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True Blue? Crime fiction and Australia

Is everything written by an Australian automatically “Australian writing”? Mark Wassell/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

True Blue? Crime fiction and Australia

Australian Michael Robotham has taken home one of the most prestigious crime fiction awards around, the British Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger with Life or Death, beating out an impressive international field.

www.michaelrowbotham.com

Predictably, much has been made of Robotham’s nationality. The Guardian’s headline reads “Australian ghostwriter beats Stephen King and J.K. Rowling to top UK crime writing award” .

The Age’s Literary Editor Jason Steger notes that Robotham “is only the second Australian to win after Peter Temple in 2007 for The Broken Shore” .

While these writers take Robotham’s nationality for granted, I wonder whether this is the best way to describe him or his fiction. As the winning novel is set in Texas and his earlier psychological thriller/crime fiction takes place in England, an interesting question is raised about the identity of his books.

Born and raised in country New South Wales, Robotham, spent a decade in England and returned in 2002. His literary peers consider him an Australian crime writer, electing him chairman of the Australian Crime Writers’ Association.

He’s also won three Ned Kelly awards, a prize limited to Australians by birth, citizenship or long-term residency.

Robotham then is clearly Australian and he writes crime stories. So, what’s the problem with calling him an Australian crime writer? The answer depends on whether we attribute nationality to the author or his work. In other words, does Robotham write Australian crime fiction?

Locale and crime fiction

The crime genre is one of the most widespread literary genres. It has crossed borders and languages to become a form of world literature. Its mobility and its popularity are due to a combination of universal themes, portable conventions and local settings.

Everywhere it has settled, writers have adapted it to reflect on local issues. To some degree the local has become so important that it is suggested that nationality be ascribed not to the author, but to the locus criminis of the novel itself.

Eva Erdmann argues that in the later half of the twentieth century, crime fiction has been used to interrogate increasingly specific national or regional identities:

Surprisingly, the crime novel of the last decades 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.

Understood in this way, Robotham writes English and now American crime fiction. The late American author Alan Cheuse certainly embraced Robotham as one of his own, writing that Life or Death reads like a native Texan had written it.

Edgar Allen Poe. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Assigning nationality to where novels are set raises all sorts of complications, however. Is Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) an example of French crime fiction because the story is set in Paris and features a French detective? Erdmann would say yes, but this is perhaps more due to his influence on French fiction through the translations of poet Charles Baudelaire.

Robotham is clearly good at offering readers convincing settings. His highly successful career as a ghost writer has perhaps prepared him to adopt alternative points of view with compelling strength. Not every writer has this talent. Returning to Australia, in Continent of Mystery (1997), Stephen Knight takes issue with:

English visitors who glimpsed a capital city, took a compulsory trip to the bush, and then dashed off a shallow thriller with sturdy stiff-jawed bush heroes and bush heroines as warm-hearted as the sun was hot.

If an author’s nationality or a novel’s setting are not satisfactory markers of identity, then perhaps we should look at the author’s intended readership.

Although set in Texas, Life or Death has an Australian origin. It owes its existence to the true story of a career criminal who escaped from Sydney’s Long Bay jail the day before he was due to be released.

Robotham took the story and transposed it to Texas.

An 1852 illustration for The Mystery of Marie Roget. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

There is a long tradition of this in crime writing. In The Mystery of Marie Rogêt Poe took a famous New York murder case and set it in Paris. Given Life or Death’s Australian origins, it’s fair to say Robotham had the opportunity to set the novel here, but he chose not to do so.

I don’t want to suggest that Australian crime writers have to write about Australia, set their novels in Australia, treat Australian issues or have Australian characters.

The Miles Franklin Award has courted enough controversy in that area. Writers should be free to tackle any topic or to set their works wherever they want.

An example of the pitfalls of strict definitions of “Australian” is the exclusion of JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (2013) from the Miles Franklin 2013 shortlist. This has been attributed to its imaginary Spanish-language setting, although the book was received as, among other things, an allegory for Australian attitudes to “boat-people”.

However, unlike Coetzee, Robotham does not engage with Australian national imaginary, its issues and identity. He addresses a different – international – audience.

If Robotham is an Australian writer who doesn’t write Australian crime fiction, then how do we situate him and his novels? Google perhaps provides us with an answer. Search “Michael Robotham” and Google adds “International Crime Writer” to his name before taking you to his home page. In this globalised world, that’s not such a bad category to belong to.