Getting off the plane at Sydney airport, I felt as if I was about to enter a maximum security prison, what with oxymoronic signs saying “prohibited items are prohibited” and the threat of $10,000 fines (around Rs4.63 lakh). It was a wee bit rattling to be picked out of the immigration line for a merciless grilling and scrutiny, which included the brutal officers dipping a gunpowder-scanner into my underwear. An hour later, they hadn’t found anything “prohibited” so I was let into the country.
This exercise somehow seemed a befitting welcome to Oz—after all, Australia was set up as a British penal colony in the 1780s. The first fleet that reached Sydney Cove (today renamed Circular Quay, where you snap yourself before the famous Opera House) carried 586 male and 192 female convicts transported to the end of the known world, a harsh wilderness surrounded by shark-infested seas. By 1870, the practice of shipping crooks Down Under had been abolished, but I guess the prison spirit lives on among the immigration officers.
Back in the early days there was a thin line between crooks and cops: Due to the lack of a non-criminal population, the best behaved convicts were appointed policemen. Sydney was built by them too, for to woo civilian settlers the government offered free convict labour. Not far from the quays, the prisoners lived in Hyde Park Barracks, designed by an English convict-architect banished for forgery. Visitors can get a taste of old-fashioned jail life and check out the view from the judges’ bench over an 1858-style courtroom.
Across from the quay, the Justice and Police Museum (housed in an 1858 police station) details the 19th century epoch of bushrangers, displays forensic evidence, knuckledusters, sawn-off shotguns and the exhibition Sin City: Crime and Corruption in 20th Century Sydney (until May) teaches you that up to the 1950s bars had to close by 6pm, so organized crime thrived on illicit booze, gambling, drugs and prostitution, while the cops got rich on the bribes. The Sydneysiders seem to view all this as hilarious elements of their culture. I heard a toddler in the museum ask, “Dad, what are they doing?” The duo was looking at an old print on the wall. “Gouging out some guy’s eye while disembowelling him,” said dad. “Gross,” giggled the kid and dad laughed heartily.
Today Sydney’s infamous Kings Cross remains the preserve of thugs, drug-pushers and sex clubs, and this year’s most celebrated new writer, Mark Dapin, set his award-winning debut King of the Cross in these shady parts. Other Sydney crime writers are Kathryn Fox, who writes about a female forensic physician dealing with rape and violence against women; and the godfather of Australian crime fiction, Peter Corris, creator of the hard-boiled private investigator Cliff Hardy, spanning 34 novels, whose latest released in 2009.
The underworld holds a deep fascination, presumably for historical reasons—the earliest Australian prose frequently dealt with crime and the stories were barely fictional. The first Australian-born novelist, John Lang (1816-64), whose grandfather was banished with the first convict fleet for stealing spoons, based his famous story, The Ghost on the Rail, on an 1826 Sydney crime case.
Lang, incidentally, moved to India and lies buried in Mussoorie’s old cemetery on Camel’s Back Road. Another influential writer of 29 detective novels set in the outback, Arthur Upfield (1890-1964), wrote about half-Aboriginal genius investigator Napoleon Bonaparte, based on a real-life “tracker” who worked for the police.
When I browsed bookshops for local detective novels, I couldn’t help noticing how the shelves devoted to True Crime were always abundantly stocked (I even spotted a book called The Cochin Connection about Australian tourists who got mixed up with drug traders in Kerala). The highest rating ever for a non-sporting TV show in Australia belongs to Underbelly, a dramatization of the early 2000s gangland wars. A friend who guided me around town, and does occasional jury duty, told me how a real-life crook of those gang wars had just been assassinated under highly suspicious circumstances, and despite CCTV cameras, inside his cell at Barwon maximum security prison.
Flying to Melbourne it was too cloudy to see the bush below, but the bush holds great sway over the Australian imagination. The traditional Aussie heroes are those convicts who “bolted” and became bushrangers, rebelling against the colonial authorities, robbing stagecoaches, harassing miners and raping settlers’ wives. The last were hanged in 1900, but the greatest mythology is around Ned Kelly (1855-80) who apparently planned to set up his own republic and is likened to Robin Hood.
There’s a literary prize named after Kelly, and in Melbourne the Old Jail where he was hanged has been lovingly preserved as a shrine of sorts, where visitors view relics such as the gallows, Kelly’s revolver and death mask. With 2010 marking the 130th anniversary of his execution, the jail will have a courtroom re-enactment of Kelly’s trial and on execution night one can partake in the last supper of Kelly (www.oldmelbournegaol. com.au). Also on offer is another adventure tour (www.nedkellyadventuretours.com ) into “Kelly Country” where he grew up, committed murders and was captured in Glenrowan. If you just want to look like Kelly, most Australian cities have specialized shops for bush outfits, boots and cowboy hats.
Among Melbourne bookshops, the three to visit are Readings on Lygon Street in the Italian quarter, which has the best selection of Australian crime fiction I saw anywhere; Kill City, in a cavernous Swanston Street basement off Federation Square, specializing in second-hand detective novels, forensic guidebooks, Ellery Queen pulp magazines, criminal biographies, studies of psychopaths, gay/lesbian crime and any other subgenre you can think of; finally, there’s Minotaur in Elizabeth Street, where you get Freddy Krueger puppets, zombie survival kits, bottled drinkable blood and a large True Crime section.
The most Melbournian crime writer is Shane Maloney whose naughty slapstick books are vivid with local colour—I’ve just started reading The Brush-Off (1996) that features a wonderfully horny and drunken political Mr Fixit. Generally acknowledged as the greatest crime writer in Australia (five times winner of the Ned Kelly Award), Peter Temple writes about a Melbournian criminal lawyer called Jack Irish. One of the newest female genre novelists is ex-stripper Leigh Redhead who explores the seediest sides of Melbourne; her Thrill City (2010) features the murder of a best-selling crime writer and is set in the publishing world! Redhead is notorious for having demonstrated a striptease at the 2008 Ned Kelly Awards.
That last little titbit was imparted to me by Chris Womersley whose Ned Kelly-winning hard-boiled noir thriller The Low Road—about a petty criminal, a suitcase full of stolen money, and a morphine-addicted doctor in the outback—was a big cult hit. He isn’t your standard pulp writer and isn’t interested in formulaic genre fiction, but he tells me that neither can he bear the thought of writing domestic literary novels where nothing much happens. “Fiction has to have high drama,” he explains, and I begin to understand what makes Australians tick. His latest mystery, the neo-gothic Bereft (2010), is set in 1919 when the Spanish flu epidemic raged in Australia and apocalyptic movements flourished.
Finally, and not to be missed, are Melbourne’s alleys, away from the posh streets, where it is easier to imagine shootouts, where the lowlife slept in mud hovels and died outside drinking booths. The place to feel ghosts of yore come alive is in two narrow alleys, Crossley and Liverpool, which used to be named Romeo and Juliet (depending on the gender of prostitutes); here Von Haus, a drinking den dating to the mid-1800s, is grimy but chic so nowadays you’re more likely to hobnob with yuppies on a gastro-pub lunch than with pimps.
In conclusion, for those with an interest in crime, real or fictional, there’s no better amusement than visiting Australia.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based writer of crime fiction whose last published novel is Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.
Write to Zac at email@example.com