Marginal Notes 8: A reflection on crime and punishment

Marginal Notes 8: A reflection on crime and punishment

Tuesday, Oct 24, 2023

When preparing our current shortlist devoted to ‘Crime and punishment in fact and fiction’ I began reflecting on the irony of my love of crime fiction and my aversion to true crime. I began reading crime related novels many decades ago, working my way through the ‘gentle’ murder plots of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Patricia Wentworth, to the more challenging plots of novels by Patricia Cornwell and P. D. James.

Just before my first buying trip to London in the 1970s I started reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, and during a visit to Richard Booth’s ‘book town’ in Hay-on-Wye, I was unduly excited by a small collection of books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which I bought from the Hay Cinema repository. According to my diary at the time:  I negotiated a collection of 90-odd Conan Doyle items. These were unfortunately in rather poor order, but I considered them worth the £30 I eventually offered. My enjoyment of Doyle’s books has not abated with time. 

My mother and business partner, Muriel Craddock, shared my passion for the genre of crime/detective fiction, and we would have great conversations about the most recent novel we had read and new authors to try. We particularly liked reading series or ‘river’ novels, with the lives of the main protagonists evolving with each new title (the only series that my mother loved and I could not become engaged with were The Cat Who books by Lilian Jackson Braun and Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series). The novels we enjoyed were  predominately by British women writers, with the occasional foray into the works of Dick Francis, Fergus Hume (only The Mystery of a Hansom Cab), and other male authors – with one major exception. In 1971, Muriel and I bought a library of books that included several of the Napoleon Bonaparte novels of Arthur W. Upfield, a British born Australian author. From the collection we both read fifteen of his books in a row, becoming Bony devotees. In ensuing decades, we were fortunate to purchase several large Upfield libraries, including the Uren-Hawke collection which (including Upfield’s typewriter) was sold to The University of Melbourne’s Baillieu Library.   

My current favourite series are the Brunetti novels of Donna Leon (although at the conclusion of each novel I am usually cross that the ‘bad people’ are not brought to justice), the Three Pines novels of Canadian author, Louise Penny, and the Bruno, Chief of Police novels, set in the South of France, by Martin Walker. When I have read all the available works by these authors, I sometimes start to reread past favourites, as well as find new authors, made easy by my subscription to the large range of crime fiction held by The Melbourne Athenaeum Library.

This self-indulgent reminiscence, sparked by this shortlist of books relating to crime and punishment in fact and fiction, is counterbalanced by the realisation that many people are really interested in true crime – an interest I do not share. However, a highlight of this shortlist is the recent acquisition of over 80 volumes of the Victorian Police Gazette—a fascinating record of crime on so many different levels, ranging from relatively minor misdemeanours and anti-social behaviour to horrific murders and other brutal crimes.

In the meantime, I look forward to the publication of the next Three Pines, Brunetti and Bruno, Chief of Police instalments.