When we were planning this trip to Los Angeles, my husband, who knows me well, said ‘Esotouric does great crime tours; they’ve got one on the Black Dahlia murder. Do you want to write about that?’ My response was a red hot YES!
For those unfamiliar with the case, the Black Dahlia was the nickname of Elizabeth Short, a beautiful, lonely, troubled 22 year old woman living hand-to-mouth in Los Angeles off the kindness of strangers – strange men, mostly. In January 1947, her brutalised and bisected body was found dumped in a vacant lot in an uncompleted suburb. She’d last been seen a week before, but had so few friends that no-one had missed her.
Her murder remains unsolved: and like many unsolved murders, this crime has been the subject of numerous theories, books and films, including the famous novel-turned-film by James Ellroy.
Elizabeth Short’s lonely life and fairly horrible death are also a focal point for a lot more than her own fate. The particulars of her life make her a symbol of many women who somehow fall outside of the societal radar, who through circumstance and personal issues end up vulnerable and alone, ripe for victimisation and post-mortem judgement of their personality, relationships, sexuality and choices.
Beyond that, Short’s death was also a crux point for issues about the problematic relationship of the local media (Randolph Hearst’s newspaper was fundamental in uncovering elements of Short’s life and clues to the crime) and the investigation into her death was later the subject of an FBI investigation itself. It was, as the Esotouric guides say, a snapshot of Los Angeles at a particular time as well.
The Real Black Dahlia Esotouric tour, hosted by Kim Cooper, Richard Schave and Joan Renner, takes place four times a year, with visitors taken to key locations in the drama in a comfortable tour bus. Screens within the bus show photographs – some of them graphic, though you’re given plenty of warning in case you’d rather shut your eyes.
Tours of this nature can sometimes feel exploitative, but the hosts of this tour are not only knowledgeable, they’re mindful that Elizabeth Short was a human being with a sorrowful history. They strip away some of the sensationalist myths that surround her life and death to show us a woman who was not only troubled but perhaps suffering chronic depression. Their narratives offer sympathy and even some respect, even though Short was an inveterate liar. Kim, Richard and Joan make Beth a real person, drawing parallels with many other women who have become famous as victims of crime.
Sharing the narrative among the three of them works well – there’s a lot to absorb of this complex story, made so much more complicated by lies told not only by Elizabeth Short but by all sorts of people around her. This includes numerous people who falsely confessed to her murder, and the numerous suspects who are still popping up decades later.
As the bus doesn’t stop in exact chronological order of events, this sharing of the narrative between the three hosts, with occasional recaps and distinct drawing together of the various personnel and events, keeps the layers straight.
The tour lays out the events, the different people, the repercussions and the difficulties of the case, including two unrelated crimes that were nevertheless influenced by the atmosphere around LA in the years following Short’s murder. The tour visits the places Short frequented, the places she was last seen alive and other pivotal locations, including the footpath beside which her body was found. (On the day we visited, a dried rose was found attached to a lightpost at the spot.)
Finally, the hosts let us know about some of those who confessed to the crime (and how they were discounted), some of the suspects, and their own very plausible theory.
The Real Black Dahlia Tour, including a coffee-and-donut break, is worth the US$58, not least because it makes an honest attempt to put Elizabeth Short at the centre of her own dark story, and in doing so shines a sympathetic light on the women who become vulnerable to similar crimes. It’s well and thoughtfully presented, with some interesting insights.
If you have an interest in true crime, and the Black Dahlia in particular, I highly recommend this lively, thoughtful, compassionate tour.
- The next Real Black Dahlia tour in 2016 will be on Saturday October 29. Check out Esotouric for this and other crime, literary and culture tours.
- Read Joan Renner’s blog, Deranged LA Crimes
Just the Facts Ma’am: I was Esotouric’s guest on The Real Black Dahlia Tour.
My Australian publisher, Clan Destine Press, is having a massive book sale this month! Most of the books are in paperback as well as ebook, and there are some corkers available, all at 50% off.
If you’re a fan of the Phryne Fisher TV series, the author of the book series, Kerry Greenwood, also writes fantasy and erotica. Her Delphic Women series explores Medea, Electra and Cassandra. Her brand new collection, Herotica, is full of stories about heroes and beautiful men having fabulous sex.
