In preparation for this blogpost, I contacted a number of writers and publishers seeking their views on the past, present and future of short crime fiction in Australia. Professor Stephen Knight’s name invariably popped up in these responses, as did his very popular short story anthologies, Crimes for a Summer Christmas. So I contacted the Prof at Cardiff University for his thoughts on short crime fiction and his reply is below. (Fans will be very pleased to know that he is heading back to Oz soon and very keen to continue promoting Australian ‘criminographers’.)
From: Stephen Knight
To: Spineless Wonders
Dear Bronwyn, You are right about the importance of short stories in general, and specifically in crime fiction. The short story was the dominant, almost the only, medium for self-aware crime fiction until late in the nineteenth century, and short stories long continued as both a mode of experiment and also considerable income for authors — Christie was a great exponent, as we see on television today. Conan Doyle got to novella length only four times, and Sherlock Holmes is a product of the short story — though they could run to 15000 words. The very important American private-eye form came out of the Black Mask story tradition. In Australia the great Mary Fortune exclusively wrote crime fiction, of very varied kinds, in short-story mode from the 1860s for nearly fifty years, and she had many local parallels — my anthology Dead Witness was compounded of some of the best of them.
The Crimes for a Summer Christmas series that Allen and Unwin started in 1990 showed that the crime short-story spirit was strongly alive in the present, and that the form permits writers to venture into crime fiction either as a change from their mainstream activities – notable examples were Elizabeth Jolley and Mudrooroo Narogin — and also enables new writers to find their feet in criminography.
Best wishes, Stephen
The Crime Scene
Here, The Ned Kelly Award’s Peter Lawrance and Lindsay Simpson, and crime novelist, P.M. Newton describe their experiences with the SD Harvey Short Story and Queen of Crime competitions respectively. Plus, there’s an interview with Jacqui Horwood, an award-wining writer and judge of crime fiction.
Lindsay Simpson: When Peter and I discussed the possible ways that the SD Harvey award would work, we decided that the short crime genre was worthwhile pursuing. I felt this was a relatively untraversed genre in Australia and we felt the competition should be able to produce internationally acclaimed short stories. The entries we receive are fiction although the SD Harvey entry requirements stipulate it can include creative nonfiction. For many people this might be a harder option. But this award may start writers to think about different ways to tell a crime story.
As one of the judges, I am looking for something more original than potboilers, considered coasters by crime fiction aficionados. So much of that kind of writing seems to have moved to TV viz. Underbelly. Sandra Harvey and I prided ourselves in providing a gritty realism that had foundations in truth. I don’t expect the entries to be as close to the kind of veracity we aspired to (one of our books, My Husband My Killer was used by the prosecuting team as a background to the case for the judicial inquiry into Andrew Kaljzich’s culpability. Similarly, my current book Honeymoon Dive is also being used as required reading for the prosecution team prior to Gabe Watson’s upcoming US trial.) I guess this is a long way of saying I’m looking for something more than stereotypes which are an easy fallback.
In terms of experimentation, we do see this in the short listers. Originally, we had asked for 3000 words but I asked Peter to extend that, because with crime writing I think you need more space to develop the plot. This has produced some cleverer entries. As a journalist I am a great believer in writing to a word count but 3000 was a tad short.
Peter Lawrance: In the two years since the inception of the SD Harvey Ned Kelly Award there’s been a surge of interest in our competition. Add to those the number of people out there writing short stories, and one could safely argue the form is in a strong state.
I am doing what I can at this stage to nurture short crime, in terms of setting up the prize, and ensuring that it receives support. On this basis the prize money has been reasonable ($1000+) although everything’s relative, and naturally there will be prizes around with a more handsome bounty. However, the Ned Kelly Award has an additional factor. As part of the prize there is an agreement with Scribe Publications to publish the winning story in their annual New Australian Stories, edited by Aviva Tuffield. There’s an agreement to publish the winner in the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Summer Edition’ too, although an unforseen difficulty there lies in their word length. For example, this year’s winner wrote a story of approximately 4000 words and the SMH will only publish 1600 or so. Consequently, the winning writer should be prepared to ‘edit’ their work to fit the newspaper’s requirements! I’d also add that unbeknownst to the three shortlisted writers in the 2010 Ned Kelly Awards, I made an unofficial presentation of a second and third prize (a couple of hundred each), by way of encouragement. In essence this is all possible because of the support from CAL (Copyright Agency Limited) and various individuals who have made donations in support.
As with any writing, quality varies. I know one of the previous short story judges, himself a well-known Australian crime writer, who was not going to tolerate what he called ‘writing by word processor’. He was tough in the technical context, although I’d also stress he was extremely generous too. This is important in terms of maintaining standards. So critical appraisal is important, objective editorial work would also assist many writers, not just a careful read-over by their best friend. Above all, constant working at the craft.
P.M. Newton: I think the crime writing competitions still function pretty much as auditions from writers hoping to gain recognition and then publication for a long form crime novel. Whilst some writers can and do specialise in the short form, they tend to be literary fiction or Sci-Fi. But I’d bet, you ask any writer who has won a short crime fiction competition here, whether they want to write short collections or a novel – they’ll say novel.
