The ‘photo you see is of Sydney’s famous Opera House. I’ve not seen it (yet) in person, ‘though I hope to get a peek at the city soon (thanks, Sydney Opera House, for the use of the image). But there’s a lot more to Sydney than just the Opera House. It’s a large and very diverse city with a long history. That means that there’s a lot of grist there for the crime fiction mill if I can put it that way.
As I say, Sydney’s history goes back a very long way, and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River shows us a part of that history. William Thornhill is a London bargeman who’s caught stealing a load of wood. He’s lucky to escape execution and instead is sentenced to transportation to Australia. In 1806 he, his wife Sal and their children are taken to Sydney Cove where they’re left to start over as best they can. Sal sets up a makeshift pub and the family begins to make a life. For his part, Thornhill finds work delivering goods and making trades with the various more remote places that are accessible only by water. He begins by working for Thomas Blackwood on Blackwood’s boat The River Queen. That’s how he finds the perfect piece of land that he wants for his own on the Hawkesbury River. He finally persuades a reluctant Sal to leave Sydney and start over on that new piece of land and the family settles in. Thornhill in particular develops a deep attachment to the land and that’s the problem. There’ve been people on that land for many thousands of years by the time Thornhill moves in, and he and his family and neighbours are going to have to deal with the fact that other people were there first. This isn’t a crime novel in the sense that there’s a crime, an investigation and so on. But as conflict between the settlers and the indigenous people becomes more and more likely, some terrible crimes are committed and even though Thornhill himself wanted to find a peaceful way to keep the land he loves so much, it’s less and less possible to avoid getting his hands bloody too. I’m looking forward to the next instalment of this family’s story Sarah Thornhill.
Peter Doyle’s Get Rich Quick takes place in 1950’s Sydney. Billy Glasheen is a small-time crook and con-man, who earns his living with one scheme after another. One morning after a night of drinking, Glasheen goes for a swim in Mahon Pool on Maroubra Bay. That’s where he finds the body of Charlie Furner. He and Furner had had a run-in at a local gym a week earlier, and in any case he’s not on very good terms with Furner’s boss Little Jim Swain. What’s more, Glasheen has no desire to spend a lot of time in the company of the police. So he leaves the body where he found it. But it’s not long before he finds himself framed for the murder. Some of Sydney’s more powerful criminals, as well as several cops and corrupt politicians, would like nothing better than to get rid of Glasheen anyway, and it will solve a lot of problems if he can be used to cover up this murder. Glasheen decides that if he’s going to stay alive and hopefully out of jail, he’ll have to find out for himself who killed Charlie Furner and why.
Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy series also takes place in Sydney, ‘though it’s not exactly the Sydney that the tourists are encouraged to see. Hardy is a PI whom we first meet in The Dying Trade. In that novel, wealthy Bryn Gutteridge hires Hardy on behalf of his twin sister Susan. He tells Hardy that someone has been making threatening telephone calls and sending letters. The caller (whom Susan refers to as The Voice) seems to know quite a lot about her, and is using this knowledge to frighten her, possibly as a prelude to blackmail. Gutteridge wants Hardy to find out who’s behind the threats. Hardy isn’t exactly wealthy, so he’s only too happy to accept the fee. He begins with a look into Susan’s personal history and it’s not long before the case gets very complicated. It turns out that there are some interesting secrets in the family, and that someone knows too much about them. As Hardy gets to know this wealthy family though, he also gets involved in two serious confrontations, and for his own safety, Gutterdige calls him off the case. Then Gutteridge’s stepmother Ailsa Sleeman calls Hardy back into action when her life is threatened. By this time Hardy is deeply involved in the family’s story and is going to have to find out who’s behind what’s been happening in order to untangle himself.
Wendy James’ The Mistake also has a strong Sydney connection. Jodie Evans Garrow and her husband Angus live in Arding, a small New South Wales town, with their two children Hannah and Tom. Life is going well for them until Jodie’s past comes back to haunt her. Hannah is involved in a car accident and taken to a Sydney hospital – the same one where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another baby Elsa Mary. When a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby, Jodie says that she gave the baby up for adoption. Then the nurse does a little checking and finds out that there is no formal record of an adoption. That’s when questions are raised, first privately and then increasingly publicly, about the incident. What happened to the baby? If Jodie didn’t give the baby up for adoption, did she kill the child? If the baby is alive and did grow up, where is she? Before long the questions and gossip make Jodie a social pariah and bitterly divide her family. In the end, we do find out the rest of Ella Mary’s story, and we see the havoc wrought in a family by public pillorying.
Sydney is ‘home base’ for Lindy Cameron’s Team Redback, a crack retrieval team that makes a specialty of rescuing people from extremely dangerous situations. In Redback, the team is sent to the Pacific island of Laui to rescue a group of delegates to the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference. A group of rebels has captured the delegates and Redback is called in to free them. This they accomplish successfully but they soon find that their work is far from done. The hostage-taking is soon connected to two murders, a train explosion in Europe, an attack on a US air base and later another murder, this time on Sydney’s Bondi Beach. Australian Attorney General Barney Cross is killed and Prime Minister Robert Harvey is shot in the leg. Now Redback, led by Commander Bryn Gideon, has to act fast to stop the terrorist group that’s behind all of this devastation.
And I couldn’t really discuss Sydney-based crime fiction without mentioning Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series. Marconi is a New South Wales police detective who sees the best and worst sides of the city. Often she’s teamed with Dennis Orchard, but she also works with Murray Shakespeare. In Silent Fear for instance, she and Shakespeare investigate the murder of Paul Fowler, who is shot, execution-style, while he and some friends are throwing a football around in a park. As Marconi and her team look into Fowler’s life, they find that he was involved with some shady ‘business associates.’ They also discover that his ex-wife Trina has a habit of not telling everything that she knows, including the fact that she was having an affair with one of Fowler’s friends. So Marconi and Shakespeare have a list of suspects. Howell’s novels also include major characters who are paramedics and who are often dispatched to the scene of sudden deaths. In their stories and in Marconi’s story, we get a good look at many different places in Sydney.
Sydney is a multi-layered place with lots of history and many different kinds of people living there. So it really is a natural setting for a good crime fiction series. Which Sydney-based novels have you enjoyed?
ps. So why am I mentioning Sydney in particular? Well, beyond the fact that it is a great setting for a mystery, I plan to make a short stop there later this month. That’s right! I’ll be giving a paper at Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Northern Territories on 27 June and I’ll be making a few stops on the way. My trip to Australia will start with a very brief stop in Sydney. Then it’ll be on to… More later ;-) Oh, and if you’re interested in my topic and so on, feel free to click on my Workshops and Presentations tab.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Skyhooks song. A line from Midnight Oil’s Section 5 (Bus to Bondi) came in a close second…