1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Crime Fiction

Crime fiction set in Melbourne has presented the city from an early colonialist and sometimes touristic self-consciousness to an almost complete absence of reference to place at all, especially in books intended for an overseas readership. From the latter decades of the 20th century, however, there has been a more assured use of Melbourne settings in a variety of subgenres.

Typical of the colonialist perspective are the short stories of James Skipp Borlase featuring Jimmy Brooke, a mounted policeman recently arrived from England (The night fossickers, 1867). Set in 1851, 'The Shepherd's Hut' describes the pursuit of a villain from Melbourne, depicted as a collection of wooden huts, tents, drinking booths and muddy streets, proceeding through 'the pretty little village of Flemington', past the 'Bell' inn at Bundura (sic) and out into open bush.

Colonial perspectives are also apparent in Fergus Hume's international bestseller Mystery of the hansom cab (1886). The plot of this classic depends on the precise location of character and event: the eponymous cab containing a murdered man travels from Collins Street East to Grey Street in St Kilda. The novel reflects on Melbourne society, including vivid descriptions of fashionable Collins and the seedy underworld of Little Bourke streets. Published one year later, Madeline Brown's murderer by Francis Adams (1887) is a melodramatic murder mystery with reflections on Melbourne taste in opera and football. Also self-consciously explanatory is The Melbourne mystery (1929) by S.J. Stutley and A.E. Copp. Set against the collapse of financial empires, the novel opens with Sir John Palliser lunching at the Melbourne Club before returning to his offices in Collins Street East, described as an oasis of calm compared to the hectic whirl of Flinders Lane, 'the mercantile centre of Melbourne'.

Mid-20th-century writers like William Dighton Burbridge (Harvest of mystery, 1947) and June Wright (first of six crime novels set in Melbourne, Murder in the telephone exchange, 1948) treat Melbourne as mainly an atmospheric backdrop. More particular is Heather Gardner's Money on murder (1951), a mystery involving a female Sydney journalist in town to report on Melbourne Cup fashions. A Sydney perspective is again evident in British actress Dulcie Gray's Murder in Melbourne (1958), the central character of which is Richard Quayle, a Qantas pilot whose many cultural observations include negative comments on Melbourne's drinking laws and 'country town atmosphere'.

The reinvigoration of Australian crime fiction in the 1980s is represented by Boyd Oxlade's Death in Brunswick (1987), prefiguring Shane Maloney's Stiff (1994) in its darkly humorous take on criminal activities in Melbourne's multicultural northern suburbs. Other 1980s crime novels set in Melbourne include Robert Kenny's postmodern Last adventures of Christian Doom (1982), and Peter Corris' Poker face (1985) and The Baltic business (1988) featuring Ray Crawley of the Federal Security Agency.

The success of Maloney's The brush-off (1996) set in Melbourne's art world and Nice try (1998), about Melbourne's doomed Olympic bid, largely depend on the specificity of their Melbourne references. A murkier Melbourne features in Gary Disher's series about career criminal Wyatt (first in series Kickback, 1991) and the novels of J.R. Carroll, particularly Cheaters (1998), which revolves around the Crown Casino. Also concerned with Melbourne subcultures of betting and gambling and drinking, but less bleak in tone, are Peter Temple's Bad debts (1996) and Black tide (1998). Feminist detective Francesca Miles features in Melissa Chan's One too many (1993) and Guilt (1995).

Kerry Greenwood's celebratory historical crime novels featuring flapper sleuth Phryne Fisher cast a revisionist eye over the Melbourne of 1928-30 (first in the series Cocaine blues, 1989). Carolyn Morwood's The blessing file (1998) opens with the first of many epigrams drawn from early poems about Melbourne and makes strategic use of Flinders Lane for a mystery involving the owner of an antiquarian bookshop. Feminist PI stories by Caroline Shaw (Cat catcher, 1999) and Lindy Cameron (Blood guilt, 1999) confidently move their protagonists around a city with which they are intimately familiar.

Sue Turnbull

Knight, Stephen, Continent of mystery: A thematic history of Australian crime fiction, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1997. Details
Loder, John, Australian crime fiction: A bibliography 1857-1993, Thorpe in association with National Centre for Australian Studies, Melbourne, 1994. Details