Stephen Knight, Australian Crime Fiction: a 200-year history

McFarland Books, 2018, 301pp., ISBN: 9781476670867 (p/bk), US$45.00

Stephen Knight’s new work Australian Crime Fiction: a 200-year history is a re-working and critical updating of his seminal text Continent of Mystery: a thematic history of Australian crime fiction, first published in 1997.

This recently released volume tackles the vast corpus of Australian crime fiction chronologically, rather than thematically. Knight systematically explores five time frames: Earliest Stories to the First World War (1818-1914); Across and Between Two Wars (1915-1945); Towards Independence (1946-1979); Australia Stands Alone (1980-1999); and Patterns of the Present (2000-2017). Themes are still easy to pursue with clear subheadings for sections as diverse as City Mysteries, Amateur Detectives, Indigenous Crime Fiction and Historical Crime Fiction. Knight’s skill in unpacking complex issues around gender across the genre, is on full display in his erudite discussions of men and women as producers of, and protagonists within, crime fiction. This volume also looks at what makes crime fiction produced in the Southern Continent uniquely Australian. Yes, murder is universal (as are the main motives to commit murder including love, money and to cover up another crime). So, too, are other types of crimes such as property offences. Yet, Australia—a land in which the role of crime is crucial to the “national historical formation” (p. 1)—quickly developed a distinctive style of crime story: shaped, in part, by convictism as well as by bushrangers, the goldfields and the squattocracy. As Knight asserts, this work analyses this distinctiveness and seeks to understand Australian crime fiction “as stories that are focused, at least in significant part, on Australia, its citizens, their concerns and contexts” (p. 1).

Crime fiction is the world’s most popular genre with devotees found across Australia and around the world, yet locally produced crime fiction was not always embraced and was, indeed, often ignored. One of the main offenders in overlooking this type of storytelling was the academy; crime fiction routinely dismissed in favour of more ‘serious’ scholarship. A key turning point in the treatment of crime fiction occurred when Knight wrote his important essay: “The Case of the Missing Genre” in 1988. Appearing in Southerly, this piece noted that crime fiction “set and produced in Australia is an intriguing subject, but so is the fact that as a genre it has been almost entirely overlooked” (p. 235). Knight has, over decades of research, redressed this glaring omission. Taking up a once unfashionable cause, he has systematically demonstrated the importance of crime fiction to understanding Australia’s cultural and literary histories. Many high-profile scholars have added to our knowledge in this area (including Ken Gelder, Toni Johnson-Woods and Lucy Sussex, to name just a few) and hundreds of research-focused students have now explored various aspects of one of our favourite forms of storytelling.

To claim a work is ‘essential reading’ in a book review is a well-worn cliché. It is, however, very fitting in this case. For those with interests in crime fiction, or for those wanting to contextualise other types of Australian literatures, this book is a must have: for researchers to consume cover-to-cover; for students to have as a staple reference tool; and for crime fiction enthusiasts to use as a handy catalogue when looking for their next novel or short story to read. Australian Crime Fiction is a clear and pacey history of an important genre. All the big names of Australian crime writing are discussed alongside a few names that will be new to many readers, with the evolution and the expansion of crime tales driving the text. Inevitably, the coverage of such a vast amount of material and its compression into a single volume make some sections in Australian Crime Fiction feel a little rushed. In compensation, the book includes a very useful bibliography and index allowing for easy follow up of a particular author or title.

Knight concludes his latest book with an observation on how much new crime fiction material is produced in Australia each year and argues a “new analysis will be needed in another twenty years at most” (p. 273). He also, modestly, suggests Australian crime fiction is still a “far too little-known popular literary form” (p. 273). I argue this final claim is inaccurate: the crime story in Australia is now a well-known and well-researched artform. Knight’s history is a testament to crime fiction’s durability and the (somewhat delayed) acknowledgement of, and appreciation for, a dynamic genre that has given us everything from mass-produced pulps to prize-winning novels. This book is also a symbol of one man’s career and his persistent lobbying for the acceptability of a once-neglected chapter in the Australian history of writing, publishing and reading. Buy, borrow or otherwise legitimately acquire your own copy of Australian Crime Fiction.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, November 2018

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