Sisters 30th: We had the crime of our lives

On Saturday night (23 April 2022), the magnificent new Victorian Pride Centre in Fitzroy Street resounded with the voices of nearly a hundred Sisters in Crime and Brothers-in-Law belting out the chorus of “Sisters are writin’ it for themselves” –  music by the Eurythmics, with new words by Cate Kennedy, the winner of the first two Scarlet Stiletto Awards:

Sisters are writin’ it for themselves
Standin’ on their own two feet
And ringin’ on their own bells, we say
Sisters are writin’ it for themselves.

Jane Clifton, author, singer, and showbiz all-rounder, joined forces – and voices – with former convenor, Chele Cooper, for the verses. The opening four lines, in particular, struck a chord:

There was a time, when they used to say
That to win a Ned Kelly
You had to be called Peter
But now those times are changed

The birthday party also heard from co-founder, Carmel Shute, authors Angela Savage, Emma Viskic, Sulari Gentill, and Vikki Petraitis, and on video from actor Sigrid Thornton, founder of US Sisters in Crime, Sara Paretsky, and authors Kathy Reichs (US), Vanda Symon (NZ), Shamini Flint (Singapore), and Cate Kennedy (who was unable to attend). (All videos are available on Sisters in Crime’s YouTube channel.)

Sue Turnbull hosted the birthday party

The host Sue Turnbull, now a senior professor at the University of Wollongong, said, “Over the last thirty years, it has been my pleasure and my privilege to be involved with Sisters in Crime as a convenor and now as an Ambassador-at-Large. I have long held that Sisters in Crime has served the networking function for those of us who have been fortunate enough to be involved that all those masculine institutions used to serve for our fathers in the bad old days (the Masons, Rotary, the golf club, etc).

“Through the Sisters, I have met inspirational women who were judges, police commissioners, detectives, journalists, incredible actors, and of course, wonderful writers about crime in all the genres. Not to mention all the incredible convenors who have been with us over the years and whose camaraderie I will always cherish.

“And the person we have to thank for all of this is the woman with the Rolodex of Power (now her email list), the amazing Carmel Shute without whom Sisters in Crime would simply not exist. So in celebrating our thirty years of success, I want to celebrate in particular Carmel Shute, our inspiration, our sister, our comrade.”

Sue told the crowd that she was particularly pleased to be “back in the old hood, Fitzroy Street, just a stone’s throw from Leo’s Spaghetti Bar where we met for 16 years in the dingy backroom, just past the men’s toilets. Further down the street is St Kilda Beach where the dead body washed up in Leigh Redhead’s debut novel, Peepshow.” (Sue’s account of her first time at Leo’s Spaghetti Bar had everyone in stitches. Read it here.”)

Founder and convenor Carmel Shute recalls the olden days

Carmel Shute was also pleased to be back in the ‘hood’: “It was in my old flat down Fitzroy Street where five of us met on 24 April 1991 to plan the launch of Sisters in Crime at the Feminist Book Fortnight in September.

“We weren’t quite ‘The Famous Five’. No dog, no lashings of ginger beer, but our decision did ultimately become famous because here we all are celebrating Sisters’ 30th birthday. Our organisation now has over 500 members, 3500 followers, and chapters in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and, soon we hope, in Tasmania. Our Scarlet Stiletto and Davitt Awards have launched literary careers and helped build the reputation of Australian women’s crime writing. We have a busy presence on social media and now a YouTube channel.”

Carmel said that the Sisters had amassed a tremendous amount of expertise. “At one of our Davitt Awards’ ceremonies, a young woman fainted in the stairwell leading to the ladies’ loo. We speculated that had she’d been murdered we could have handled the case. Inside was a nurse – Robin Bowles – forensic experts, police, lawyers, and even a couple of judges!”

A list of convenors from all chapters was included on a showreel of photos of convenors and events from the early years. Everyone was envious of the Queensland Chapter meeting in a pool!

The idea for the Scarlet Stiletto Awards short story competition was conceived in 1994 over a few glasses of wine – quite a few glasses of wine, as it happened – in Park Street, just off Fitzroy Street.

“The name came immediately, thanks to Lindy Cameron,” Sue said. “The Scarlet Stiletto was in the grand tradition of crime writing awards, such as the Golden Dagger in the UK, and we loved the way the name combines the femininity of the stiletto shoe with the deadly efficiency of the stiletto blade, and the sauciness of scarlet women.

“We suspected there was a lot of criminal literary talent to be discovered and how right we were. The Scarlets have launched the careers of stacks of Australian women crime writers.”

Angela Savage says Sisters were her ‘gateway drug’ to writing crime fiction

One of the authors was Angela Savage who took home the trophy in 2011. Angela accused Sisters in Crime of using the Scarlet Stiletto Awards to introduce an addictive substance into the body of another person, indeed, multiple persons.

