Women crime writers clean up at the Ned Kelly awards

Breaking news from Jason Steger,  The Age Literary editor, re the Ned Kelly Awards presented by the Australian Crime Writers Association on Friday 6 September.

Women writers have made a killing at the Ned Kelly crime-writing awards, taking out all three prizes for the first time. The Neds were presented on Friday as part of BAD: Sydney Crime Writers Festival.

Jane Harper, whose first novel, The Dry, was an international bestseller, won the best fiction prize for her third, The Lost Man. Dervla McTiernan, who last week won Sisters in Crime’s Davitt Award for best fiction for her first novel, The Ruin, won the first fiction prize for the same book. And Bri Lee followed up her Davitt and ABIA awards with Eggshell Skull by winning the true-crime award.

Jane Harper won the Ned Kelly for best fiction with her third novel.
Jane Harper won the Ned Kelly for best fiction with her third novel.CREDIT:EDDIE JIM

The BAD festival presented its Danger Prize to Hedley Thomas, a journalist at The Australian, for his podcast, The Teacher’s Pet, and its lifetime achievement award to Bob Bottom for his writing about organised crime.

Harper, who was unable to travel from her Melbourne home to Sydney because she is soon to give birth, said she was delighted that women had won all three Neds. ‘‘It does feel like a really strong time for women writers. We are lucky to have so many wonderful writers that readers are responding to.’’

Harper, who has been in the vanguard of the outback noir subgenre, said when she started she didn’t focus on any particular genre. ‘‘But the Australian landscape is a strong setting and a great opportunity for plot and characters.’’

Women have won the best fiction Ned only four times since the awards were first presented in 1996; the first fiction nine times (some were shared), and the true-crime Ned eight times.

Bri Lee said success in the Neds was one facet of a broader increase in women writers winning literary prizes since the establishment of the Stella Prize in 2013 in response to a dearth of awards going to women.

Eggshell Skull  focuses on victims of sexual abuse and their experience in the legal system, and also her own experience of abuse. ‘‘There is something bitter sweet about a memoir being true crime,’’ she said. ‘‘But sex crimes are the most gendered – perhaps on a par with domestic and family violence – of crime issues and crime writing.’’

She said that even a decade ago her writing might not have been taken seriously or even published and noted that when the Sisters in Crime awards were presented winners often acknowledged having previously won the Sisters’ short-story award, the Scarlet Stiletto: ‘‘It is testament to just how encouraging awards are for young writers.’’

Sue Turnbull, professor of communication and media at the University of Wollongong and crime reviewer for The Age/ Herald, said Sisters in Crime, for which she has been a national convenor, had been influential since it was set up locally in 1991 to champion female crime writing. When its Davitt awards were established in 2001, there were only seven entries – there was no non-fiction award; this year there were 127 entries for the five categories, including 73 novels.

She said the increase in women crime writers could also be explained partly by women being more politicised and using crime fiction as a vehicle to address social issues.

‘‘I’ve always thought that what the genre is able to do is to shine a light on those faultlines in a society or a culture where people are hurt, where people are damaged, where things go wrong. And in fact we all know that so many of those problems begin in the domestic realm rather than in the political realm or any other realm.’’