I cannot sing enough of the praises of Mary Borsellino’s brilliant work. Not ever. Her Thrive is one of my favourite books ever – challenging and full of pain but also beauty, love and redemption. She’s awesome. She also writes lovely erotica.
Alison Goodman, of the famed Eon series and the new Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club, has an Aussie SF/Crime novel with Clan Destine called A New Kind of Death.
RC Daniels’ The Price of Fame is rock and roll, crime and the paranormal in St Kilda!
So if you want to try some new reading and see the amazing books Australian writers have to offer, now is a great time to fill up your shelf or you kindle with a bunch of brilliant stuff!
I’ve previously reviewed, with enormous pleasure, the books of Tansy Rayner Roberts: Power and Majesty and The Shattered City from her Creature Court series (Reign of Beasts is next on my to read list!). She also wrote the marvellous Love and Romanpunk for the Twelve Planets series, which my characters Gary and Lissa reviewed.
Now she’s at it again, writing crime under the name Livia Day. Her two novels and one novella in the Cafe la Femme series are all set in Hobart, and feature Tabitha Darling – maker of divine foodstuffs, wearer of fabulous frocks, and stumbler-upon of mysteries. Tabitha comes from a fine pedigree of accidental sleuths, from Miss Marple to Veronica Mars, and Hobart gets its chance to shine as a unique locale for murder, mayhem and really good coffee.
A Trifle Dead
In Tabitha Darling’s first outing as an accidental detective, we get to meet a great cast of supporting characters, from the policeman Leo Bishop, who insists on treating her like she’s still 16, to her old friend (or frenemy?) Xanthippe, who seems half Emma Peel, half Catwoman, and the new guy in town, Stewart McTavish, the blogger with the sexy Scottish accent and a secret.
Tabitha is practically an adopted daughter to Hobart’s police, being the daughter of a policeman and the woman who ran the police canteen. The association is not a universally happy one, and she’s determined to be her own woman. Her own woman with her own restaurant, a gift for really good salads, dressing with flair, and for getting into a ridiculous amount of trouble.
The trouble starts with an unexpected body in a net, and what appears to be an accidental death. It builds slowly, with strange practical jokes that become much more serious. At the same time, Tabitha’s personal life gets… complicated.
A Trifle Dead is a fabulous confection of a crime novel! I love books that use Australian locales well, and bring in a certain tactile freshness with the details. It paints a gorgeous picture of Hobart, sparks up the senses with lush descriptions of food and fashion, and is peopled with dashing characters. It’s funny, twisty and with a satisfying conclusion that leaves room for more.
Buy A Trifle Dead
- A Trifle Dead (Twelfth Planet Press)
- A Trifle Dead (Amazon)
- A Trifle Dead (Amazon.UK)
- A Trifle Dead (Kobo)
- A Trifle Dead (Barnes and Noble)
- A Trifle Dead (Weightless Books)
- A Trifle Dead (BookDepository)
The Blackmail Blend
This novella continues the pizzazz and humour of the A Trifle Dead, with Tabitha, her splendidly individual array of friends, her gorgeous fashion sense, her dedication to good food, her complicated love life and her astonishing capacity to fall face first into attempted murder – this time of a famous (or possibly notorious) romance writer who is having a huge and fancy high tea at Tabitha’s cafe.
There’s a charming hilarity in the details of the wannabe writers meeting their hero and discovering why that’s such a bad idea. Romance novellist Beatrice Wild is a deeply unpleasant person, and when there’s an attempt on her life at the afternoon tea, there’s no shortage of suspects.
Once Tabitha is more or less over the shock of a murder attempt happening at her cafe (what will that do to her reputation?! Or more importantly – to her cafe’s repuation?!) she, as always, dives right into the thick of it, uncovering historical inaccuracy, blackmail, secrets, hidden identities, and a motive for murder.
It’s a rollicking fast and enormously fun read, and even in a short story there are twists, surprises, and two gorgeous men that are frustratingly difficult to choose between.
Buy The Blackmail Blend (ebook only)
- The Blackmail Blend (Twelfth Planet Press)
- The Blackmail Blend (Amazon)
- The Blackmail Blend (Amazon UK)
- The Blackmail Blend (Kobo)
- The Blackmail Blend (Barnes and Noble/Nook)
- The Blackmail Blend (Weightless)
The second full-length Cafe La Femme novel has Tabitha swearing on the one hand that she no longer intends to be a girl detective – her not-boyfriend Bishop really disapproves of that – and on the other, that she is just going help a teeeeeensy bit with this missing person business.
