Books October 2011

Down Underworld

The brilliant foreignness of Australian crime fiction
Jesse Lenz

It is a rare crime novel that doesn’t seem better in the first part, when we are still trying to find our bearings. Perhaps we want to feel the way we did as children, when the genre was so much more thrilling for being slightly over our heads. This is the good thing about Australian crime fiction: as an American, you are never completely at home in it. True, the suburban backdrops appear very familiar, and on the printed page the Australian variant of English is almost identical to our own. But the characters in these novels behave much more differently from Americans than do the Swedes in those Stieg Larsson books, and this never stops feeling odd. Among male friends an intensity of joshing camaraderie is in evidence that even our frat boys would find stifling. At first I chalked this up to over-imitation of Hollywood films, only to read in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature that the Sunburnt Country has a true-life tradition of especially tight-knit “mateship.” Not for nothing did Australian prisoners in Japanese POW camps survive at a higher rate than American ones. Most other characters in these novels interact with a reflexive prickliness, and that includes husbands and wives; there is a constant effect of chips on shoulders. Stephen Knight, the leading expert on his country’s crime fiction, talks of “drily aggressive wit” without explaining the aggression itself.

Crime fiction being largely a matter of people answering doorbells, the reader soon notices that the Australians are none too keen on their police. Rich, poor, middle-class, everybody talks back. In Garry Disher’s The Dragon Man (1999), a policeman remembers how party guests “cringed comically” when he was introduced. “Just once would he like to see approval or interest or curiosity on someone’s face when he told them that he was a copper.” Australians I have talked to about this strain in the public character attribute it, with varying emphasis, to three main causes: the nation’s convict origins, the heavy-handedness of the goldfield constabulary in the 19th century, and the brazen corruption for which Sydney’s finest were notorious until well into the 1990s.

Whatever the reasons for it, the popular mistrust of law enforcement gives the country’s crime stories a distinctive feel. Animal Kingdom (2010), to take a cinematic example, treats the unreliability of almost the entire Victoria Police as a given. (Victoria is the state on the southeast coast of which Melbourne is the capital.) It says a lot about the difference between our two countries that a line spoken in the film by a beaming gangster matriarch to a corrupt officer—“You’ve done some bad things, sweetie”—has resonated in Australia the way Clint Eastwood’s “Make my day” once did in the United States. But an aversion to the police is not the same thing as moral relativism. On the back cover of a new British true-crime book about a serial rapist is praise for the author’s “intelligent refusal to judge”; I expect the average Australian would react to that blurb much as I did. In a recent interview, the Sydneyside novelist Michael Duffy said that readers “like to finish a book knowing that evil was put right.” The Australians are simply more inclined than we are to doubt that law and morality are on the same side.

For a long time, therefore, they preferred “zero detection” crime stories, in which the case more or less solved itself through a chain of events. It was only quite recently, and under the influence of American television serials, that they began warming to the cop hero at all. Even now, Australian writers make more effort to elicit support for the detective than do their British or American counterparts, who can more or less take it for granted. Unfortunately this comes with its own formulas. The lead should be something of a rebel himself (preferably Irish, according to Knight), and the crime under investigation especially heinous. Horrible things seem to happen to children even more often than in our own narratives.

The number of Australian crime writers working in all possible subgenres is remarkable—all the more so in view of the fact that most write for an exclusively domestic audience. They appear perfectly happy to do so. One finds no trace of that subservience to the rest of the Anglophone world, the so-called cultural cringe, for which the country used to criticize itself. Even the few novelists with an international reputation, like Garry Disher and Peter Corris, give no special thought to the foreign reader. If they did, they would be less stingy with local color, something their countrymen are obviously not clamoring for more of. After a dozen or so novels set in Melbourne, I know which neighborhoods to avoid, yet I still couldn’t pick the city out of a lineup. I have a better idea of the sights, sounds, and smells of Sydney, or at least its red-light district, thanks to the generous detail in Mark Dapin’s comic novel, King of the Cross (2009)—but then, Dapin is a transplanted Briton. How to Write Crime (1996), an Australian primer edited by the novelist Marele Day, has conspicuously little to say on evoking locations. Could this be a reaction against the once-common practice, lamented in the same book, of trying to lure foreign readers with exotic touches? Or are the population centers really as suburban-dull as local intellectuals have made them out to be? A character in a Barry Oakley play describes the country as “a million backyards laid end to end.” If The Dictionary of Australian Quotations is anything to go by, Melbourne has come in for more abuse from resident literati than any other city in the world, with the possible exception of Vienna.

Presented by

B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).

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