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Early Australian crime fiction

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years ago

The transvestive bushranger from Bundoora: the beginnings of Australian crime fiction


by Lucy Sussex, fiction writer, critic, anthologist and scholar.


Scene: an 1800s sailing vessel, bound for Australia. On deck a steerage passenger reads aloud a report of a gory murder, from a weeks-old tabloid newspaper. In the first-class saloon, the same murder is perused, in the Times. A young woman, wrapped in shawls, pores over the latest thrilling instalment of "The Female Detective" in a popular fiction magazine. And in his cabin the teenage Marcus Clarke transforms yesterday's fuss over a pilfered plum-pudding into a mystery parody, complete with Inspector Bucket.


That's conjecture, but probably not too far from the facts of how nineteenth-century emigrants to Australia arrived with a taste for reading crime, true and fiction, and set to naturalizing it. Australia has a distinctive tradition in the crime genre, as covered by Stephen Knight's Continent of Mystery, for which I was a researcher. It began early, not with the oft-cited Fergus Hume and his 1886 The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, but with contemporaries to Dickens and Wilkie Collins. They comprise a fascinating collection of bigamists, thieves and reprobates who would delight any modern publisher's PR.


Crime content can be found in Australian writing from the beginnings of European settlement, precisely because of the national origins as a penal colony. Yet the distinctive form, the mystery narrative, and the figure of the detective did not begin to coalesce into a genre until the goldrush era, when interest in Australia from prospective settlers became intense. It created a market for tales of Australia, in which crime not unnaturally figured. John Lang (1816-1864), the first Australian-born author, was also its first crime writer, and a vivid depictor of Sydney town. He wrote from his experience as a lawyer, who like many colonists had crime in the family. His maternal grandfather, John Harris, had been transported in the First Fleet of 1788, for stealing spoons; Harris also briefly served in the colonial police force.


Lang was an early example of an enduring Australian trait: healthy disrespect for authority. In the course of a restless life, he created trouble in England, Australia and India. His family had gained the wealth for an English legal training-only to have Lang's "Botany Bay tricks" (unspecified, sadly) get him sent down from Trinity College, Cambridge. Back in Sydney he started a fight with the colonial legal fraternity, which made him a briefless barrister. In Indian (self-) exile he combined law with editing a newspaper, the Mofussilite. The two activities collided unhappily when the East India Company had him jailed for two months for libel-the real reason being that Lang had successfully defended an Indian banker whom the company were unjustly suing.


Lang's most famous story, "The Ghost on the Rail", was published in Dickens' Household Words in 1853. His narrative form is the unfolding mystery, and the story is an Australian classic, an almost perfect murder undone by a ghost. The story drew on an actual Sydney 1826 case, the famous "Fisher's Ghost", where an emancipist convict murdered his wealthy neighbour for money. Yet as Marcus Clarke noted, the actual trial transcript did not mention any ghost. With time, and several retellings, the story acquired a vengeful revenant.


"The Ghost on the Rail" did not contain a detective, but Lang's 1855 novel The Forger's Wife did. Here Lang naturalized a true crime bestseller, the 1820s Mémoires of Vidocq, a French villain turned informer, then detective. He had John Harris's example, and also a family connection with a famous Australian Vidocq equivalent. Israel Chapman (1794?-1868), was like Lang's grandfather a Jewish convict, and later a well-known Sydney identity as a thief-taker (proto-detective). In The Forger's Wife Lang recognisably depicted Chapman as the secondary character George Flower. The forger of the title is transported to Botany Bay; his wife follows him, and gains her spouse as an assigned convict. The novel was vigorous and realistic, but more of a picaresque romance than a formally structured detective mystery, Flower getting his results by guile and violence. But he was the first Australian fictional detective.


Lang was not an isolated crime progenitor, as other novelists mixed crime elements and Australiana: Henry Kingsley's 1859 Geoffrey Hamlyn, Caroline Leakey's 1857 The Broad Arrow; and Céleste de Chabrillan's Les Voleurs d'Or/The Gold Robbers, also from 1857. Yet crime writing did not become a noticeable phenomenon until 1865, the year after Lang's death. Synchronicity occurred, with at least five writers publishing within months in periodicals from the colony of Victoria. The major point of imitation was the Casebook story, a sub-genre originating in 1849 in Chambers' Edinburgh Journal. It was basically fake police memoirs, told as short stories by a series narrator. As such, Casebooks were the original police procedurals.