I think there are challenges in the short crime fiction genre. If the writer relies on very plot driven stories then trying to shake that out into a short form can end up being very heavy on exposition, or a very by-the-numbers procedural. Look at the difference between a crime-a-week TV cop show which has to spend a fair bit of its 45 minutes setting up the crime, the investigation and the solution, versus something like The Wire. Your crime a week is a series of short stories (albeit with the same characters) whereas The Wire is a chapter a week, five volume novel.
Short crime that works, probably places the crime in the background and the characters, the place and the atmosphere up front. The crime becomes almost incidental, or hasn’t even happened yet, but is building towards it, or happened in the past and someone is paying for it now. The screenwriting term for creating strong scenes; “In late, out early” applies equally to most scenes in a novel, and I think it applies with bells on to the short form.
How would you describe the state of short crime in Australia?
I think the short crime fiction market is a lot like short story market in general – heaps of people of writing it but not so many people publishing it. The Sisters in Crime published their first volume of Scarlet Stiletto winners a few years ago through Harlequin’s MIRA but we’re basically going it alone for volume 2 and self-publishing by way of Lindy Cameron’s publishing venture, Clan Destine Press.
There’s far more happening online for short crime fiction writers. There are loads of crime fiction blogs and websites. There are opportunities to get published in e-zines, although admittedly many of the e-zines are US-based. There was the recent re-launch of Crime Factory magazine which was originally started by David Honeybone in Melbourne in 2000 before it was finished up in 2003. A couple of Australian writers and an American writer have resuscitated the magazine online and it’s a great place for writers of hard boiled short crime fiction to get published.
Ideally I’d love to see more opportunities for short crime fiction writers in Australia whether it’s book-based or web-based. I think there is an opportunity out there for enterprising publishers to use e-readers and allow readers to buy single short stories.
Describe your experience of writing short crime. Is it any different, for instance, to the other writing you do?
My experience of writing short crime is very uneven. My first foray was for the Scarlet Stiletto in 2003. That story, “Slasher’s Return” actually won that year. My next attempts weren’t so successful. So I left crime alone for a while and wrote general fiction and articles on parenting.
I’ve gone back full circle and I’m now working on a young adult crime novel which I’ve finished and am re-drafting. I’m also trying out another short crime story for submission.
I love writing short crime. It’s challenging to try and tell a satisfying crime story in only a few thousand words. It’s also exciting to explore the What ifs of human nature and human behaviour.
Which of the crime short stories that you have written do you most like and why? How did the story idea came about and what was the process of writing it like?
It’d be no surprise to you to know that my favourite crime short story is “Slasher’s Return”. It’s been my most successful and the one where I think I was able to create and maintain a voice. The story is about a burnt-out police woman who is on long term sick leave after a breakdown. She’s working in a pub and one day a criminal walks in and orders a drink. It’s the criminal who’s responsible for her breakdown and who has been missing for a year. This is her turning point. She needs to decide her future.
At the time I wrote the story I was working as a project officer at Victoria Police and we had a police officer working with us who’d just come back from a breakdown. So the idea came from a combination of my own mini mid-30’s crisis (“Is this all there is?”) and working with this guy and listening to his story.
The process of writing “Slasher’s Return” was stop-start. The beginning of the story came in a rush and then I reached a point where I had to think about the plot. That slowed the writing down for a long time. The ending was written on holiday. All over I reckon it took me nearly a year to write and then re-draft the story a few times. Having a deadline for the Scarlet Stiletto certainly helped me focus.
Who are the writers (alive or dead, Australian or otherwise) that you admire and that influence you?
Crime-wise, I love the more hardboiled writers. I guess I really admire the pared down approach of those sorts of writers. I know James Ellroy’s not for everyone but stylistically he’s amazing. I love Peter Temple – both his Jack Irish books and his stand alones. The Broken Shore is brilliant. I love Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. She’s created two complex and intriguing characters who are always fascinating to read about. I’ve recently discovered Louise Welsh. The Cutting Room is an incredible achievement – a modern day story set in England that evokes 1920s Berlin.
Non crime-wise, I’m a huge Tim Winton fan. His words are like music on paper. I WISH I could write like that. I love Jeanette Winterson’s imagination and daring.
Crossing both genres, I’m an admirer of Dorothy Porter’s work. Her crime prose is such an achievement. She’s a loss to Australian literature.
Can you think of a crime short story that really stands out for you? Talk us through why you like it.
The short crime stories I remember most are the ones with an interesting voice telling the story. Because I’m one of the Scarlet Stiletto judges, it’s those stories I remember the most. One of my favourites is Roxxy Bent’s “Mrs Wilcox’s Milk Saucepan”. The narrator is an 80 year old woman who is captivating from the start. She’s observant and interesting so as a reader you are happy to follow her through the story. Another one is Mandy Wrangle’s “Persia Bloom” for the same reason. Persia is a fascinating character with a unique story to tell. I guess it’s less about the plot and more about the characters and their voices.