A sea of scarlet and pearls: Celebrating 30 years of mystery, murder, and malice with Sisters in Crime’s Scarlet Stiletto Awards

South Melbourne’s Rising Sun Hotel was awash with scarlet and pearls on Saturday night (25 November) as crime writers and fans gathered to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Sisters in Crime’s Scarlet Stiletto Awards for best short stories.

This year, a record 250 short stories competed for a record $12,720 in prize money.

Over the lifetime of the awards, 4582 stories have been entered with 34 Scarlet Stiletto trophy and category winners going on to have books published.

These include Cate Kennedy, Tara Moss, Angela Savage, Aoife Clifford, Ellie Marney, and Anna Snoekstra.

“Skin and Bone”, a creepy short story about two female artists with strange specialities, by Canberra author Romany Rzechowicz won the Swinburne University of Technology First Prize ($2000) and the coveted trophy, a scarlet stiletto shoe with a steel stiletto heel plunging into a mount. The same story also took out the Viliama Grakalic Art & Crime Award ($750).

Rzechowicz is a Canberra-based communications professional with more than 15 years’ experience working with public sector organisations, including defence, environment, aged care, technology and public service development in Australia and Canada. By day, she helps organisations share their true stories; by night, she writes not-quite-so-true stories that have been published in places like The Canberra Times and the Newcastle Short Story Award, as well as winning Furious Fiction.

“Winning the 2023 Scarlet Stiletto has been the highlight of my writing career! I’m so humbled to be appearing alongside so many other brilliant authors writing the story of the Stilettos in such a special anniversary year, and equally so proud to be part of this amazing community that works to lift all women writers,” she said.

“Sometimes writing can feel like shouting into the void, and this has given me a sense of validation that people do enjoy reading what I write, and the accompanying realisation that I can call myself a real author now.”

Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, the creators of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and much more, presented the awards after discussing their lives in crime with host Senior Professor Sue Turnbull, crime fiction scholar, reviewer, and Sisters in Crime Ambassador.

“Like many of Sisters in Crime’s best ideas, the Scarlet Stiletto Awards sprang from a well-lubricated meeting in St Kilda in 1994 when the convenors – including me – debated how we could unearth the female criminal talent that we were convinced was loitering with intent.

“When it came to the name, the ‘scarlet stiletto’ was the stand-out choice, a feminist play on the traditions of the genre (think silver dagger…). We love the way that the stiletto is both a weapon and a shoe worn by women. And, of course, the colour scarlet has a special association.

“And we were right – talent is loitering everywhere, sometimes in the most unlikely places! The winners have variously been librarians, editors, teachers, union officials, journalists, public servants, psychologists, investigators, hairdressers, exercise instructors, medical autopsy specialists, doctors, pharmacists, cattery managers. mothers, retirees, and, very occasionally, full-time writers.”

Eagger and Cox are hoping to bring the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries to the stage.

Emerita Professor Christina Lee, a double-shoe winner, presented the judges’ report.

“Women’s crime fiction in Australia continues to charm, surprise, engage, frighten, and delight. As usual, most writers focused on murder, but this year also brought a lot of financial crimes – theft, fraud, and embezzlement. And we also saw an increased focus on the criminal possibilities of AI and robotics,” Lee said.

Dr Carolyn Beasley said that Swinburne University of Technology was “so very very honoured to be able to support the incredible work of Sisters in Crime and the Scarlet Stiletto Awards. It’s a privilege to be in the room with so many talented writers and passionate readers and to see return winners and emerging writers making their mark, whether it’s by bloodstain, gunshot, or poison! We can’t wait to read them all!”

WA librarian and comedian, Jude Bridge, who won the shoe in 2014, took out the Simon & Schuster Second Prize ($1000) for “End of Life” about a pissed-off wife, an unfaithful husband, a gun, and a made-to-order sex doll. What could go wrong? Due to the tyranny of distance, she was unable to attend.

