Australian Crime Fiction: Breaking out from the ‘Fatal Shore’

The Forger's Wife First Edition Art

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) established some of the key generic conventions of the detective novel as it has developed internationally – the roles of investigator, assistant, witness and suspect; the presence of both ‘red herrings’ and real clues; and the contrast between the police, constrained by regulation, and the brilliant detective working unconventionally and laterally to make meaning of seemingly chaotic situations. These features combine to create stories that centre on the careful exposure of the workings of criminal or unethical activities unlikely to be uncovered by the operation of conventional policing. This in turn points to a key feature of crime fiction as a genre: its tendency to reveal and explore uncomfortable truths.

Like ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, many early crime fiction works – including those of Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle – were short stories or serialised novels published in newspapers and magazines. In Australia, colonial titles like the Leader, the Queenslander and the Australian Journal were publishing serialised popular fiction from the mid-nineteenth century. Fictionalised accounts of murders and other criminal activity vied for real estate on the printed colonial page with often graphic reports of actual criminality.

Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud (1865), published in the Australian Journal, is generally taken to be the first locally-produced] work of Australian crime fiction –- that is, the first work both penned and published in Australia.[1] Well over a century later, in 2001, the organisation Sisters in Crime Australia launched the Davitt Awards. These are presented annually for the best Australian crime books by women writers, as a means of marking and beginning to address the continuing underrepresentation of women in both prizes and reviews of Australian crime fiction. Organisations like Sisters in Crime and the Australian Crime Writers Association (ACWA) provide supportive communities to crime authors. They are promotional, inclusive, often politically minded, and influential in shaping the contemporary Australian ‘crime scene’.

International ties

Although Force and Fraud was the first work of crime fiction to be locally produced, Australian crime writers were finding publishers and markets abroad. The Forger’s Wife, by Parramatta-born lawyer, journalist and novelist John Lang, was originally serialised in London’s Fraser’s Magazine in 1853, and subsequently published in book form in London in 1855. Lang had been overseas, primarily in India, since 1842 but the subject matter of The Forger’s Wife is decidedly Australian – and, with its central detective character, it is decidedly a work of crime fiction.

Another key moment in Australian crime fiction came in 1886 with the publication of Fergus Hume’s Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Set in Melbourne, and initially self-published by Hume, it went on to sell half a million copies in the US and the UK[2], making it the bestselling detective novel of the nineteenth century.[3]

Global, local

Eva Erdmann has argued that late twentieth and early twenty-first century crime fiction is increasingly tied to locality:

[It is] distinguished by the fact that the main focus is not on the crime itself, but on the setting, the place where the detective and the victims live and to which they are bound by ties of attachment.[4]

Distinctively local stories are increasingly internationally popular. And detailed local settings afford authors the ability to develop stronger and more specific social, cultural and political critiques, leading to arguments that crime fiction is the logical place to look for the ‘new social novel’.[5]

An important, contemporary, global development tied to Erdmann’s observations is the staggering growth of Scandinavian noir. Gritty, realist crime fiction exploring the dark social underbellies of Nordic localities, Scandi noir has skyrocketed in international popularity since the 1990s. Notable examples like Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy have topped international bestseller charts and won prizes around the globe.

And Nordic crime authors are not the only ones whose regional perspectives are represented in the ‘global village’.[6] The twenty-first century has witnessed significant growth in the number of crime fiction titles published in Australia. It has also seen increasing international recognition for Australian crime fiction authors. Peter Temple (for The Broken Shore) and Michael Robotham (for Life or Death) are the first Australian crime writers to be awarded the British Crime Writers’ Association’s prestigious ‘Golden Dagger’ award in 2007 and 2015 respectively. Robotham’s Life or Death is set, notably, in Texas. With its American setting and international award, it is an example of the truly trans-national nature of contemporary Australian crime fiction.


  1. Gelder & Weaver, The Anthology Of Colonial Australian Crime Fiction, 2008: 2
  2. Ibid. 2
  3. Davies, Vintage Mystery and Detective Stories, 2006: 16; Sussex, Blockbuster!: Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab, 2015
  4. Erdmann, “Nationality International: Detective Fiction in the Late Twentieth Century”, from Investigating Identities: Questions of Identity in Contemporary International Crime Fiction 2009: 12
  5. As per Tom Wolfe’s ‘manifesto’; cf. Peacock’s article “Crime Novels” for The Daily Beast, 2010
  6. Erdmann, 2009: 24-25

Millicent Weber is a Research Assistant on Genre Worlds: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century, in the University of Melbourne’s Publishing and Communication program.


The Forger’s Wife will be re-published by Grattan Street press in 2017 as the first publication of the imprint’s Australian Colonial Fiction Series. Force and Fraud will be the second in this series.