Red Dust and a Passion for Cleaning

Crime awards and three interesting crime novels each with a female character with an unusual way of looking at the world.

Issue #30, Sunday 18 September 2022

Bookish News


Where to start? There’s been a lot happening.

Ned Kelly Awards

I can’t quite believe that I haven’t covered these here yet, probably because I’ve talked about them on our podcast. Given to Australian writers of crime fiction, this year’s Ned Kelly Awards were given out on 24 August 2022.

There were 135 entries in total for the four categories of the awards, indicating another strong year of Australian and international crime writing.

Winner of the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction was The Chase by Candice Fox. A worthy winner, I would say.

The Best True Crime award went to Banquet: The Untold Story of Adelaide’s Family Murders by Debi Marshall.

Best Debut Crime Novel went to Banjawarn by Josh Kemp. I’ve just finished reading this. Review later in this newsletter.

Best International Crime Fiction went to The Maid by Nita Prose. I’ve also read this recently and there’s a review later in this newsletter.

Davitt Awards

The winners of this year’s Davitt Awards for crime writing by Australian women were announced at an event on 27 August 2022.

The Best Adult Novel category was won by Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. The Best Young Adult Novel award went to The Gaps by Leanne Hall. Best Debut Book (and Reader’s Choice) Awards went to Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz.

I haven’t yet read any of these, but they all look good.

British Fantasy Awards

I won’t cover all of these, only to note that Australian writer Shelley Parker-Chan won both The Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and The Robert Holdstock Award for Best Fantasy Novel for She Who Became the Sun. I mentioned last time that she won the Astounding Award for Best New Writer at the Chicon Worldcon. So she’s getting a lot of well-deserved attention.

New and Upcoming Releases

Not a lot really caught my eye this time around, but then I haven’t been keeping as close an eye as usual on new releases. But this looks good, and it’s set in Melbourne:

Cut by Susan White

Carla is a young doctor striving to become the first female surgeon at a prestigious Melbourne hospital. When a consultant post opens up, she competes with her lover for the job and thinks she can be judged on merit. But an assault after a boozy workplace dinner leaves her traumatised and struggling to cope with the misogyny coming from every corner of her workplace. Recovering her fragmented memories from that night, Carla begins a fight for justice that will shake the foundations of the hospital she loves.

Buy it at Readings

My Reading

Mainly because I wanted to read some of the Ned Kelly Award winners, my reading this time has been entirely in the crime genre. Interestingly, each of the following books feature a female character with a far from usual mental state.

The Maid by Nita Prose

This is an easy read, feel-good kind of story.

It's told from first-person point of view of Molly Gray, who is a maid in the Regency Grand Hotel in a major American city. (I'm not sure that we're ever told exactly what city).

Molly is generally happy and content in her job. She loves cleaning and tidying and does so with a high degree of perfection. But Molly is different, possibly somewhat autistic. It's hard to tell because we only ever see her from her own point of view. But as she says herself: “I often have trouble with social situations; it's as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I'm always playing for the first time.”

This difference means that other staff find her odd and make fun of her, giving her mocking nicknames like “Roomba”, after the robotic vacuum cleaner.

Her innocence and naive view of the world means that she's often taken advantage of. An unscrupulous boyfriend steals the nest egg her grandmother had been accumulating for her . Her supervisor at the hotel regularly steals the tips left out for her. All of this means that she struggles to pay the rent on her run-down apartment.

The main plot of the book starts with Molly discovering the dead body of Mr Black, one of the guests in the hotel. It's not long before the police decide that Black was murdered. He was extremely rich, divorced, and on to his second, trophy wife, Gina, whom he had been physically abusing. Prior to Black's death, Molly and Gina had struck up a friendly relationship.

We also discover that Molly's simple nature has also lead to her being involved in a nefarious scheme, leading her to come under suspicion of involvement in Black's death. She is, in fact, being framed for his murder. But she is not entirely without friends to help her out.

The interest in Molly's character carries you along and you are quickly invested in wanting her to triumph and have a chance at a better life.

Entertaining and enjoyable, if not very deep or challenging.

The Maid won the Best International Crime Award at the recent Ned Kellys.

Lying Beside You by Michael Robotham

This is the third book in Robotham’s series featuring Cyrus Haven, a psychologist working with local police, and a young woman, Evie Cormac, who is the survivor of traumatic childhood sexual abuse and who has a remarkable ability to detect when someone is lying to her.

Cyrus has his own traumatic background. When he was about 14 years old, his elder brother Elias, suffering from delusions due to schizophrenia, rampaged through their family home with a knife and killed Cyrus's parents and twin sisters. Cyrus himself only escaped because he was still returning home from football practice. Elias was placed in a secure psychiatric facility, where he has remained for 20 years.

