23rd Davitt Awards winners announced

The winning crime and mystery books in Sisters in Crime’s 23rd Davitt Awards on Saturday night (2 September) traverse astonishingly different scenes of the crime – from a Bali bomb site and the sugarcane paddocks and tropical mangroves of far north Queensland, to small bush and coastal towns, and the Vietnamese community of Cabramatta in the nineties.

Tracey Lien (New York) won the award for Best Adult Novel for her debut book, All That’s Left Unsaid (HQ Fiction), which drew on her experiences of growing up in Cabramatta. The Best Young Adult Novel prize went to Fleur Ferris (Moama, NSW) for Seven Days (Penguin Random House Australia) while the Best Children’s Novel Award was won by Charlie Archbold (Flagstaff Hill, SA) for The Sugarcane Kids and the Red-bottomed Boat (Text Publishing).

(l-r) Charlie Archbold, Fleur Ferris, Hayley Scrivenor, Vikki Petraitis & Megan Norris

Dirt Town (Pan Macmillan Australia) by Hayley Scrivenor (Wollongong), took out the Debut award. Megan Norris (Gold Coast) was awarded Best Non-Fiction Book for Out of the Ashes (Big Sky Publishing). The Readers’ Choice award,as judged by the 600+ members of Sisters in Crime went to Vikki Petraitis (East Brighton, Vic) for The Unbelieved (Allen & Unwin).

Back in 2001, when the Davitts were launched, there were seven books in contention although the awards didn’t then extend to true crime (or non-fiction).

Dr Philomena Horsley (pictured on right with Emily Webb), the judges’ facilitator, said that the six judges were blown away by the standard of the 144 books submitted this year for the competition.

“The number of quality entries each year continues to rise as publishers invest in books that showcase the authorial skills and creativity amongst both Australia’s established and debut crime writers. And writers are also increasingly going their own way – self-publishing their stories in increasing numbers. The end result is a bonanza for the crime-loving public,” Horsley said.

“Once again, the quality of the Debut category tested the judges. Any of the six shortlisted books would have been a very worthy winner of that award. These authors conveyed sophisticated skills well beyond the concept of debut author.”

The annual awards for best women’s crime books were presented by award-winning journalist, true crime writer, and TV presenter, Debi Marshall (left), at a gala dinner at South Melbourne’s Rising Sun Hotel. Marshall first discussed her ‘life in crime’ with Sisters in Crime’s Emily Webb (right) before a sell-out crowd, including 16 women crime writers from across Australia.

Tracey Lien’s All That’s Left Unsaid has also won an Australian Indie Book Award, the MUD Literary Prize, and last week it became one of six books shortlisted for the Readings New Australian Fiction Prize 2023.

The judges found that Lien captures the gritty realism of 1990s’ Cabramatta and Ky’s heartrending search for her brother’s killer:

“The novel is a poignant portrait of the immigrant experience, the effects of grief and past trauma, and the complexities of friendship, family and culture. The authentic characters and strong voices of Ky, and Minnie resonated with judges. All That’s Left Unsaid is a masterful novel and a compulsive page-turner.”

Lien sent her speech via video from New York to the gathering:

“One of the reasons why it feels so wonderful for my novel to be recognized alongside so many incredible crime novels, murder mysteries, and thrillers is because I think these genres are some of the most entertaining to read and they can be such effective vehicles for exploring political and social issues,” she said.

“And that was my aspiration with All That’s Left Unsaid. I drew inspiration from former Davitt winners like Jane Harper and Liane Moriarty to tell a story that I hoped would, at its core, be entertaining, while also shedding light on how it feels to grow up Asian Australian in the 1990s in Cabramatta.”

In Seven Days, the YA-winning novel, city-boy Ben’s corporate father is heading to America to close an unethical business deal. His mother is holidaying somewhere out of reach. So, Ben must stay with country relatives for the holidays. His uncle thinks outdoor adventures are ‘good for the soul’, while reclusive Ben thinks they are his ‘worst nightmare’. His cousin, Josh, is sporty and intimidating, and an attacking goose monitors Ben’s every move. Ben starts counting the seven days, the 168 hours, before he can leave. . .

Fleur Ferris (left) spent sixteen years on the frontline – as a police officer then as a paramedic – and they made her story as challenging and as dramatic as her novels. She would start her writing career against that backdrop – and the even murkier world of the internet’s dark side – and since the success of her debut YA novel Risk (2016 Davitt winner), she has been working as a writer and, more recently, a screenwriter.

Since then, Ferris has published five more bestselling books and a number of these are optioned for screen adaptation. This sparked Ferris’ interest in broadening her craft to screenwriting, and she is currently developing some of her own material, as well as being contracted (paused for the strike) to write a feature film for an American production company. Fleur is currently studying for a Graduate Certificate in Screen Development at the University of Canberra.

The judges said that the Best Children’s Crime Novel by Charlie Archbold was “[w]ell-written with apt exploration of issues that include environmental conservation, racism, and justice, The Sugarcane Kids and the Red-bottomed Boat has plenty of child-appeal and is a deserving winner.”