The Sun Bookshop & Fremantle Press Third Prize ($750) was won by Sandra Thom-Jones (Healesville, Vic) for “The Safehouse”, about a refuge for victims of domestic violence where women organise to mete out justice. Thom-Jones, an autistic artisan, academic, and advocate, also took out the Queensland Chapter of Sisters in Crime’s Liz Navratil Award for the story with the Best Disabled Protagonist ($400) with “The Motif in the Motives,” about a professor who found her colleagues’ passion for variety and for leaving dirty coffee cups in the kitchen disturbing. But when they started dying unexpectedly, she knew the answer had to be in the pattern . . . 

The Melbourne Athenaeum Body-in-the-Library Library Award ($1250) went to Alison Pascoe (Banora Point, NSW) for “The Murder in the Library,” about the murder of a crime writer extraordinaire who is unable to move on to the next world until she finds out who committed her ‘murder in the library’. Pascoe, while known as a romance author, has only recently delved into the world of short-story writing and this was her first entry.

The Melbourne Athenaeum Body-in-the-Library Library Runner-Up Award ($750) was won by Kim Graham (Croydon, Vic) for “Borrowed time,” where three sisters set out to solve the murder in the local library … and their small town will never be the same again! Graham is a health researcher at the University of Technology Sydney.

The HQ Fiction Award for Best Thriller ($1000) went to Cheryl Fairclough (Malvern, VIC) for “Bush Chicken” where a woman who has retired from the world suddenly faces an unexpected clear and present danger and so must take ruthless action to protect those she loves. This is the first time she has entered the Scarlet Stiletto Awards following a 40-year career of non-fiction storytelling about social issues and people’s lives around the world.

The Every Cloud Production’s History with Mystery Award ($1000) was awarded to JB Rowley (Middle Park, Vic) for “Shanty Shooting,” which was inspired by the actual murder of Robert Scott in 1863. The character of Eleanor Sinclair, who challenged the world of men in her determination to establish the innocence of a condemned prisoner, was inspired by Australia’s first female detective writer Mary Fortune.

As a child growing up in Orbost, Victoria, Rowley spent hours in the hayshed escaping her many brothers and reading books sourced from the local rubbish tip.

“The Body in the Bookshop,” by Josephine Brick (Frankston South, Vic) won the Clan Destine Press Award for Cross Genre ($750). Late one evening, Angela Page stumbles on the battered body of a man in her campus bookshop and she’s sure she’s never seen him before . . .  During the lockdowns, Brick wrote two, full-length, chapter-a-week novels that kept friends amused.

The Malice Domestic Award worth $750 went to Georgina Coleman (Fitzroy North, Vic) for “Sticky Fingers” where a young barrister encounters mansplainers at the Magistrates Court, an old flame at her favourite café, and sexually transmitted debt in her work. She sets out to prove that her client’s ex-husband forged her client’s signature on loan documents. Coleman has been a barrister for ten years, and a bookworm forever, in Melbourne/Naarm. This is her first (and definitely not last) time entering the Scarlet Stilettos.

The Scriptworks Great Film Idea Award ($500) was won by Kim Robyn Smith (Seaford, Vic) for “Lady Bethany Homestead” where a young couple stumble upon a fabulous rental deal that is too good to pass up. But their new home delivers more than they bargain for… Smith is a published writer of short fiction with stories appearing in several anthologies including the Peninsula Writers Club website where she was awarded Summer 2020 Digital Writer in Residence.

Athena Law (Rosemount, Qld) won the Writers’ Victoria Crime and Punishment Award for the story with the most satisfying retribution for “Model Husband.” The prize used to be getting to sit in a cell for 3 months at Old Melbourne Gaol.