As this novel opens, however, Elias is being considered for release into the community, which in practice means to live with Cyrus. Although he has forgiven Elias because of his mental illness, the prospect is still daunting, all the more so because Evie Cormac, now turned 21, has been living as a housemate (but not in a relationship) with Cyrus for the last few years. He's very uncertain how Evie and Elias will get on together, and indeed these two are quickly at odds in the household. Throughout the novel there is uncertainty about whether Elias could revert to his murderous state.

With this in the background, Cyrus is asked to assist in a case in Nottingham in which an elderly man has been found bashed to death in his own home, and his grown-up daughter Maya, with whom he was living, is now missing. Evidence at the scene indicates a sexual motive. When a second young woman is abducted from outside the bar where Evie was working as a casual waitress, Evie too becomes involved in the investigation. But her traumatic childhood means she has trouble thinking through the consequences of her actions in advance, and she blunders badly while trying to investigate an earlier case which seems similar to these recent abductions.

Eventually, of course, Cyrus and Evie find the connections between these three cases, and work out where the abducted women are being held. There's an unexpected role for Cyrus' brother Elias.

It's all excellent, page-turning writing, though as is quite often the case with crime novels you do start becoming a bit cynical about the coincidences you are expected to swallow. What are the odds that Evie would be a witness to the second woman being abducted? Or that Cyrus would give a casual gardening job to a paroled prisoner who turns out to have been imprisioned for a crime with connections to the later abductions?

Still, it's all good stuff. Evie's character and view of the world continue to be unusual and carry the story along well. She's really more dominant in this novel than Cyrus, and it's interesting to see her feelings towards him slowly start to develop, while he still holds her at arm's length and describes her to others as his housemate or even as his tenant. This relationship clearly has some distance to go, which we may see in subsequent novels in this series.

Banjawarn by Josh Kemp

This is a confronting, disturbing book. It deals, among many other things, with drug addiction and the way it can drive addicts to live a degraded, desperate life and to carry out actions which are violent, disgusting or just plain morally abhorrent. More importantly, it looks at the children of addicts and the lives they are forced to live.

There are two main point of view characters. The first is a young man called Garreth Hoyle, who is addicted to the hallucinogenic drug PCP. When we first encounter him he is in the outback in Western Australia, north of Kalgoorlie, slightly crazy and needing to get another fix of his drug, but absorbed by the wonder of the Australian landscape.

Garreth's background and history are revealed through the course of the book. This slow revelation is very smoothly done and integrated well with the ongoing action. We discover that he used to work as a shearer on a sheep station called Banjawarn near Leonora, and that he's written a successful book. This book is a key to most of the novel. It was a non-fiction or true-crime book about his experiences at Banjawarn and in particular about the search for a child who went missing from the station. In the book Garreth changed the names of the people he lived with at Banjawarn, but each person is readily identifiable. The book was a great success and Garreth made a fair bit of money from it. But the other people he lived with are deeply angry about the book for various reasons.

The other main character in the book is a child, a 10-year old girl calling herself Luna (though that's not her real name). When we first meet her, she has locked herself into a toilet in a house somewhere. From time to time men come along and rattle the doorknob and demand to be let in, but she refuses. Someone called Jordy, who looks after Luna, has told her to stay there and not let anyone in until he gets back.

Garreth discovers Luna when he travels to Kalgoorlie and meets up with Kez, or Kerryn, who was one of the people at Banjawarn. She too is an addict, and he wants her to help him score. She's bitter at him for his depiction of her as a hopeless junkie in his book, but he eventually persuades her to take him to her dealer. It's in this drug house that Garreth, more or less accidentally, breaks into the toilet where Luna is hiding.

Without trying to describe the rest of the book in detail, Garreth finds himself having to look after Luna when it's discovered that Jordy, the man she had been living with, has died from a drug overdose. He refuses to take Luna to the child protection authorities because his own life was one of being shuttled from one foster family to another, and instead promises to take Luna back to her father, who apparently lives in the town of Gwalia near Leonora.

The deeply troubled relationship between these two people, the man and the child, is at the heart of the book. Garreth keeps trying to avoid responsibility and retreat to his drugs and his love of the outback, while she has fixated on him as a guardian, while knowing that he, like many adults she has known, has a bad drug habit and is likely to let her down.

The book comes to a shatteringly violent conclusion at Banjawarn station, which is apparently a real place with an astonishing but true past history which I won't reveal.

I thought this was all excellently done, though the book is often difficult to read because of its subject matter and brutally honest depiction of drug addiction and its consequences.

Banjawarn won the 2022 Ned Kelly Award for Best Debut Crime Fiction.

Currently Reading

Nothing right now! I just finished reading Banjawarn yesterday, so I’m “between books”.

Waiting on the Shelf

Ithaca by Claire North will definitely be my next read. My hardback copy arrived last week and I’m keen to get to it.

Also waiting to be read soon:

And that’s all, folks! See you next time.

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