) (1956)

Geraldine Halls novels

• The Cats of Benares (1967)
• Cobra Kite (1971)
• The Voice of the Crab (1974)
• The Last Summer of the Men Shortage (1977)
• The Felling of Thawle : a novel (1979)
• Talking to strangers : a novel (1982)
• This is My Friend’s Chair (1995)

Portraits of Molly Dean

Mary (Molly) Winifred Dean (1905–1930) was brutally murdered in Elwood on 21 November 1930 near her home after walking home late one night. Author of The Portrait of Molly Dean, Katherine Kovacic first came across Molly when studying the art of painter and sculptor Colin Colahan and became fascinated by her life which seemed to have been reduced to a single sentence in a Colahan’s biography. Molly had been Colahan’s lover and one of his models.

The historical mystery fiction, The Portrait of Molly Dean, was written to shine a light on Molly’s life, which along with her death feature in a number of other works. She was the subject of non-fiction A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean by Gideon Haigh, and appeared in fiction works My brother Jack by George Johnston, and The Eye of the Beholder by Betty Roland, as well as the play Solitude in Blue, written and directed by Melita Rowston.

Molly Dean trained as a primary teacher and showed great promise for the profession but aspired for journalism and writing. She had had one long blank-verse poem titled Merlin published in a Melbourne publication called Verse.

Young Molly had a strained relationship with her widowed mother, Ethel Dean, who didn’t approve of Molly’s involvement with the Bohemians – the Meldrumites (followers of painter Max Meldrum) who Molly met when she became intimately involved with Colin Colahan, a well-known sculptor and painter of nudes.

On 20 November 1930 Molly went to the theatre to see Pygmalion with friends. She arrived at StKilda station on the way home, but missed the last tram, apparently due to stopping to make two phone calls to Colin from a phone box, so walked the two kilometers to Elwood along the tram route to the corner of Mitford and Dickens Streets. There were a number of sightings of her as she walked, but no witnesses to her attack. She was discovered early on Friday 21 November severely injured in a laneway less than two hundred meters from her home. She was rushed to hospital but she died of her injuries.

The police believed that due to the nature of the crime, Molly probably knew her attacker and the motive was most likely jealousy. An intense and exhaustive police investigation followed her death. A family friend, who was suspected of having an affair with Ethel Dean was investigated then dismissed. A man called Arnold Karl Sodeman, who confessed to four other killings, was also considered. His involvement was dismissed primarily due to his other attacks having very different profiles, and that he swore he wasn’t Molly’s killer. Sodeman was executed in Pentridge Prison in 1936 for the crimes he admitted.

The Crown Prosecutor did not proceed with the case and conspiracy theories abounded about Molly’s unsolved murder over the years. One theory suggested it wasn’t solved because she’d crossed paths with very powerful people in Melbourne, and they had shut down the investigation.

Artist Colin Colahan

Katherine Kovacic’s fictionalised account of Molly’s story is a fascinating tale of art, intrigue and murder, and Melbourne’s history. Her melding of fact and fiction patches together a coherent and sensitive narrative to re-tell a victim’s story and shine a light on her young life. It’s told from the perspective of a fictional art dealer called Alex who buys a painting in 1999 believed to be the last portrait of Molly Dean. Kovacic has released a second book Painting in the Shadows that also revolves around Alex, and a third is due out next year.

For the section of this blog on Molly Dean I have drawn on Kovacic’s talk at Rare Books Week and a piece published on the Public Records Office website by Dr Eric J Frazer about her murder.

Main image: Charlotte Jay and The Knife is Feminine

Masterclass: Writing Crime

Last week I attended a crime writing masterclass as part of the Emerging Writers Festival held at the Wheeeler Centre in Melbourne.

Anna George and Mark Brandi

The day opened with Angela Savage, author and Director of Writers Victoria, delivering a keynote on Conventions of Crime. Angela took us on an engaging and entertaining gallop through the history of crime fiction. Then she explained the breakdown of crime genres from cosy mysteries like Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, hard boiled crime such as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Australian noir including Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series and the social thrillers – think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

And here’s a couple of ‘did you know’ fast facts from Angela’s talk:

• Agatha Christie is the best-selling fiction author of all time with an estimated two billion copies of her books in print. Her work has been translated into more than 70 languages and she is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. Not bad considering her first book was rejected by six publishers.