Of course, chaos reigns, dressed in fabulous vintage frocks. Between obsessive experimentation with ice cream flavours, working out how to not tell Bishop things he probably ought to know and fearing that she’s become a boring old Vanilla person, Tabitha stumbles into murder, imposturing, experimental film and that persistent problem that she’s going out with one man while sporadically kissing quite another.
The energy and humour continue to fizz in Drowned Vanilla, and though the situations and the fantastic characters are outside the probable, the story retains enough grounding in reality to not go flying completely off into the unknown. Hobart and its surrounding towns are a strong presence that make me want to visit that pretty little town again, and I love the fact that Tabitha’s love life, while complicated and seemingly irresolvable, remains completely in Tabitha’s control. There doesn’t have to be a neat ending every time, and it’s easy to see the appeal of both Stewart and Bishop.
The supporting characters are charming, even when you want to slap some of them, and Tabitha Darling remains a very engaging hero. The chefs out there might even want to try the ice cream recipes scattered throughout the book.
Buy Drowned Vanilla
- Drowned Vanilla (Twelfth Planet Press)
- Drowned Vanilla (Amazon)
- Drowned Vanilla (Amazon.UK)
- Drowned Vanilla (Kobo)
- Drowned Vanilla (Barnes and Noble)
- Drowned Vanilla (Weightless Books)
- Drowned Vanilla (BookDepository)
The next book in the series, Keep Calm and Kill the Chef, is due out this year. I can’t wait!
I really like Goodreads. I love keeping track of the books I’ve read (and reread) just for my own interest.
My stats this year say this is the most books I’ve read in a year since starting to keep track – 63! Looks impressive, and I’m pleased to see it’s a good mix of classic and contemporary work, reading in crime, romance, horror, fantasy, humour and graphic novels.
Twenty-nine of the books were written or edited by women. Of the books by blokes, most were either by PG Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle or the comic book team of Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum, the guys behind Unshelved, a comic set in a public library. (I read 10 of their collected editions, having backed the digital publication of same in a Kickstarter.) And not to be too wedded to binary genders, I’ve added a lot of new writers to my lists this year, particularly in the anthologies I’ve read.
Highlights of the reading year
I seem to either have good luck in the books I choose to read, or I’m very easy to please, as I thoroughly enjoyed most of my reading this year.
I have my favourites of course, the cream on top of the creme de la creme: Treasure Island, which I read for the first time ever, and PG Wodehouse’s hilarious and extremely unreliable memoir, Bring on the Girls, co-written with Guy Bolton. A Pride of Poppies, an anthology of queer love stories set in WWI, was beautiful and touching and sometimes funny and sometimes so sad and all of it was amazing.
In non-fiction, I loved Ruth Goodman’s How To Be a Victorian for its insights, as I’ve been writing a book set in the era. I also finally got around to Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments, a book about the Milgram obedience experiments by Gina Perry, which I picked up years ago at Clunes Book Week. It uncovers the circumstances behind the experiments, how they led to stricter ethical guidelines for psychology studies and how they don’t really teach us anything that we’re told they teach us.
In crime, Livia Day’s The Blackmail Blend is a terrific short story and I must read the novels in the series, and Emma Viskic promises to be a great new Australian crimewriting talent with Resurrection Bay and her deaf protagonist, Caleb. I also loved Alison Goodman’s A New Kind of Death, an SF/crime hybrid, and I aim to read more of her work too.
I also finally read a Chuck Wendig novel, Blackbirds, and found it as profane and funny as I find his excellent blog, Terrible Minds. I’m looking forward to more of his work (I have three on the Kindle for 2016!)
The Day/Night They Met
And two of my very favourite books of the year? Companion pieces by the same author, Wendy C Fries. In Sherlock Holmes and John Watson – The Day They Met, Fries gives 50 new ways for the famous friends to have met for the first time, across eras from the Victorian to the modern day.
Writing as Atlin Merrick, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: The Night They Met the same author gives us 19 ways those two men met and fell in love. It’s the first Holmes/Watson romance to come out of Improbable Press, and it’s a marvellous start for a publisher that aims to celebrate queer readings of the Holmes-and-Watson legend.
