Thought I’d lighten things up a bit this week with a cozy mystery. Cozies are an easy read that can be gobbled up without any uncomfortable feelings, whilst still offering satisfying twists and turns. Digging Up Dirt also includes a splash of simmering romance.
Nothing like the builder digging up bones to halt the work on your renovation. TV researcher Poppy McGowan needs to find out if the bones are human or animal so she can get on with finishing her house. When archaeologist, Dr Julieanne Weaver, whom Poppy doesn’t like, interferes and slaps a heritage order over the property because she thinks the bones a significant Poppy is really annoyed. But then Julieanne is found murdered onsite, face down in the excavation dressed in heels and an evening frock, and things get really complicated.
Pamela Hart is a prolific author who has written more than 35 books and successfully crosses the genre divide. She is best known for her historical fiction (The Soldiers Wife, The War Bride, A Letter from Italy and The Desert Nurse).
Hart has also penned speculative fiction (Ember and Ash)and children’s books under the name Pamela Freeman as well as being an accomplished scriptwriter for ABC kids. I’ve done a few of the online courses she has written for the Australian Writers Centre as well, which have all been of good quality. She’s no slouch!
Digging Up Dirt is Hart’s first mystery novel and it’s a fun Australian read (or listen to the audio book).
I woke up to a startlingly beautiful sky filled with hot air balloons this morning. After doing some writing I set out with the hound on a long walk. It is a stunning Autumn day. Already I have been squawked at by some cheeky galas and said hello to an echidna going about its day.
Now, I have stopped for a moment and I am squatting on a rock looking at the river scene in the the photos include in this blog post as I write it on my phone. The intermittent sound of birds play a tune over the background base of the swollen Yarra River waters spilling across rocks on their way to the city. It is peaceful and soothing and my mind turns to my writing.
My current manuscript is a crime fiction novel with a backdrop of the environmental movement. One of the underlying themes is climate grief and I have taken much inspiration from my local environment as well as from a period living in East Gippsland.
The idea for the story came to me during a writing workshop I attended with Angela Savage, former CEO of Writers Victoria, at the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival (TARWF) in October 2019 and I commenced work on the manuscript in November that year (TARWF will run again this year in November and I hope to go again as it was a hoot last time – I delivered spoken word piece at their Noir at the Bar event. You can listen to that here.)
The story for my current manuscript is set in 2018, before the Victorian bushfires and the pandemic. Whilst the premise pre-dates our recent disasters, the story has certainly been shaped by them. It is a lament to Victoria’s beautiful disappearing landscapes and humanities seeming collective inability to do what needs to be done to save them from the impacts of climate change. There have been moments when I considered abandoning the endeavour, particularly after the terrible bushfires in Victoria that consumed much of the landscape in which the story is set. Instead I made some changes to include a foreboding of disasters such as the fires and the pandemic so that the story does not seem dated.
I entered the first few chapters into a competition for a Varuna Fellowship last year and was chuffed to be shortlisted. I hope to take up the opportunity for a supported residency later this year.
My writing has been interrupted a bit over the last year, but I have now crossed the half way mark of the first draft at just over 40,000 words and am feeling inspired to forge on into the home stretch so I can set myself to editing.
For now, I must continue on my walk as the hound is getting restless.
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.
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
This week I’ve been thinking about the mystery novels I read and loved years ago. I hoovered up Dick Francis books as a teenager because I was obsessed with horses. I suspect that was also when my fascination for mysteries was born. As a consequence Francis holds a nostalgic place in my reading memory despite eventually coming to believe that horse racing should be banned. His novels were fast-paced easy reads full of muddy race tracks, crooked bookies, cheating jockeys and brutal owners.
Francis had himself been a jockey and horse trainer and all his novels revolved around the English race tracks. He wrote most, if not all, in collaboration with his wife, a former school teacher and expert researcher. Some people viewed him as the horse worlds Agatha Christie, but Francis was way more brutal than Agatha ever was in the way he physically and mentally tortured his protagonists.
One of my first jobs out of high school in the mid-eighties was as a track rider for a race horse trainer. The job reminded me of Francis’s tough masculine characters every day I went to work. I have one vivid memory of giving a young jockey a lift home and staring in horror when he leaned out of the car window, whip in hand, and cut a female cyclist across buttocks as we passed. When I threatened to turf him out of the car he just laughed. It could have been a scene from one of Francis’s novels.
When Dick Francis said he always tried to think of a dirty deed, and build a plot around it he captured the heart of the mystery. They open with some kind of disruption to the social order that creates a puzzle our hero must solve. Along the way they uncover secrets, are diverted by red herrings, meet unexpected surprises and have their physical and psychological limits tested. They always prevail and set the world to rights again enabling the reader to experience the tension vicariously and discover the hero within.
By the late nineties I had started to move on from horse riding as a profession and got what my parents called ‘a real job’ in a more politically leaning pursuit.
One of Dick Francis’s last novels, 10lb Penalty (1997), blended racing and politics and was the last of his books I read. Some time after that I discovered Shane Maloney who introduced me to the use of mysteries as a form of literary protest. Who wouldn’t be excited to find politicised crime fiction novels set in their own town?
Maloney set his novels in 1990’s Melbourne and bought our political and social fabric to life on the page. His public servant protagonist Murray Whelan shone a light on the absurdity of the political landscape that emerged in the Jeff Kennett era. He satirised Australian politics well before The Hollowmen and Utopia came to our screens. Though the latter have demonstrated that the world of politics continues to be ludicrous in a very frightening way.
Maloney’s books edge into the world of the subgenre ‘apparatchik lit’, some say he invented it. The term lends itself from the word used for bureaucrats in the Russian Communist Party and explores the intimate workings of politics, the machinery of government and lobby groups and how they impact the social fabric of the society they are set in. I love the way Maloney used suspicion, humour and play as a cover for more sinister events in his novels.
While some of the stories that emerge in this type of fiction (or tv series) appear beyond absurd, you’d be surprised how close to real life they can be. A friend who works in a government department once told me that the day after one episode of Utopia their Minister called the office demanding to know who had leaked information about an issue that had appeared on the program…
It’s fair to say that the arrogance of our politicians, their moral hypocrisy and power games continue to be ripe for the picking. You only have to turn to our own national political landscape for endless examples at the moment.
The novel I am currently working on is placed in Melbourne but draws on material from recent (mostly) national politics in an attempt to shine a light on some contemporary political absurdities.
If you have any suggestions for more Shane Maloney type novels, particularly if set in Australia – let me know.
Main image: Horses at Warnambool
Inset images in order: Horses at Warnambool; Parliament Drive, Canberra; Parliament House, Canberra.