Australian noir: seven of the best

5 Mins read

There have been a few articles recently about noir fiction making a come back. Leaving aside the questions about whether it ever really went away, it does seem to be a great time to be writing in the noir vein, particularly if you live in the US or the UK. Mainstream publishing houses and indie presses seem to be releasing more and more of it. Think Megan Abbott, Don Winslow, Christa Faust, Donald Ray Pollock in the US, or Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty in the UK, just to name a few. Emerging authors are getting opportunities via feisty on-line publishers such as Snubnose Press, Blasted Heath and Caffeine Nights. Meanwhile, old masters of noir, like Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, are being rushed back into print, either in dead tree or ebooks.

The question is: why isn’t this happening in Australia? Sometimes it feels like Australia is the land that noir fiction forgot. Whatever the case, I’ve been trying think of Australian crime fiction that could possibly be labelled ‘noir’, and came up with the following list. Do let us know if you’ve come across any that could be added to the list. Some of these are a little hard to get hold of, but are well worth it…

Broken ShoreThe Broken Shore by Peter Temple
Often when people overseas think of Australian crime fiction, this is the book they think of. Winner of the CWA’s Duncan Lawrie Dagger in 2007, it was also huge in Australia and bagged a swag of awards. It was even the first crime novel to be shortlisted for the prestigious Miles Franklin award, and led to the term ‘Kanga noir’. Big city cop Joe Cashin has fled to a Victorian coastal town after a traumatic case that left him physically and mentally damaged. Despite his efforts to lead a quiet life, he is drawn into the investigation of the brutal bashing of an old man, the suspects are three young Aboriginal men. It’s a beautifully written book about male trauma and race relations. Read our appreciation of Peter Temple here.
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DarkestLRThe Darkest Little Room by Patrick Holland
A dark and totally original take on one of the standard plotlines seen in crime fiction set in Asia: foreigner-falls-for-bargirl-who-ends-up-much-more-than-she-seems. Joseph is an Australian journalist living in Saigon with a sideline in blackmailing high profile philanderers who he photographs in compromising situations in brothels. One day a foreign businessman approaches him with a picture of a physically abused but beautiful woman held prisoner in a brothel known as ‘the darkest little room’. Before long, Joseph has rescued the woman, who is mysteriously free of any physical wounds, and fallen in love, only to have her snatched back again by the gang of traffickers who brought her to Vietnam. Wonderfully drawn characters, painfully acute observations about the expatriate condition, a vivid depiction of Vietnam, and a breakneck plot make this a mesmerising read.

City of LightCity of Light by Dave Warner
The main character of City of Light is Snowy Lane, a young police constable working in suburban Perth in the late-1970s, who gets swept into investigating a string of murders of young women by a serial killer dubbed Mr Gruesome. This not only changes his life, it ultimately entangles him in the corruption and excess that marked 80s Perth. The book is split into three sections. The first, which deals with the Mr Gruesome killings, introduces us to a cast characters that include bent cops, crooked real estate dealers and aspiring politicians, who pop up at later stages in the book. A local man is arrested for the killings, but Snowy is certain he’s not the culprit – a hunch he’s unable to play out when the suspect commits suicide in jail. By part two, the action has moved to 1986. Haunted by what he knows is his failure to catch the real killer, Snowy has left the police and is now working as an ambulance chasing private investigator. Part three is set in 1988. A serial killer is again talking women. Is it a copycat or has the real Mr Gruesome returned? City of Light is a wonderful crime yarn that weaves aspects of a good solid police procedural with a sweeping overview the city’s darker site. It might reminded you of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet.
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line-of-sight-david-whish-wilsonLine of sight by David Whish-Wilson
Line of Sight is, in my humble opinion, one the best pieces of crime fiction to out of Australia in a very long time. The book is loosely based on the real life 1970s murder of the notorious Perth brothel madam, Shirley Finn. It’s told from the point of view of Superintendent Frank Swan, a tough as nails old school cop turned whistle blower for the sham Royal Commission established to look into Finn’s murder. Well written and meticulously researched, it’s a wonderful piece of hardboiled writing and an incisive analysis of the changing nature of corruption in Western Australia. There’s a sequel out later this year. I can hardly wait.
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PeepshowPeepshow by Leigh Redhead
The main character in Peepshow is a stripper called Simone Kirsh who is forced to go undercover at a men’s club to find the killer of its seedy owner, Francesco ‘Frank’ Parisi. The book is a great slice of Australian tart noir, a fast-paced read that perfectly balances grit with humour. There’s lots of sex, country music and great characters. But two things about it are particularly worth commenting on from a critical perspective. The stripper usually features as a background character or victim in your average crime novel. It’s good to read a crime yarn told from the perspective of one, by a writer who has worked in the adult industry and knows what she is talking about. What I liked most about the book, first published in 2004, was the depiction of the bay side Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, which has since been changed massively by development and gentrification. In addition to Peepshow, Simone Kirsh has appeared in Pie, Rubdown and Thrill City.
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PigsBloodPig’s Blood by Peter Robb
When most people think of Peter Robb they think of his later books like Midnight In Sicily, or M, a biography of the Italian artist Caravaggio. But before them he wrote a terrific little novel called Pig’s Blood. It features a rather dim-witted hit man called Sal, who is sent to Sydney to kill a mafia informer. In the process, things get very, very complicated and very, very bloody. Adding to the mayhem are his fantasies about a Thai prostitute and a bizarre relationship with a 14-year-old trailer park waif who has a family from hell.
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WIFWake In Fright by Kenneth Cooke
This story of drinking and violence in regional Australia, written in 1961, still packs a punch today. John Grant is a mild-mannered teacher working in a tiny speck of a town called Tiboonda. He has six weeks leave ahead of him and £140 in his pocket. All that stands between him and six weeks in Sydney is an overnight train stop in Bundanyabba or ‘the Yabba’ as the locals call it. That is until he wanders into one of the Yabba’s local pubs and loses nearly all his money in a two-up game. He wakes next morning, broke and at the mercy of the locals who, as he discovers, can literally kill a stranger with their brand of kindness. Cooke handles Grant’s slow descent into the nightmare landscape that is the Yabba with slow-burn ferocity, heightening the tension through a series of bizarre interactions with the local residents. I can’t think of any book that comes close to its level of menace. Read our review of the recent reprint here.
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