How else was my reading year broken up?
Twelfth Planet Press
Among the books by Australian women, I read the final three collections in the Twelve Planets series, Secret Lives of Books by Rosaleen Love, The Female Factory by Angela Slatter and Lisa L Hannett and Cherry Crow Children by Deborah Kalin – all three showcasing remarkable talent in specfic and horror. Twelfth Planet Press always produces amazing books, and if you’ve missed this twelve-book series I recommend you hunt it down or get the books in digital format (including my own Showtime, number 5 in the series.)
As part of my research for writing The Adventure of the Colonial Boy, a Holmes/Watson romance due out this year with Improbable Press, I reread the entire Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle, which is an education in going back to the source material.
The same could be said of my first-time reading of Treasure Island, which I’d only seen in screen versions before, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which I haven’t read since I was a kid. I also read a lot of PG Wodehouse, who is always a great comfort in times of stress, and finally a Jane Austen that wasn’t Pride and Prejudice – Persuasion. (I began this year with Mansfield Park, which I didn’t particularly enjoy – I want to slap everyone in it. Do other people have this reaction?)
Forensics and True Crime
In further pursuit of research for my Holmes/Watson novel, I also spent a lot of the year reading up about the history of forensics and other related non-fiction books, primarily The Nutshell Studies, The Science of Sherlock Holmes, the three volumes of The Century of the Detective by Jurgen Thorwald (The Marks of Cain about fingerprinting, Dead Men Tell Tales about forensic science and Proof of Poison about toxicology), now out of print – I was lucky enough to pick up two of them at Clunes and found the third on eBay.
I ended with A Very British Murder, by Lucy Worsley and based on her TV show about how murder became such a national obsession for the Brits.
I thought I’d read more romance this year, but perhaps it’s just that I have read a lot of books where romance is part of a crime plot or some other fusion. Besides Persuasion and the aforementioned The Night They Met, I also enjoyed the unconventional princess-in-the-tower story, Her Silent Oath by Julia Leijon, and some excellent queermance.
A Pride of Poppies, as also mentioned, was very moving, while Jane Elliot‘s Smoothie, an action-romance for a lesbian couple, was a lively read. Tyler Knoll’s Just for Fun by AB Gayle was just sheer silly-crazy fun.
How about you?
I hope your reading year was also filled with old favourites, new discoveries, unexpected knowledge and ideas to spark other reading or your own writing. Feel free to share your favourites in the comments!
Reviewed by LynC
Picturesque Daylesford has a darker side.
Melbourne writer Georgie Harvey heads to the mineral springs region of central Victoria to look for a missing farmer. There she uncovers links between the woman’s disappearance and her dangerous preoccupation with the unsolved mystery surrounding her husband.
Maverick cop and solo dad John Franklin is working a case that’s a step up from Daylesford’s usual soft crime; a poison-pen writer whose targets are single mothers.
Georgie’s investigation stirs up long buried secrets and she attracts enemies. When she reports the missing person to the local cops, sparks fly between her and Franklin. Has he dismissed the writer too quickly?
A country cop, city writer, retired farmer and poison-pen stalker all want answers. What will they risk to get them? What will be the ultimate cost?
- Winner of the 2015 Davitt Award Readers’ Choice
- Shortlisted for the Davitt Award for Best Debut Crime Fiction
I wasn’t sure about this at first. I mean; a smoking protagonist who has just argued herself out of losing her licence for speeding, running away from a boyfriend who actually wants to commit to her, and bitching about her next door neighbour asking her for help, when, in her own words, Ruby and Michael would do anything for her. But she does help. And what a can of worms that opens!
Ruby’s pal Susan has gone missing. She hasn’t answered her phone for a week. Helping her neighbour takes Georgie on a spin to Daylesford, just a few hours out of Melbourne – especially at the speeds Georgie enjoys in her 1984 Alfa Romeo Spider. Georgie enjoys the trip out of town, enjoys the night away from her boyfriend, and expects to find nothing has happened to Susan. But Susan really is missing. The harder Georgie digs the more obstacles she encounters, not least of them a middle aged cop with a teenage daughter. Georgie and John take an instant dislike to each other, but as each investigates the mystery in their own way, each keeps stumbling over the other.
