justine larbalestier, razorhurst

Today’s guest post is by the illegally excellent Liz Barr.

Diverse as the young adult category is, it contains surprisingly little crime fiction. Maybe its tendency towards realism keeps authors and publishers away from anything that smacks of Enid Blyton. Five Investigate a Grisly Murder. The Secret Seven Solve A Scando-Drama. (Note: I would absolutely read these.)

Filling the gap is Justine Larbalestier’s Razorhurst. It’s dedicated to Ruth Park and Kylie Tennant, whose novels depicted a Surry Hills now lost to gentrification, but its streetsmart dames and ominously respectable crime lords owe something to Raymond Chandler and the American hardboiled detective genre. Not that Chandler would portray a young prostitute with as much sympathy and affection as Larbalestier gives Dymphna Campbell, but then, there weren’t many stoic, tough talking, hard drinking, cynical but honest detectives in 1930s Sydney, either.

Oh, and hardboiled American detective novels didn’t have ghosts.

I was hesitant about the ghosts at first: Sydney in the razor gang era is already so fascinating — why clutter it up with the supernatural? By the book’s end, I was dissatisfied because I wanted more ghosts. I wanted the characters to confront the swarms that haunt Central Station. I wanted more of the beautiful murder victim who haunts her killer’s car. And I wanted a bit less of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s recently deceased boyfriend. (Actually, like the two heroines, I frequently wished he’d vanish forever, or at least shut up for a while.)

The novel takes place over a 24-hour period as the fragile peace between two crime lords is threatened. Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s best girl, but the ominous Mr Davidson has taken an interest in her. And Dymphna has an agenda of her own — although once Jimmy is murdered, her ambitions simplify: she wants to survive.

Accompanying Dymphna is Kelpie, a streetkid who can see and communicate with Sydney’s ghosts. Kelpie knows a lot about death, but once she’s out of Surry Hills, the world is a strange and unfamiliar place. Along the way, Dymphna and Kelpie pick up an ally in the form of Neal Darcy, an honest working class would-be author who can handle a typewriter or a fist fight with equal skill. But not everyone is going to survive the coming day.

Larbalestier vividly sketches 1930s Sydney, but if you’re remotely familiar with the era — or at least watched Underbelly: Razor (which was totally great, by the way — the historical figures might have been slimmed down and glammed up, but that topless prostitute fight actually happened) — there’s a lot of joy to be had in spotting the historical figures. Most appear under different names — Gloriana Nelson is a combination of vice queens Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine — but they’re recognisable nonetheless.

I was particularly delighted with Snowy, based on a factual black man with dyed platinum hair, who’s known, then and now, only by a racial slur. Whatever his real name was, there’s no trace of it in any surviving documents. Larbalestier gives her character a history, a family, an inoffensive nickname, and ultimately something very close to a happy ending.

I’m not sure how well Razorhurst works as a YA novel — I don’t think I’d have understood or enjoyed it when I was a teen — but as crime fiction, it’s an absolute ripper that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Arrested and charged with the trafficking of books. Charges dismissed after bribing the judge with some new releases. Small. Ginger. Enjoys history, cephalopods and tween media. lizbarr.wordpress.com


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