Thursday, October 21, 2010

What we talk about when we talk about crime - with the Sisters in Crime

While it was an eventful journey just getting to the event, once we all landed safely we had a great night with the Sisters down in Melbourne last Friday.

The panel was chaired by Robin Bowles, who'd done her homework on Sulari Gentill and Angela Savage just as effectively as she had on me. For two completely different takes on the same night, check out Sulari's blog and Angela's blog. And just to prove the old adage that three eye-witnesses will provide three entirely different descriptions, I'll now add another.

Place is my "thing". It's what gets me excited about reading crime and it's what excites me about writing crime. With a great deal of help from a marvellous editor, Dr Malcah Effron, I have recently finished a chapter for an upcoming academic monograph on what I've dubbed "The Politics of Place" specifically how place is developed in Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead and Sara Paretsky's Blacklist as they chart the disintegration of western legal values and traditions in the wake of 9/11.

In both Sulari and Angela's novels, place is given a high degree of attention but in very different and interesting ways.

Sulari commented that she had had letters from elderly people whose memories of the New Guard in those days of madness in Sydney during the 1930s had been reawakened in the pages of her novel, A Few Right Thinking Men. I feel that this kind of response is a real tribute to the sense of political and cultural place Sulari created and proof, yet again, that a real sense of place involves a whole lot more than just getting the names of the streets and the numbers of the buses right. It involves creating a real sense of the place, of the culture, of the conflicts, of the news and the gossip and the violence and the struggles, just as it was in that time for those people.

Like her first novel, Angela's second, The Half-Childis set in ThailandWhen Angela began talking about writing Thailand, a place she loves and wants to share with her readers, she described her unease when she acknowledged that writing crime set there would mean dredging up all the negative stereotypes people harbour about that country; crime, corruption, drugs, vice, sex, exploitation. For her this meant she had to think carefully about how she handled the material, about making sure her characters and issues were real and complex.

This area of discussion came up towards the end of our allotted time, unfortunately, as it is something that is also of concern to me in my work. How to write about issues such as police corruption with nuance and depth, avoiding the cliches, making it real without making it repellent, keeping it authentic which means, to some degree showing how and why it occurs with subtlety, even empathy.

I related very strongly to Angela's concerns in depicting an Asian setting with both honesty and affection, as I have set the events of Book 2 in Cabramatta in early 1993. A quick glance at the headlines of that time ticks all the boxes of a great crime novel; young, violent gangs fighting and killing over a share of the drug market, home invasions and extortion, gambling and prostitution, drug sellers taking over the streets, crime out of control, police overwhelmed - every headline a story. And every headline fodder for those who did not want to see the development of an Australia where a good percentage of its population would not come from Anglo-Celtic-European backgrounds but from Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos.

No doubt about it, Cabramatta in 1993 was quite a place. A complex, rich and troubled place, where some kids went "out to play", ra choi, and ended up dead, others went to school while their parents tried to learn English, worked two jobs. Some kids went to jail and some kids went to university, carrying all the weight of expectation on their shoulders that they could claw back something of what their parents had given up to come to Australia.

It this nuanced Cabramatta I want the next book to explore. A place where kids dealt drugs and carried knives and lived in groups like little families taking care of each other, while behind closed doors, other families, damaged beyond all repair by war, just tried to hold on.

One of these days Angela and Sulari and I will have to have a good long talk about writing honestly but with nuance about places and people that are all too often seen in black and white*.

*Which is to say we're available for weddings, parties anything ....

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