It is not either’s intention to combine forces, but they need each other. It all points to a car accident years ago, followed by the accidental death of Susan’s husband a few nights later. But was it an accident? Was the smear campaign which turned a good honest and kindly man into a wife bashing monster just a little too convenient?
The seemingly unconnected clues pile up and Georgie can’t help but follow them with John not far behind. Susan finds what she went looking for, but would it perhaps have been wiser to heed the advice of friends to let it go? How wise is it for Georgie to be following the same path. But with her neighbour in hospital, Georgie cannot let it go. She has to have something to tell Ruby.
From the opening and rather dismal few pages this book just got better and better. Putting it down ceased to be an option, I had to keep following Georgie and John. I had to know what came next. I cared that both came out of it safely as the tension started mounting.
There was just one minor jolt in the plot. It was written in 2013. Georgie doesn’t appear to be particularly poor, but she doesn’t own a smart phone, or a GPS. She needs local area maps to get around. In every other aspect it appears to be contemporary.
Apart from the minor discomfit the technology disconnect caused, it was a darn good read. There is a sequel due out real soon now. I want Black Saturday out yesterday so I can keep reading. That is how good I found this novel. It well deserved the Davitt Readers’ Award. Especially amazing considering it was Sandi Wallace’s first novel.
Buy Tell Me Why
LynC is a 50-something year old widow, juggling the demands of writing Speculative Fiction and being a single Mum.
In the past few years LynC has had four short stories published; one of which — Nematalien — was nominated for an award in 2013. Her first novel — Nil By Mouth (Satalyte Publishing) — was launched at the Australian National Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne in June 2014, and in the first year of publication has been shortlisted for two jury awards (Aurealis Award – SF Category and the Norma K Hemming Award).(Narrelle’s note: this is an excellent book and I recommend it highly.)
LynC resides, with her two ‘new’ adults, three cats, and a canary, in a hidden area less than ten kilometres from the Melbourne CBD (in Australia) surrounded by creeks and wooded hills.
The Books of Love are romance book reviews of both new releases and old favourites.
I love a good yarn set in my hometown. I love books that are deft and go at a cracking pace and offer twists that are seem so natural just moments after you’ve gone WTF? I love books that reflect diverse characters with great depth and texture. I love books that portray experiences outside my own. I love books that finish with a sense of satisfaction and yet as though the characters and their lives will go on after I’ve put the book down.
It’s hardly a wonder then, that I loved Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay so completely. I got so excited by developments when I was a quarter of the way through it, in fact, that I started sending tweets to the author along the lines of [engage allcaps] HOLY MOTHER OF HADES THIS BIT, THIS BIT, THIS BIT RIGHT HERE, OH. MY. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!!!!
Fortunately, the author seemed to respond well to my gleeful flailing over a few days.
So now, dear reader, I will flail gleefully at YOU.
We meet Caleb Zelic holding the blood-soaked corpse of his childhood friend, Gary, a policeman who was doing some work for Caleb’s security business on the side. It’s a few pages before we realise that Caleb’s difficulty communicating with emergency services isn’t only due to shock – Caleb is deaf, though he doesn’t like to draw attention to the fact.
From this distressing beginning, things just get worse and worse for Caleb. Filled with guilt for the death of his friend, suspected by the police and desperate to not be one of the bodies that is starting to pile up, Caleb and his partner Frankie seem always a step behind. It soon becomes clear that it’s not certain who they can trust. Is Caleb’s drug addict brother part of this awful mess? Who is Scott, who is implicated but whom no-one seems to know?
The action takes place around Melbourne and the coastal town of Resurrection Bay, where Caleb grew up. At one stage I was on the #86 tram, reading, when one of the characters was also on the tram. (And yes, reader, I did have an idle look around for him. Just in case. But he wasn’t actually there. Under the circumstances, this was probably a Good Thing.)
Caleb is a terrific lead character – likeable and capable, but flawed. His stubbornness can be admirable at times, but it’s also the thing that leaves the people he loves just a little outside. Because he relies on more than his “hearing” (via fallible hearing aid and lip-reading), he sometime sees more than he wants to say. He sometimes turns away so he doesn’t have to read things he doesn’t want to know. He tends to keep a distance between himself and other people. But you live in his world while you read – the anxiety of not always catching what people are saying, the patronising way people can be when they realise he’s deaf, and, oh hell yes, the strangely silent world of fighting for your life when one of your senses is barred to you. (Viskic notes in her afterword that she worked closely with people in the Deaf community to ensure Caleb’s sensory experiences were accurately reflected.)
