megan norris, love you to death

Today’s guest post is by stealer of hearts Liz Barr.

A wealthy housewife, engaged in a passionate affair with a no-hoper, pressures him to murder her husband. So intense and death-obsessed is their relationship, she buys them adjoining plots in a cemetery, kissing her lover passionately as the sale is finalised.

In 2010, Australia was riveted by the revelations about Vickie Soteriou’s attempted murder of her husband, Chris. During the lover’s trial, his defence tried to paint the scenario as something out of film noir: the average joe who is putty in the hands of a femme fatale. Justice Coghlan (by far my favourite judge in the criminal jurisdiction, shut up, it is totally normal to have favourite judges) remarked that Mills and Boon might be more likely.

The best true crime seeks to cast light into society’s dark corners. At the very least, it should tell a good story. Love You To Death: A Story of Sex, Betrayal and Murder Gone Wrong, with its suburban intrigue and glimpses into the contemporary Greek-Australian community, tells a good yarn, but we never get to see past the surface.

This is partially an issue of access — while Chris Soteriou and his family were extremely cooperative with the author, his former wife and in-laws have nothing to say at all. Indeed, the victim remains estranged from his teenage daughter. The Soteriou family are understandably bitter about Vickie’s betrayal, which has cast a sinister light over her entire marriage. But Norris seems to accept their accounts without question, reproducing uncritically the misogynistic slurs the family attached to Vickie. Norris claims to have a particular interest in writing about women and children affected by crime, but phrasing like “the evil housewife” owes more to Victorian (the era, not the state) fears about treacherous women and the breakdown of the traditional family.

The sad thing is, this isn’t even necessary. The facts alone demonstrate that Vickie Soteriou was a manipulative narcissist. That she wears knock-off designer products is less interesting than the fact that she threatened her supplier when her sister-in-law started buying from the same woman. Or so the sister-in-law says.

Love You To Death is, in the end, intriguing but shallow. Very late in the piece, Norris casually mentions that the Greek language press in Australia was comparing the business with the great tragedies of ancient Greece. It’s an interesting insight that goes unexplored, another missed opportunity in a book that could have been so much better.

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.

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.

matthew condon, three crooked kings & jacks and jokers

Today’s guest post is from the criminally lovely Liz Barr.

Growing up in Brisbane in the ’90s, I was acutely aware of the Bjelke-Petersen era. Maybe because I had a political family — my conservative parents have only recently conceded that Joh’s government was not, in fact, the victim of a left wing plot — or because I read a lot of biographies of local musicians, and they all had memories of Cloudland and being hassled by the cops.

Now I live in Melbourne, but I still follow Queensland politics. Campbell Newman’s ongoing attempt to relive Joh’s glory days sparked an interest in Brisbane’s history of corruption, so I headed to the library and found Matthew Condon’s Three Crooked Kings and Jacks and Jokers.

And what a history it is. Condon follows the career of Terry Lewis, from his first days as a cop in the ’50s to his unexpected and dubious promotion to police commissioner in 1976. Along the way, we learn that there are all kinds of police corruption, from blackmailing young women known to have visited abortionists to taking payments and turning a blind eye towards illegal casinos and sex shops. Condon has spoken to Lewis himself at length, but keeps him at a distance, directing the reader’s attention to new twists on old lies.

The framing device — the murder of Shirley Brifman, a prostitute turned whistleblower and the rape of her daughter, both crimes committed by police officers — borders on the exploitative. But this is not a world that treats women well. Condon only foreshadows the terrible experiences of Lorelle Saunders, Queensland’s first female police detective, who was framed for attempted murder and spent ten months in jail, eventually placing herself in solitary confinement to escape the abuse of guards and prisoners. She was ultimately exonerated and reinstated — but the bulk of her story is reserved for the third book in Condon’s trilogy, due in 2015.

It’s a complex pair of books, with characters appearing for a few pages before vanishing again, to import drugs into Far North Queensland, or to fabricate evidence against a possible mass murderer, or to leak information to the press that leads to two people being murdered. A corrupt cop’s work is never done, and if the reader doesn’t pay attention, she’ll be lost. Wait, when did the bank-that-was-a-front-for-drug-importers-and-also-the-CIA turn up? Who owns that nightclub? Did student protesters really march all the way from St Lucia to the CBD?

Queensland has tried to shrug this history off, but you can catch glimpses here and there, of heritage buildings torn down in the middle of the night, the dodgy brothels that still exist in the Valley, in the way the police keep stopping my mum’s pastor as he rides his Harley to church. Condon demonstrates that the era of the Moonlight State was seedier, stranger and more shocking than anyone realised.

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.

tram stop international review: simone van der vlugt, safe as houses

An escaped prisoner invades the isolated home of a young mother, taking her and her five-year-old daughter hostage.  And the only witness has suffered a head injury in a car accident sustained fleeing the scene.

In the mood to spend a few hours gripped by unspeakable narrative tension, but you’re almost out of Breaking Bad?  Dutch author Simone van der Vlugt has the novel for you!  This is short — 262 pages of very large text — but compelling, using the present tense to draw the reader in and distract them from the clunkier dialogue.  The intimacy of the writing makes the tediously inevitable rape scene all too vivid, but the real strength of the story is in the careful, unreliable bond created between hostages and captor.

Another quality guest post by Liz Barr

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.