Archbold (pictured left with Jane Pearson,Text Publishing) is an educator and writer. She grew up in the UK before settling in Australia. Her middle-grade novel, The Sugarcane Kids and the Red Bottomed Boat won the 2022 Readings Children’s Prize, was shortlisted for the Text Prize, and is a CBCA Notable book. Charlie’s debut YA novel Mallee Boys was a 2018 CBCA Honour book. Her YA novel Indigo Owl is a science fiction adventure. Her first picture book is out in 2023 and more Sugarcane Kids mysteries are coming soon. Charlie received an Arts South Australia Grant and is completing her first adult novel.

The judges said that Out of the Ashes, the Non-Fiction award-winning book by Megan Norris, is “a story about resilience, strength, and the selfless ways that strangers come together in the face of terrible adversity. In 2002 Tracy, Therese Fox, and her friend, Bronwyn, walked into a bar in Bali for a fun night out. Moments later, a man with hatred strapped to his chest walked past Tracy and pushed a button. The night exploded.

“It takes a gentle and skilled hand as a writer to tell this story and to avoid the pitfalls of being judgemental or voyeuristic. The judges were surprised by the depth of the story and by Megan‘s observations of the small moments, let alone her retelling of the bombings. It was the humanity in the face of destruction that Megan captured; courage, community, resilience. The story stayed with us, haunted us, long after we closed the final page of the book.”

In a surprise announcement, Norris (left with Therese Fox) told the crowd that Therese’s pilgrimage back to Kuta last October to promote the release of Out of the Ashes was captured by 60 Minutes and though painful, it has an unexpected very happy ending – a marriage proposal.

“Because among the millions of viewers following Therese’s story was another burns survivor who was so impressed with her courage that he contacted her asking to meet. It was a date that changed both of their lives. So, Therese Fox, thank you so much for trusting me with your story. I am so proud of all that you have achieved and so humbled to be part of your extraordinary journey,” she said.

Fox was at the Davitts with her daughter and was visibly moved by Norris’ tribute.

Hayley Scrivenor’s internationally published debut novel, Dirt Town, became an instant #1 Australian bestseller in 2022. It has been translated into multiple languages and won national and international awards.

This novel, the Debut winner, grabbed the judges’ hearts and minds with the various voices telling their part of the story: “So beautifully written, Hayley conveyed the authenticity and a true genuineness of Australian country towns, how small-town mentality can often lead to more harm than good, especially to the younger generation.”

Scrivenor holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wollongong and says that before she was a published writer, she was a failed writer’s festival director [of the Wollongong Writers Festival]. “When I say a failed director, I mean that I was easily overwhelmed by the reality of what it takes to bring an event to life. I didn’t write very much during that period in my life. . .  you have renewed my desire to be a good literary citizen, to keep those fires burning,” she said.

1993 marks 30 years as a crime writer for Vikki Petraitis, the winner of Readers’ Choice Award. Over 18 true crime books, Petraitis has written on everything from the Frankston serial murders to Lawyer X to police dogs. She recently moved into the podcast world and left her job as a teacher to work with Casefile. Her three-podcast series has had over seven million downloads and topped charts around the world. A couple of years ago, Vikki began a PhD in Creative Writing and wrote her first work of fiction in The Unbelieved. The novel won the inaugural Allen & Unwin Crime Fiction Prize.

Petraitis (left) said, “The strong vote for The Unbelieved tells me that the themes I wrote about – sexual assault, misogyny, and the voice of women – resonated widely with readers. I am very grateful for your votes.”

Three $300+ book packs in the raffle were won by Jacquelyn Parnell, Kelly Gardiner, and Jenny Pitts. Lesley Gillis, Sisters in Crime’s treasurer won the Be Immortalised in Fiction competition which means her name will go into the next novel by Vikki Petraitis.

The judging panel for 2023 comprises Philomena Horsley 2018 Scarlet Stiletto Award winner and medical autopsy expert; Joy Lawn, YA expert, and reviewer; Deb Bodinnar, former bookseller; Ruth Wykes, 2016 Scarlet Stiletto winner, author, and editor; Liz Filleul, 2004 Scarlet Stiletto Award winner, author and editor, and Moraig Kisler, Sisters in Crime’s President, and review editor.

The 2023 Davitt Awards were again supported by the Swinburne University of Technology. Carolyn Beasley (left) told the crowd. “Swinburne is so very very honoured to be able to support the incredible work of Sisters in Crime and the Davitt Awards. It’s a privilege to be in the room with so many talented writers and passionate readers. Writing a book can feel like being in lockdown in solitary confinement with no parole in sight, so know that we applaud you all for making it through that final sentence and for winning the heart of a publisher.”

The Davitts are named after Ellen Davitt, the author of Australia’s first mystery novel, Force and Fraud, in 1865. The awards are handsome wooden trophies featuring the front cover of the winning novel under perspex. No prize money is attached.

Media information/author interviews: Carmel Shute, Sisters in Crime, Secretary & National Co-convenor on 0412 569 356; admin@sistersincrime.org.au

[Philomena Horsley, the judges’ facilitator, is overseas from 4 September.]