Frankie, his partner, is a woman with challenges of her own, as an alcoholic ex-cop, and Caleb’s ex-wife, Kat, is a fabulously strong, dynamic character – a Koori woman, an artist, who is not impressed with his sometimes selective communications.These two very different and very textured women are an excellent foil to Caleb’s strengths and failings.
With these great characters, the Victorian location, and the punchy writing, you’ve got it all – crime, danger, love, heartbreak, betrayal, murder, hope, violence, and enough surprises to keep you wolfing down the words right to the very end.
I look forward to more from Emma Viskic in future, and, I hope, more of Caleb Zelic.
Buy Resurrection Bay:
Resurrection Bay (Five Mile Press)
Resurrection Bay (Booktopia)
Resurrection Bay (Readings)
Resurrection Bay (Kobo)
Resurrection Bay (iBooks)
I first saw Corinne May Botz’s book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York. It is a collection of art photos taken of Frances Glessner Lee’s dollhouse recreations of murder scenes.
The dioramas were not merely macabre toys put together by a fan of true crime. Lee painstakingly created the scenarios in the 1940s and 50s for a very serious purpose: training investigating police on the correct scientific methods of approaching crime scenes, observing all details which may bear on the case.
At the time, medical law was still very much a work in progress – murders often passed undetected or badly investigated. Frances Glessner Lee, a Chicago heiress, founded Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine and built these gruesome displays of domestic murder, mishap and accidental death to train police in observation. The models are still in use today by the Baltimore Police.
An astonishing level of detail went into their creation. Lee sometimes wore clothes for a year past their effective use-by date so they’d have the correct wear for the tiny figures in their boxes. She ordered parts, she disassembled and reworked and reconstructed them. She had pieces made from scratch. There are tiny calendars and books (including The Sign of the Four), miniature tools and household implements, medically accurate colouring (bright red skin for victims of carbon monoxide poisoning) and domestic details recreated to scale. Many of the scenarios were based on real cases, altered and expanded slightly to fit their purpose as training materials.
The Nutshell Studies – so named for the old saying that the role of forensics is to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell” – have multiple aspects to them.
There is the story of an intelligent, strong-willed woman who was denied a university education because that was not appropriate for women (according to her father) but forged a valuable role for herself anyway. There is the story of policing and detective work. There is a wealthy woman’s philanthropic role in promoting the ways in which the law and medicine interacted (in early years, coroners didn’t have to have medical expertise at all – some were elected to the position and were pretty much useless for the purpose of autopsies and crime solving). There is one photographer’s growing obsession with the dollhouses not only as social and investigative artefacts, but as artistic ones too.
Botz’s book is an artistic interpretation of the training tableaus, beginning with observations on Lee’s life and how it influenced her work in an artistic and social rather than strictly crime-solving sense. A biography of Lee criss-crosses the social, feminist, investigative and artisan elements of the work before the rest of the book highlights some of the studies.
The point of this book is not a whodunnit for the reader to solve – most of the scenarios remain unexplained because they’re still in use – but the biography and the photographs together provide an insight for the crime writer, as well as the reader who is fascinated by the strange and macabre and by the history of detective work.
They are also strangely, brutally beautiful in the way they capture the hard lives and everyday tragedy of death, and the remarkable detail that went into making them.
I can’t help thinking that Sherlock Holmes would approve of them.
Buy The Nutshell Studies from Amazon.com
Buy related material:
- Death in Diorama
- 99% Invisible – Episode 165: The Nutshell Studies
- The Wellcome Collection: Finding the Truth in a Nutshell
I read Carolyn Morwood’s Death and the Spanish Lady last year (and Gary the vampire and his librarian friend Lissa reviewed it), being a sucker for books set in my hometown, especially historical crime novels. That book was set in 1919, just after the Great War and during the devastating period of the Spanish flu epidemic. This story, set five years later, occurs on the eve of the police strike of 1923, which saw rioting in the Melbourne’s main streets.