“Friends,” Angela said, “the Scarlet Stiletto Awards were my gateway drug to writing crime fiction.

“Winning third prize in 1998 was the shot in the arm – or to sustain the metaphor, the line on the glass-topped table – that I needed to take myself seriously as a writer. [It]featured a character called Jayne, who went on to become the protagonist in my debut novel, which won a Victorian Premier’s Award as an unpublished manuscript, and was published as Behind the Night Bazaar. I was and remain addicted to writing crime fiction,” she said.

Angela pointed out that in the 28 years to 2021, an astonishing 4,137 stories have been entered in the competition, with 31 Scarlet Stiletto Award winners – including category winners – going on to have novels published:

“Tragically it’s not enough for the Scarlet Stiletto Awards to stop at one generation either… My daughter, seven years old [in 2011], confessed that she and her friends played a game with the trophy, pretending it was a magic shoe. ‘You put your foot in and make a wish and it takes you wherever you want to go,’ she told me. Nine years later, she won the Affirm Press Young Writer’s Award for under 19s.”

Emma Viskic pays tribute to the power of the Davitts

Emma Viskic, author of the internationally acclaimed Caleb Zelic series and winner of an unprecedented five Davitt Awards, told the crowd that Sisters in Crime had helped change the shape of Australian publishing over the past 25 years, and it was in no small part due to the Davitt Awards.

“Past winners have said that winning a Davitt Award gave them an incredible boost … Malla Nunn, winner of the 2009 Davitt for Best Adult Novel for A Beautiful Place to Die, said it gave her the confidence to call herself ‘a writer out loud and in public’. Ellie Marney, who won the YA Davitt in 2015 for Every Word, said that ‘receiving recognition was amazing’, particularly as it made her feel part of a community of women writers who ‘support and applaud and value each other’.”

Sulari Gentill pays tribute to the Australian women crime writers with international careers

Sulari Gentill, the best-selling author of 15 published novels, who has taken out both Davitt and Ned Kelly Awards, spoke about the state of Australian crime novel writing.

“Australian crime writers are increasingly becoming international crime writers. Cracking America and the UK are no longer rare feats and every one of us that breaks through and out is an advertisement for the work of the rest of us. Liane Moriarty, Jane Harper, Candice Fox, and Kerry Greenwood have opened the minds of readers abroad to Australian crime novels,” she said.

“Emma Viskic, Aoife Clifford, Dervla McTiernan, Ellie Marney, and many others have followed, each making the path a little wider and easier to traverse. Like the Scandi writers before us we have made the landscape of our country recognisable and pervading in our work; we have cast the unforgiving Australian bush as a character and reflected it in our human cast. While our detectives have pursued a specific justice, we have shone a light on general injustice.”

Sulari concluded that “due in no small part to the encouragement and solidarity Sisters in Crime has given Australian crime writers, both emerging and established, in the past three decades, the crime novel is in excellent health.”

Vikki Petraitis calls for Carmel Shute for PM

Vikki Petraitis, the true crime writer who has just won the inaugural Allen & Unwin crime fiction award, also paid tribute to the explosion of crime writing witnessed in the growth of the books in contention for the Davitts doing from seven in 2001 to around 160 books this year.

“It’s a phenomenal achievement and if we are into single-issue political voting – which I totally am – on that alone, we should vote Carmel for prime minister. My single issue that I’m voting for is to remove Scott Morrison’s smirk,” she said

“According to Sulari Gentill – whom I’m totally quoting in my PhD dissertation – ‘Crime fiction is the literature of resistance’. The literature of resistance. This is what the Sisters promote. Crime can right wrongs. I wonder how many of these books would exist without Sisters in Crime. Happy 30th. You don’t look at day over 25 and a half.”

(Note: Carmel yelled out that everyone needed to be aware that she was a left-wing ratbag.)

Prize winners

Linda Rust won the prize for the Best Pearly Queen or King – a Royal Doulton cup, saucer, and plate as seen on Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, donated by Paddy McCorry, a big fan of the show.

The first prize in the raffle, a wonderful mosaic created by Fin J Ross, an author and serial offender in the Scarlet Stiletto Awards, went to Jenny Pitts. Second and third prizes, big bags of crime books, including substantial donations from Allen & Unwin, went to Fin J Ross (!), and Jen Hutchison.

It wasn’t all singing and speeches of course – there was a huge number of photos up on screen, lots of fabulous food, lashings of prosecco, and much, much catching up. It was the first regular live event for the Melbourne Sisters in two years.

Sister’s Run, the independently owned and operated winery in McLaren Vale, proudly supported Sisters in Crime’s 30th.