Now it’s a Zoom course worth $220

Highly commended framed certificates went to:

  • Chris Blackford & Kate Williams (Mareeba, QLD) for “Where’s Wazza???”
  • Natalie Conyer (Mosman, NSW) for “The Byblos Code”
  • Kellie M Cox (Mudgeeraba, Qld) for “This Game Will Keep Us Alive”
  • Vicky Daddo (Hazelwood South, VIC) for “All About Eve”
  • Rebecca Douglas (Modbury Heights, SA) for “Needs Must”
  • Jacqui Horwood (Clunes, VIC) for “Mrs Beth”
  • Tegan Huntley (Inglewood, WA) for “#Blessed
  • Sharmila Jayasinghe (Bella Vista, NSW) for “Secrets Women Keep”
  • Eva Leppard (Kingston, Tas)for “First Day on the Job”;
  • Alyssa Mackay (Springwood, QLD) for “Pearl and Jade”;
  • K T Major (Jannali, NSW) for “A Tow Out of Line”
  • Cheryl Rogers (West Swan, WA) for “Sacrifice”.
  • Jacqueline Warner (Canning Vale, WA) for “Parrot and Malone”.

Crime fans were invited to turn up in scarlet and pearls, the traditional 30th-anniversary gift – and nearly everyone did, including the blokes or ‘brothers in law”. A mystery judge – Robin Bowles, fashionista, true crime queen, and former convenor – presented the Better Red than Dead prize for the best outfit to Jenny Pitts with a bonus prize going to Luke Bowman who wore a wonderful scarlet frilly shirt (as well as sharing the first prize in the raffle).

Cate Kennedy, who won the first two Scarlet Stiletto Awards in 1994 and 1995 and rapidly became one of Australia’s most admired and awarded short-story writers (even having a story published in the New Yorker) launched Scarlet Stiletto : The Fifteen Cut, an e-book collection of the 2023 winning stories, edited by Phyllis King ($7.99).

She also launched the paperback of the winning stories over the past 30 years, The Scarlet Stiletto: 30 Years of Mystery, Murder and Malice, edited by Lindy Cameron. (paperback $36.99; e-book $7.99)

Kennedy appeared in a dress she had decorated with 30 shiny red stilettos and invited authors to peel them off. In a very funny speech, Kennedy declared that we should never underestimate the power of a scarlet stiletto.

“I went to the Physics Factbook to check on just how much pressure a stiletto heel can put on a floor. A bare foot puts 30 pounds per square inch onto a floor, a woman wearing a stiletto ramps up the pressure to 240 pounds per square inch. 

“So that’s as much as 1600 pound force per square inch (PSI) while a man exerts only 20 psi. If given the choice between having your hand pummelled by a herd of elephants or a group of angry women in stilettos, you’d be wise to choose the elephants, whose feet are about 40 inches across.”

Kennedy finished with a hilarious Christmas song for crime writers that concludes:

God rest you merry writers, if they mock you, don’t dismay

As you run the gauntlet of another Christmas Day

They don’t realise you’ll be taking notes on everything they say

And everything they wear and do and cook, and every look –

And one day…. it’s all going in the book. [The full song will be published on Sisters in Crime’s website later this week.]

Both books are available from Clan Destine Press https://www.clandestinepress.net/, Amazon, Booktopia, and other outlets.

Ali T. successfully bid for a Picolli Portraits voucher worth $1000.

Writing prizes were kindly sponsored by Swinburne University of Technology, Simon & Schuster, the Sun Bookshop, Fremantle Press; the Melbourne Athenaeum Library, Kerry Greenwood, Every Cloud Productions; the Viliama Grakalic estate; Writers Victoria, HQ Fiction, Allen & Unwin, Clan Destine Press, Monash University, the Queensland Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and ScriptWorks.

The 31st Scarlet Stiletto Awards close on 31 August 2024.

Click here for the full script of the event and details of the authors and awards.

Info & author interviews: Carmel Shute, Secretary and National Co-convenor, Sisters in Crime: 0412 569 356; admin@sistersincrime.org.au or go to www.sistersincrime.org.au