The maxim that you should start in the midst of the action is taken to heart in Cyanide and Poppies, with the heroine, former nurse Eleanor Jones, kneeling by the body of a dead man in the offices of The Argus newspaper, where she is now a journalist, while waiting for the police to arrive. It’s perhaps a mite too abrupt as a beginning, but it certainly throws the reader into the midst of the business, both with Edward Bain’s murder and the difficulties of a police investigation while a strike is in place.
It also catches us up with Eleanor very quickly, including her change of profession and the ways in which her experiences in the war still haunt her. Her shell-shocked brother Andrew is still struggling with the return to life and Eleanor herself is still determined to deny and kill off her feelings for her unfortunately married friend Nicholas.
Much of the plot unfolds in a strangely muted fashion, reflecting Eleanor’s (and Andrew’s) own disconnectedness from things. The rest of the world intrudes on them, of course – sometimes in immediate and violent ways – but there is a sense of them both viewing the event around them at arm’s length.
But the mystery gathers momentum, including Andrew’s relationship with the vivacious but scandalous medium, Nadine Carrides, and Eleanor’s concerns and doubts about Carrides as well as her colleagues at The Argus. As it does so, there is a sense that the siblings’ lives are also gaining in momentum and purpose, and light begins to break on both the crime and their own relationships and engagement with their post-war world.
The book is elegantly written, with well-crafted characters and a wonderful capacity to evoke the Melbourne of the era. It’s always a pleasure to recognise parts of my town in a book, and even moreso to get a feel for those places in other times and atmospheres.
Cyanide and Poppies has a slow build to a satisfying finale that cracks open light and air on lives as well as mysteries, and that’s a pretty fine thing.
- Get Cyanide and Poppies in paperback
- Get Cyanide and Poppies for Kindle and Book.ish
- Read Gary and Lissa’s review of Death and the Spanish Lady
- Visit Carolyn Morwood’s website.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.
Rowena Cory Daniells’ latest book, The Price of Fame, has just been released through Clan Destine Press. Set in St Kilda in both the 1980s and the present day, it’s a paranormal crime thriller, engaging both music and painting in the unravelling of the murder mystery.
The storytelling is vivid, the characters strong and the distinctive sense of place combines with a slow-building creepiness to make The Price of Fame a compelling read. And it contains so many of my favourite things: Melbourne, mystery and rock and roll!
To celebrate the release of the book, I asked RC Daniells a few questions about the book, music and art.
Q: The Price of Fame is set in St Kilda: what relationship do you have with that town?
When I moved to Melbourne at the age of eighteen, I ended up living in St Kilda and stayed there (in several different flats) for the next twelve years. I loved Acland Street with its continental cake shops. I used to wander along the Esplanade to look at the craft markets and I used to go for early morning jogs through the Blessington Street Gardens.
Q: The Price of Fame combines crime, the paranormal and rock music. What do you think makes those three concepts go together?
Perhaps I’m weird but to me this seems perfectly normal. We lived in a grand old mansion that had been turned into flats. Below us were the members of a punk rock band who would practise all hours of the night and have noisy fights. One of our friends was a taxi driver who used to pick up street kids and try to help them. I was reading a lot of SF, fantasy and horror. It seemed only natural to combine all these elements. I wrote the early narrative thread of the novel when I was twenty-three, then added the contemporary thread more recently.
I should say here that the people in this book are invention. Like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, they are an amalgamation of lots of people, fused together to drive a narrative.
Q: What music influenced the book?
Suffering through nights of trying to sleep while the band rehearsed. Someone told me they were The Boys Next Door (later known as The Birthday Party). I don’t know if they were, but I do know they were doing the whole Punk Rock thing. There was a vibrant music scene happening in Melbourne at the time. My husband Daryl was going to hotels like The Prince of Wales where bands like The Models, The Ears, Midnight Oil and Men at Work were playing. He says if you want to get a feel for what it was like, watch the movie Dogs in Space, directed by Richard Lowenstein, staring Michael Hutchence.
Q: Does music influence your writing generally?
I’ve done some surveys with writers on this topic and I’ve found about 75% of writers are music oriented. They’ll play certain songs to get them in the mood for certain books, even make up a play list to listen to. Music is powerful. It goes straight to the hind-brain and draws on our emotions so it’s not surprising authors use it to help them find the ‘zone’ when they’re writing.
