If we subscribe to the sentiment that 'we read to know we are not alone', then perhaps it is a natural progression to also think we read to recognise ourselves and others. I certainly do.
Throughout my 30 years in the book trade and a lifelong passion for books, crime fiction has been of particular interest. It offers a glimpse into the human mind and soul. The reader is confronted with characters in circumstances of sadness, madness and obsession. Their subsequent behaviour engrosses the reader in all its fragility and vulnerability.
These novels also present the alternative characters — those people, flawed though they may be, who are trying to maintain some level of compassion, security and humanity for the population at large.
Over the past ten years, writers in this genre have broadened the literary landscape with which they work. Ian Rankin explores themes from politics to asylum seekers to societal change. Henning Mankell shows us a small community in a small country dealing with the same issues of generational disengagement, addictive lifestyles and prejudiced views as the largest of our cities. John Harvey gives us Charlie Resnick, straddling the worlds of contemporary Britain and the Poland of his family's past.
Perhaps more than other forms of literary endeavour, the crime fiction novel has to weave several threads to present a complete picture, to populate the pages with myriad characters, and to present problems and solutions. When well written, the crime novel is engaging, tightly constructed and memorable. It also provides a non-threatening way to enliven debate in our 'real' community.
Just as in crime fiction, it is often the real police, politicians, lawyers, barristers, judges, and politicians who see the worst of human nature. The types of situations they are confronted with can mean they are close, in a very personal way, to the health or otherwise of our society. Perhaps this is why it is regularly people from these fields who identify an issue, discuss it, and try to lead the way. The price of such public comment can sometimes be criticism and harsh judgment from the community at large.
It is for these reasons that next year Reader's Feast Bookstore in Melbourne will present a crime fiction festival running concurrently with public discussions by legal exponents on the key issues facing our society.
A bookstore should be a place of welcome, knowledge, imagination and care. At Reader's Feast have spent our first 16 years being an active and innovative member of the broader community. We are aware of the need for discussion and debate about the Australia of today and tomorrow; the issues that have the power to divide or unite; and the way in which we respond to the global environment.
Through the Crime and Justice Festival we hope to provide a completely new and non-threatening forum for open discussion and debate, without rancour or criticism. The festival will feature crime fiction writers, barristers and judges, politicians, and readers from all walks of life.
As part of the festival, we will inaugurate the Eureka Street/Reader's Feast award for an essay exploring themes of social justice and human rights. Eureka Street was born at about the same time as Reader's Feast and has been a vital testament to the belief that each person is worthy of celebration, and a constant source of informed comment on social justice and human rights issues. To partner with the magazine on this annual award is fitting.
The award will be judged by a panel of eminent Australians, and it shall, we hope, further entrench the expectation of our community that we have, among our writers and legal luminaries, people willing to hold a mirror up for us to recognise and know our true selves.
Mary Dalmau is the founder and general manager of Reader's Feast Bookstore. Keep reading Eureka Street for more information on the Reader's Feast Crime and Justice Festival, and the inaugural Eureka Street/Reader's Feast literary award.