In January, the Hamilton Spectator published "Wonderful! When You Come to Think of It!", a sprightly parody namechecking Poe and the Casebook, with a detective fiction fan as amateur sleuth. The author was one "M. C.", almost undoubtedly young Marcus Clarke (1846-1881). Clarke owned Poe's Dupin stories and some Casebooks. He would later write the classic convict novel His Natural Life (1870-2), which in its original serialised version had a murder mystery structure. Less than three months later "Wonderful" was followed by "Experiences of a Detective" by "E. C. M." in the Australasian, equally Casebook crime, and narrated by a police detective, although less lively than "Wonderful".


In September, a popular fiction magazine with an interest in crime writing debuted in Melbourne: the Australian Journal, a blatant copy of an English model, the London Journal. Yet the resemblance was in design rather than content. The London Journal specialized in romance and melodrama, but the Australian Journal had from its first issue a crime bent. It even had an ex-policeman as editor: George Arthur Walstab (1834-1909).


Walstab had gained his police experience during the years 1852-4, when the colony of Victoria had recruited middle-upperclass young men as mounted police cadets. The aim was the creation of an elite force, officer material. Though this notion of a 'gentlemanly' police more or less came unstuck through lack of promotional opportunities, it did create a goldmine for crime writers. In England, the notion of a detective-hero was fraught by class issues, most actual police being lower-class, most fictional protagonists being middle-upper class. Thus conventionally comic police names are used, like Bucket, Blathers (Oliver Twist) and Bozzle (Trollope). Even the Casebooks tended to make their police distressed gentlemen. The cadet system meant that in colonial Victoria police could unproblematically be fictional protagonists.


Walstab, as the son of a former West Indian planter, was typical intake material. Before he joined the Australian Journal, his police experience appeared incidentally in his novel Looking Back (Calcutta, 1864). He would also have seen a book by a fellow cadet, the pseudonymous "William Burrows", who published his colonial reminiscences as Adventures of a Mounted Trooper in the Australian Constabulary (London, 1859). The Adventures only contained a few chapters of police memoir, but its title both aimed at the Casebook market and was a portent of writing to come.


The Australian Journal's first issue (2 September 1865) would be historic for Australian crime writing. Ellen Davitt, a sister-in-law of Anthony Trollope, appeared on the first page as "Mrs Arthur Davitt", with chapter one of her serial Force and Fraud, the first Australian murder mystery novel. The instalment was followed by the anonymous "The Shepherd's Hut; Or 'Tis Thirteen Years Since", a Casebook story described as the memoirs of an "Australian Police Officer". Thus the first six pages of the magazine were almost entirely crime.


Ellen Davitt (1812-79) was the eldest sister of Anthony Trollope's wife Rose, née Heseltine. She was said to resemble Queen Victoria in dress and deportment, and writing was but one aspect of a busy life as a professional woman. She and her Irish husband Arthur emigrated to Victoria in 1855 to run the Model School, the centre of secular education for the colony. Jobless and widowed by the 1860s, she took on a variety of employment, from public lecturing (then a daring move for a woman) to writing.


Davitt had a family connection with crime: her father Edward Heseltine had embezzled thousands of pounds from the Yorkshire bank he managed. From him she knew crime could not only involve Force, but also Fraud. Like "Wonderful", her novel was an assured performance. The novel intertwines a romance with a tight murder mystery plot. At its centre are two young lovers, artist Herbert Lindsey, and squatter heiress Flora McAlpin. Her father Angus is opposed to the match, and in chapter three he is found murdered in the bush. Nearby are clues which implicate Lindsay. Flora has another suitor, Pierce Silverton, who has an alibi for the murder. Nonetheless he subtly does his best to win Flora and get Lindsay hanged. Davitt's novel does not feature a police detective, rather a series of keen amateur sleuths. But the mystery structure dominates the narrative, it being a classic whodunit.


