Death in the Faculty: Crime & Academia

This Melbourne Sisters in Crime event on 22 July 2016 was a sell-out – and included a big turn out from the academy, with at least five professors in attendance.

The debate about the long-standing relationship between crime fiction and academia was led by Sue Turnbull, a Professor in Media and Communications, University of Wollongong and a long-time Sisters in Crime national co-convenor and crime columnist for Fairfax Media. Her co-conspirators were Leigh Redhead, P D Martin and Elise Payne.

Here’s a quick synopsis of a few of the issues they explored:

Sue Turnbull:

Sue Turnbull 2The relationship between crime and academia has always been intriguing. For a start, there are a number of academics who have lead double lives as crime writers. And I’m thinking here of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, a Scottish literary critic who published his academic work under the name J.I.M. Stewart, but who also wrote crime fiction under the pseudonym, Michael Innes. Amongst many other works of fiction, Stewart/Innes created the very popular Detective John Appleby who first appeared in 1936 in a series that lasted for fifty years and included such great titles as Hamlet, Revenge (1937) and The Ampersand Papers (1978).

Another significant academic and crime writer was founding feminist mother, Carolyn Heilbrun. I still have a copy of her book Towards Androgyny (1973) on my shelves. A Virginia Woolf scholar at Columbia University in New York, Heilbrun wrote crime under the name Amanda Cross, producing fourteen Kate Fansler mysteries, beginning with Death in a Tenured Position in 1981, before committing suicide in 2003.

Last, but by no means least, we should mention Sisters in Crime member and two-time Scarlet Stiletto Award winner, Christina Lee, who with her friend Felicity Allen wrote Unable by Reason of Death (Penguin 1989) under the names of Judith Guerin (named after Bella Guerin, the first woman to enrol at the University of Melbourne). The novel is set in the Justice Barry College of Technology,  a thinly disguised RMIT, where psychology lecturer Lisa Thomas becomes involved in the investigation of a colleague’s death, with serious consequences for her career. The authors wrote a follow-up book, Not in Single Spies (Penguin 1992), but it didn’t do as well and they abandoned the series.

Christina is currently a Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland, and is just finishing a new crime novel and preparing a short story for the one-off Silver Stiletto competition. This competition will be part of this year’s 23rd Scarlet Stiletto Awards marking the Silver (25th) anniversary of Sisters in Crime.

The second category of crime fiction related to academia concerns books that are set in and around universities. In this category, it is hard to ignore Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers, a book that inspired a whole generation of early feminists across the world who did not know that women could go to university, never mind Oxford.

And then there was Australian author June Wright who wrote six detective novels, starting with Murder in a Telephone Exchange in 1948. In 1961, Wright published Faculty of Murder, set in the fictional Brigid Moore Hall of Melbourne University amongst the ‘freshettes’. The murder is investigated by Mother Paul (or Reverend Mother as she is addressed), the clerical detective of three of Wright’s crime novels.

And let’s not forget all those academic studies of crime fiction, and an ongoing debate about who writes best about crime, crime writers or academics. Not surprisingly the crime writers have tended to win this particular contest hands down as Josef Hoffman suggests in a discussion on the Mystery File Blog occasioned by his two postings entitled the ‘Twelve Best Essays on Crime Fiction’ ( and ‘Twelve Important Academic Essays on Crime Fiction’  (

In each case, only one of the cited authors is a woman, suggesting either that we and our fellow sisters in crime have not been doing enough work (unlikely), or it hasn’t been noticed (more likely), or that there is much work still to be done (which is very true). This is the work being undertaken by our three panellists here tonight

Leigh Redhead has worked on a prawn trawler and as a waitress, exotic dancer, masseuse, teacher and apprentice chef. She is the author of the award winning Simone Kirsch private eye series: Peepshow (2004), Rubdown (2005), Cherry Pie (2007) and Thrill City (2010). Info:

Leigh Redhead 2

I’m studying for a creative writing doctorate, titled Lost, Lonely and Lurid: In Search of Australian Noir. It involves writing a full-length noir novel about the decline of an alternative community in the nineteen-eighties, similar to the one in which I’d grown up, and penning an exegesis where I figure out how to define Australian Noir and whether it exists as a distinct literary subgenre.