The proportion of writers who are visually based is much smaller. I’m one of the visuals. I can go to the art gallery and come out feeling like I’ve reached a zen state. I dream vividly in full colour (sometimes with a sound track, sometimes with people singing in rhyme. The night zombies did a 1940s song and dance routine down the street was pretty amazing). But I’m not a writer who will make up a play list for my books.
Q: Do you have favourite music to listen to while you write, or do you prefer to write in silence?
Looks like I’ve answered this one. When I was illustrating, (I used to illustrate children’s books and I painted super-realist), I would play classical music. But when I write I don’t seek out music. If something is playing in the background with lyrics, I find the words get in the way of what I’m writing.
Q: What artists do you find most interesting/stimulating or are just your favourite?
Ahh, artists. You can hear me drawing a big breath. There are so many, I’m sure to forget a few.
There’s George de la Tour (1592, 1652), who did amazing things with light. He brings the intimacy of a life lived by candle light to us five hundred years later.
There’s Joseph Leyendecker, who was a homosexual immigrant to the US, yet he shaped the way US citizens thought of themselves and created the ‘look’ for a generation. You’ll recognise his work from the many Post covers and advertisements he did.
There’s Maxfield Parrish with his saturated colours and idyllic settings.
Sigh. Just writing about them makes me happy.
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Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.
Gary: It was okay.
Lissa: I really liked Pandora English. She’s smart, capable, funny and I liked that she wanted to be an investigative journalist, not just write fluff pieces about fashion. Her Aunt Celia was a good character, and I liked her friendly Civil War ghost. Luke was a sweetie.
Gary: The ghost was okay.
Lissa: It was pretty funny in parts, and the mystery was good. It’s that Hitchcockian theory of suspense, when you know more that the protagonist.
Gary: I suppose that was okay.
Lissa: The writing style flowed really nicely too. It was fun and easy to read, which I like sometimes.
Lissa: …You didn’t really like it, did you?
Gary: It was fine, for a light read. I did like the writing style, really. It’s very cinematic. It’s easy to see how it would look as a film.
Lissa: What didn’t you like about it?
Gary: I didn’t not like it. It just… had a lot in it about clothes. And shoes. What’s a Mary Jane shoe anyway?
Lissa: Sort of like what I’m wearing now, but with a chunkier heel.
Gary: And that’s what Pandora was excited about?
Lissa: Mary Janes are comfortable but still pretty.
Lissa: Actually, the scenes with the vintage fashion dress-ups were some of my favourites! It would be nice to have an exotic former designer of a great-aunt giving me tips and nice shoes to make my way in New York.
Gary: You would?
Lissa: Yeah. That Chanel outfit sounded nice. The black pants suit.
Gary: I didn’t think you were very interested in clothes.
Lissa: I’m not obsessive about them…
Gary: Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Lissa: What do you mean?
Gary: I mean that I didn’t think you were into shoes and stuff that much.
Lissa: Just because I don’t go on and on about fashion, it doesn’t mean I don’t like nice things. I like nice clothes. I have my own style.
Gary: (nods vigorously, like he’s understood) Yes. Your librarian style.
Lisa: What’s that supposed to mean?
Gary: (uncertain) Ah….
Lissa: Sartorial criticism coming from a man who wears the Hawaiian shirts his mother bought for him in a job lot at a fire sale in the early 80s isn’t really my idea of expert comment.
Gary: I’ve said something wrong and I don’t know what it is.
Lissa: What does ‘librarian style’ even mean?
Gary: I just meant… you’re a librarian and… that’s how… you dress…? Should I have said Lissa style? You dress like you. Is that… how is that a bad thing?
Lissa: It’s…ah… not.
Gary: Would it help if I said sorry?
Lissa: You don’t know what you’re apologising for, do you?
Gary: … no…
Lissa: (sighs) Don’t worry. It’s nothing. It’s just… someone at work yesterday said I dressed like a hippy.
Gary: I knew hippies at uni in the 1960s. You don’t dress like them. Anyway, I like what you wear. I like the colours.
Lissa: You don’t think it’s too… old fashioned?
Gary: I think you look nice.
Lissa: Oh. Well. Thank you.
Gary: You’re welcome. (pause) What’s wrong with my Hawaiian shirts?
*For newcomers, the GaryView is a review of books/films/TV/entertainment carried out as a conversation between Lissa Wilson (librarian) and Gary Hooper (vampire) , characters from my book ‘The Opposite of Life’. Visit my website for more information.