GOTHIC MATILDA. The Amazing Visions of Australian Crime Fiction (Unity Press 2002, 207pp) by Michael Pollak and Margaret MacNabb.
The crime-fiction tradition of a country whose first white settlers arrived with a rap sheet would seem to merit deep and detailed study. This, unfortunately, is just what it doesn’t get in Gothic Matilda: The Amazing Visions of Australian Crime Fiction, Michael Pollak and Margaret MacNabb’s biased and perfunctory account of the popular genre down under. They round up the usual suspects, but with some significant omissions. Pollak and MacNabb start with Fergus Hume, whose bestselling The Mystery of a Hansom Cab – set, written and published in Melbourne in 1886 – was such a success that it may have inspired Conan Doyle to take up writing detective stories. It is disappointing that the authors begin with Hume and say nothing about either short-story writer Mary Fortune, the founding mother of Australian crime fiction, or Ellen Davitt, thought to have been the first woman to write a mystery novel in Australia, both of whom were published 20 years before. That’s an oversight. But what’s far more misleading is the authors’ sweeping assertion that, from the early 1900s to the 1960s, when “the recently rediscovered and currently hot” Patricia Carlon began writing her psychological thrillers, there was no worthwhile Australian crime fiction.
Perhaps Pollak and MacNabb decided that Miles Franklin’s sole attempt at a crime novel, Bring the Monkey, published in 1933, was a failure. But we don’t know that, for she is not mentioned; and neither is Charlotte Jay. Perhaps they assessed the nine novels Jay wrote during the ’50s and early ’60s and found them wanting also, even Beat Not The Bones, winner of the first-ever Edgar Award (crime fiction’s equivalent of the Oscar) for best novel in 1954, a year when Raymond Chandler was also up for the prize. But we don’t know that, either. It would also have been interesting if Pollak and MacNabb had speculated on what exactly there was about Carter Brown’s books, which had their heyday in the ’50s, that caused them to sell more than 60 million copies, but they don’t bother to do so. Feminist cultural commentators have recently taken one of Brown’s characters, the busty private eye Mavis Seidlitz, to their collective bosom, comparing her adventures with screwball movie comedies, but these authors dismiss this writer as merely “risque”.
Between 1929 and 1963, Arthur Upfield wrote a series of mysteries featuring Detective-Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte. The outback settings alone, as vividly described by Upfield, make those mysteries worth reading. Then there’s Bony, whose mixed-race heritage renders him even more of an outsider than the usual fictional sleuth, and therefore an excellent observer: he’s been called the Sherlock Holmes of the bush. For Pollak and MacNabb, however, Upfield’s work is “racist, propagandist and sexist”, a stern judgement meted out with no supporting references from the books. Upfield and Brown are given the ultimate thumbs-down because these “so-called icons … added very little to our understanding of social issues”. Pollak and MacNabb are keen on social issues and, in dogged pursuit of them, drag us yet again down those ubiquitous mean streets to chart Australian crime-fiction since the ’60s. They also push things too far. Peter Corris, who pioneered its revival in the ’80s, surely can’t be described as an author with “deep environmental and social concerns” just because a bad guy shoots seagulls in one of his stories and private eye Cliff Hardy disapproves.
Furthermore, it’s curious that Pollak and MacNabb, who obviously plume themselves on their political correctness, present us with mean streets that, with one exception, are a female-free zone. Gabrielle Lord is acceptable because she writes about child abuse, but Jean Bedford, creator of the private eye Anna Southwood, is mentioned only in passing, as the wife of Peter Corris. This is a pity, because something that Bedford once had Southwood say might have been very useful to them: “We’d been so caught up in the public face of things – the conspiracies, the power-mongering, drugs, bent police, the vice and corruption – and none of these was the real story. That had been private, domestic, personal.” But then, if they had taken any notice of that, they wouldn’t have written their infuriating book in the first place. (Christine Cremen, Sydney Morning Herald 2 Nov 2002, www.smh.com.au)