My exegesis has to be thirty thousand words and I use those to figure out a definition of literary noir and whether Australian Noir is an actual thing. Noir fiction is undergoing a surge in popularity at the moment and terms such as Domestic Noir, Nordic Noir, and the tongue-in-cheek Tartan Noir are becoming commonplace.

Yet for a term in such common usage, it’s remarkably difficult to describe what a noir novel actually is. While film noir is relatively easy to spot, literary noir has always been difficult to pin down. As Otto Penzler says: “noir is not unlike pornography, in the sense that it is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it.”

A lot of confusion around the word stems from the fact that hard-boiled and noir are often taken to be the same thing. This is probably due to many noir films being based on hard-boiled detective fiction. I agree with the scholar Lee Horsley’s definition of literary noir, which goes beyond the hard-boiled detective figure who is tough but essentially romantic, and who always restores order. She maintains that although “private eyes play a part… so do transgressors and victims, strangers and outcasts, tough women and sociable psychopaths.” In other words, noir can be hard-boiled, but hard-boiled is not always noir.

Another useful definition was given to me by Sue Turnbull, who reminded me that NOIR is an acronym for Negative Outcome is Required. Negative did not have to mean death, although it certainly included it. Negative could mean no change from a bad situation, imprisonment, or the death of a dream.

My initial research led to me formulating my own definition of Australian noir, and I developed a checklist which assisted me in deciding whether a novel fit the classification. The first priority was a negative ending, in which the protagonist is either killed, incarcerated or in a similar situation of existential despair as they were at the start. The next was a protagonist who was guilty of something, and complicit in their own downfall. They had to know what they were doing was wrong, but be unable to resist their desire. There had to be some examination of class, economics and gender relations (all thematic noir staples) and I had to make sure that there were no elements of the uncanny present, as Australian Gothic literature, with its tropes of entrapment and disintegration, is often mistaken for noir.

As I began to identify Australian noir novels, other, particularly Australian cultural anxieties became discernible. Many of the novels were concerned with drug and alcohol use, patriarchal power structures relating to the law, church and state, institutionalised corruption and a particularly violent and misogynist brand of Australian masculinity.

So does Australian Noir exist as a literary subgenre.

Well – not really.

(And thus endeth my PhD.)

No, there are a few Australian Noir novels – despite the fact that publishers often shy away from crime fiction with negative endings. Australian novels that can be identified as noir are small in number, diverse and not necessarily marketed as crime fiction. Urban noirs include Dorothy Porter’s verse novel The Monkeys Mask (1995), Andrew McGahan’s Last Drinks (2000), Peter Robb’s Pigs Blood (2001) and Wayne Grogan’s Junkie Pilgrim (2003). Rural noirs I could identify were Kenneth Cooke’s Wake in Fright (1961), Chris Womersley’s The Low Road (2007) and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (2013). All of these novels have vastly different characters and settings, many straddle the divide between literary and genre fiction and Burial Rites, an historical novel about the last woman hanged in Iceland in 1829, has never been described as noir.

Of course I’m sure there have to be other Aussie Noirs out there, so if any of my fabulous Sisters in Crime have any ideas – please come see me at the Davitts and let me know!

Elise Payne is working a PhD in English Literature at the University of Wollongong examining Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, with a special focus on the identities of supporting characters and their effects:

Elise Payne 1One of the things about speaking at this event that excited me the most was seeing the amount of support and enthusiasm there is for the place of crime fiction inside academia and university education. I have been discouraged from studying crime fiction (or other forms of popular fiction) many times, for fear of what it may do to my job prospects when attempting to break into the world of English Literature Academia.

