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Colonial Australian Crime Fiction



Crime and detection played a prominent role in colonial Australian popular writing, with crime stories often published in magazines and periodicals such as the long-running Australian Journal, in which crime novels were also often serialised, for example, Ellen Davitt's little-known early murder mystery, Force and Fraud (1865) and Marcus Clarke's epic tale of transportation and imprisonment, His Natural Life (1870-72). From the mid-1860s, the Australian Journal regularly published 'casebooks' by prolific local authors Mary Fortune and James Skipp Borlase, under the series titles 'Memoirs of an Australian Police Officer' and 'Adventures of a Mounted Trooper.' Their stories also appeared in collections, for example Borlase's The Night Fossickers (1867) and Fortune's The Detective's Album (1871). Local publishers George Robertson, the NSW Bookstall and E W Cole published colonial crime fiction in inexpensive volumes that had the potential to reach wide audiences, for example: Charles Junor's Dead Men's Tales (1898), Henry Fletcher's North Shore Mystery (1899), Randolph Bedford's Billy Pagan, Mining Engineer (1911). Crime fiction seems to have grown easily from the colonial Australian setting. Authors exploited the local scene for material, drawing on the chaos and dangers of the goldfields, the bush and the developing metropolis as well as themes of convictism, bushranging and urban criminality. By focussing on the flux and mobility of the characters that circulated through a colonial world still very much in the process of establishing itself, crime fiction could play on a host of anxieties around class and social transgression in a setting where the distinctions between the law and lawlessness were easily broken down.

Rachael Weaver