Force and Fraud was set in Melbourne and upcountry Victoria. The other crime text in the first issue of the Australian Journal, "The Shepherd's Hut", begins with Melbourne's mean streets, 1850s:


'. its rows of wooden huts, with their tin or shingle roofs, interspersed with tents, mud hovels, drinking booths, and here and there a row of stone houses lifting their heads above their humbler brethren; streets that might be better termed rivers of mud, with tree stumps yet uncleared away in their midst; carts drawn by oxen or horses, struggling through the mire, and often hopelessly stuck in some deep rut; drivers swearing and cracking whips, diggers and adventurers, often drunk and disorderly, reeling or trudging through the mud slough, for fragments of paving only existed here and there .'


This scene-setting, and its transvestite bushranger (from Bundoora) apart, "The Shepherd's Hut" was hackwork, an action melodrama rather than mystery. It appeared anonymously, but was by James Skipp Borlase (1839-1902?), a lawyer of Cornish origins. He had only emigrated to Australia in 1864 and had almost immediately had got into trouble when he deserted his wife Rosanna. Borlase fled to Tasmania, where he was arrested and returned to Melbourne. The couple reconciled, avoiding a court case, but Borlase had effectively destroyed his legal career in Melbourne. He turned to literature instead, showing great entrepreneurial skills, but also a tendency to plagiarism. The evocative passage above is quite possibly not his work.


"The Shepherd's Hut" elicited a reader's response, a story called "The Stolen Specimens", a Casebook written from the viewpoint of a cadet policeman on the goldfields. The author was Mary Helena Fortune, née Wilson (1833-1909?), who almost certainly had taken her infant son and run away from her Canadian husband, arriving in Australia in 1855. In 1858 she had briefly and bigamously married Percy Brett, like Walstab a cadet policeman. Thus she had inside knowledge, and could write convincingly in the police persona. Within months, the Australian Journal had both Borlase and Fortune writing Casebooks: "Memoirs of an Australian Police Officer", and "Adventures of a Mounted Trooper". As such, they comprise the first Australian detective serial.


This brief survey of the beginnings of Australian crime fiction is necessarily brief, and incomplete-much more remains to be discovered. But of the writers concerned, it is worth briefly noting their subsequent careers and influence:


- John Lang never returned to Australia, and died in 1864. The following year, an extract from The Forger's Wife, featuring Flower, appeared as part of the Australian Journal's casebooks, probably due to Borlase.


- Marcus Clarke became editor of the Australian Journal in 1870, and wrote His Natural Life as a serial there. After a varied and uncertain life as journalist, writer, and librarian, he died in 1881.


- "William Burroughs" remains an unknown. He was plagiarized/rewritten by Borlase in the Australian Journal's Casebook series.


- George Walstab (1834-1909) collaborated with Clarke in the novel Long Odds (1868) and was with him when he died. He had a chequered career involving the theatre, public service and journalism, and also translated the French detective writer Gaboriau.


- Ellen Davitt returned to teaching, but it destroyed her health. She died, in poverty, of cancer and exhaustion in 1879. She also wrote an important story of Aboriginal massacres, "The Highlander's Revenge" (1867). Sisters in Crime named their Davitt award after her.


- James Skipp Borlase was sacked by the Australian Journal for plagiarizing Sir Walter Scott. He published his Casebook stories-and one of Mary Fortune's, unattributed-as The Night Fossickers and Other Australian Tales of Peril and Adventure (Warne: London, 1867). Finding colonial literary life too ill-paid and difficult, he returned to England, and a minor career as a "thriller" writer, for adults and children.


- Mary Fortune would write the longest known early detective series, "The Detective's Album", from 1867-1908. Her 1871 collection, of the same title, is one of the rarest items in Australian bibliography. The Fortunes of Mary Fortune collects her lively journalism. For more information about her bohemian life, see the latest Overland. Quite fittingly, how and when she died remains a complete mystery.




This article eschews footnotes, but the research of the following people is acknowledged: Nan Bowman Albinski (Clarke), Victor Crittenden (Lang), Ron Campbell (Walstab), Victoria Glendinning (Edward Heseltine), and Stephen Knight.



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