• Tart noir (originally called slut noir) is a branch of crime fiction characterised by tough, independent female detectives, who are also yielding enough to love a man with rough edges. Go girrrls.

• Mysteries, where the antagonist is revealed at the end to both the reader and the protagonist, are considered easier to write than thrillers, which require tight plotting to maintain suspense.

Nayuka Gorrie, Queenie Bon Bon and Gala Vanting

The second session had Mark Brandi (author of Wimmera and The Rip) and Anna George (The Lone Child and What Came Before) chatting about plotting and pacing and how they approached these in their own writing. It became clear that each book is different and your approach to plotting and pacing might need to be adapted to work for the project on hand.

Angela recommended Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Writing Detective Fiction reproduced here by cosy mystery author Elizabeth Spann Craig.

In session three, Gala Vanting, Nayuka Gorrie and Queenie Bon Bon discussed the notion of Representing Criminalisation, a feminist perspective on writing socially aware crime fiction. This session wasn’t for everyone (a couple of blokes walked out), but I found it a fascinating discussion on the realities of criminalisation and how we might use our crime writing to look differently at societal power structures and the politicisation of marginalised communities. They challenged us to unpack our notions of ‘the criminal’ and ‘the victim’ and what we interpret as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Their discussion lent itself to activist crime fiction, or radical noir. Think Eva Dolan, This is How it Ends, Gary Phillips, The Underbelly, Kate Raphael, Murder Under the Bridge and John le Carré, The Constant Gardener.

(?), Lindy Cameron and Anna Snoekstra

After a bite to eat at the Moat for lunch, I settled in to listen to Anna Snoekstra (Spite Game and Mercy Point) and Lindy Cameron, Sisters in Crime President and founder of Clandestine Press, talk about to agent or not to agent, the importance of a good synopsis, and thinking beyond our own shores for publishing. They said all crime novels need a good sense of place, a twisty mystery, and engaging characters to attract the attention of publishers.

One of the most memorable suggestions was to try different elevator pitches with every person who asks you about your book to see which is the best one…lookout friends, is all I can say to that.

Here are some resources they recommended to assist with your publishing journey:

Query Tracker – an international agent database, that is free to join.

The Australian Writers Marketplace – a guide to the writing and publishing industry in Australia and beyond, it has over two thousand active listings in the directory. AWM is free to join for basic use of pay a one off $24.95 for complete access.

The final session, Killing your Darlings, was delivered workshop style by Kat Clay. We talked cliches about killing people in fiction, understanding the moral argument and symbolism of murder in fiction, and thinking about what death means to our characters in terms of their development – it’s a very different matter if they are afraid of their own mortality than if they live for the thrill of being close to death.

Kat’s resource tip was Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Main image: What’s your genre?

Book review: Eden by Candice Fox

Reading Candice Fox’s novel Hades (reviewed in last weeks blog) set me off on a binge and I followed it straight up with the sequel Eden which won the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for best crime novel. Like it’s predecessor, Eden has several narratives running through it.

We are thrown back to discover how Hades, who bought up Eden and her brother came to be the man he became, the go-to body disposal guy who runs the tip, makes elaborate sculptures from discarded metal and causes many a grown man to tremble in their boots with fear, yet has a heart capable of great love.

Frank the cop who has fallen into a pit of drunken despair after the death of his lover, the death of a colleague and almost dying himself, is forced out of his misery by his work partner, the mysterious and dangerous Eden who loves hunting criminals but doesn’t always wait for the justice system to determine their sentence. She wants Frank back on his feet as they are to be assigned to a murder investigation that will require her to go undercover. She wants him to watch her back on surveillance and Frank can’t say no to her because she knows his dark secret.

As Frank gets drawn into Hades world, helping him solve a long ago mystery an unexpected twist nearly gets Eden killed. Dark, gritty, noirish and poetic, another great read.