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The strange case of Australian noir

  • 24 May 2024
The Way it is Now, by Garry Disher, Text Publishing, Melbourne 2021 Exiles, by Jane Harper, Pan Macmillan, Australia 2022 I have a friend who says that in her (not very) old age, all she wants to read is biography and crime/detective fiction. My reading range is somewhat wider, but I confess to an addiction to detective fiction, my mother having introduced me to the novels of Agatha Christie when I was about 11 years old. She herself had read all of them, and I think I have too. Mum was also a big fan of John Dickson Carr, he of the locked-room mystery fame, and Earl Stanley Gardner, creator of the fascinating Perry Mason. I no longer read Christie but remain a dedicated admirer of A. Conan Doyle. This devotion also started quite early, because Doyle’s famous story The Dancing Men was in a high-school anthology. Perhaps genes will out: my third grandson, aged 11, is a great admirer of a German series, which he reads in Greek: it involves (hooray) a detective who has various adventures and solves numerous crimes. Detective fiction as a category came fairly late to English literature. American Edgar Allan Poe is credited with writing the first novel in this genre: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which appeared in 1841. Charles Dickens is assumed to be the first writer to use the actual word ‘detective’, and a detective story is an important thread in his novel Bleak House, which appeared in serial form in 1852–53. His contemporary and friend Wilkie Collins is famous for The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). The latter was lavishly praised by Dorothy M. Sayers, herself no slouch in the genre: she believed The Moonstone was the finest detective story ever written, and T.S. Eliot agreed with her.

But those evaluations were made long ago, and the genre has since evolved. Perhaps that evolution has not always been a good thing, as certain writers have concentrated on forensic detail and have tended to move their works at least to the edge of the horror genre. Various cultures have also developed their characteristic and very engrossing genres within the genre. The French Maigret series written by Georges Simenon is one example, the Van der Valk novels by Nicolas Freeling another. And then there is the whole movement labelled Tartan Noir: see writers such as Val McDermid and Ian Rankin.

In Australia, detective