When I was going through the PhD application process, I was told by more than one academic that I should definitely not pursue a PhD thesis on a topic that had anything to do with popular fiction, and definitely not crime fiction, because I wouldn’t get into the PhD and if I somehow did I would never get a job afterwards. Because crime fiction isn’t smart enough, isn’t important enough, isn’t ‘classy’ or ‘intellectual’. Through my own research, and listening to the other panellists discuss their fascinating work at this event, though, I am hopeful that this attitude among existing academics is fading fast.

In my own research, I focus solely on the Scarpetta series of novels by American author Patricia Cornwell. I am the first to admit that her writing is by no means great literature; that it is fraught with problematic narratives, erroneous statements, and often multiple errors of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. These moments of ‘weirdness’, though, are golden, for they give us as academics something to analyse and to discuss. My thesis, for example, is a ‘narratological’ analysis of the identity and function of some of the characters in the Scarpetta novels, and how they function as the key to finding all that is not quite right about these books and the world that exists within them. If these characters weren’t written in a problematic way, my project would not exist. Moreover, I love studying texts like these because I know that there are still many thousands of people out there all over the world who are reading them, and this makes my work feel more relevant and more exciting.

In short, I think the academy needs to be more open to the world around us, and to embrace what so-called ‘amateur readers’ are reading, thinking about, and learning from through their engagement with texts. Everyday readers may not have the same training that we do, but this does not mean that they are entirely incapable of reading or indeed of insightful reading. I fear that if we neglect to study the texts which the majority of the world is reading day to day, we will miss something very important.

Phillipa (PD) Martin is the author of five crime fiction novels published ‘traditionally’ in 13 countries. Her Sophie Anderson series — Body Count, The Murderers’ Club, Fan Mail, The Killing Hands and Kiss of Death — has met with international acclaim.

P D MartinIn 2010 Phillipa moved into the ebook sphere, starting off with book six in the Sophie series, Coming Home. Since then she has released Hell’s Fury, a spy thriller with crime at its heart, and two middle grade novels under Pippa Dee — The Wanderer and Grounded Spirits. She currently teaches creative writing at Abbotsford Convent and Writers Victoria, and is also studying for her PhD, “Literary” crime fiction – an analysis at the University of Adelaide. Info:

I was thrilled to be invited to take part in Sisters in Crime’s Death in the Faculty. It brought together an old love (crime fiction) and a new love (academic research on literature). I was coming to the conversation as a published author (a bit quiet of late) who decided to pursue a PhD in creative writing. Somehow I got in to academia! I was always looking forward to the creative element of my PhD (write a book) but if truth be told I was a little scared about the exegesis, which in my case consists of a 20,000-word research paper. But now I’m completely engrossed by the research, too.

My PhD looks at literary crime fiction and I talked about this in more depth, despite some initial heckling from the audience… you know who you are, Lindy Cameron who believes a novel is either crime fiction OR literary and can’t be both! J And certainly in the academic research I’ve done, most people talk about a dichotomy between literary fiction and popular or genre fiction. However, I’ve never been a black and white person, so why start now? I like shades of grey in most things, including identifying literary characteristics in some crime fiction novels.

So after a significant amount of research, I identified quite a few ‘characteristics’ of THE LITERARY, including:

  • Literary fiction is written for a more selective and ‘highbrow’ audience, while popular fiction is for the masses
  • Literary novels are unique
  • Literary works can’t be popular or bestsellers
  • Literary novels are harder to read, whereas popular fiction is an ‘easy’ read
  • Literary has more emphasis on character and less on plot compared to popular fiction
  • Literary novels contain socio-political critiques (and perhaps can even change society)
  • Literary novels use more sophisticated and/or poetic language
  • Literary novels are more likely to contain unreliable narrators
  • Literary novels are reviewed in ‘certain’ publications and/or recognised by prestigious literary awards.

And yes, it’s a pretty snobby and offensive list in many ways!

My exegesis explores these literary characteristics and analyses crime novels that contain some of these more ‘literary’ elements. And in terms of my creative, my novel employs some of these characteristics to create a more literary-styled crime fiction novel.

As always, thanks for having me Sisters in Crime! It was a great night and I loved chatting with my fellow panel members Leigh Redhead and Elise Payne, and of course the incomparable Sue Turnbull.