As a seasoned habitué of second hand bookshops, and what is known in some quarters as ‘an early career author’, I often ponder the reality of literary obscurity.
It takes stern stuff (or huge sales) to go into a large second hand bookshop and not feel humbled by the sight of shelf upon shelf of old books. All those hours, days, weeks, years of literary labour selling cheap, if they sell at all.
What makes a particular book or author famous, while the majority are forgotten – the vagaries of history or the market, luck or accident? Equally fascinating is the process by which some authors are plucked from historical obscurity and given a second chance.
I thought about this most recently while reading Murder in The Telephone Exchange, a murder mystery set in late forties Melbourne by June Wright, recently re-released by US-based publisher, Verse Chorus Press.
Murder in The Telephone Exchange is an interesting, deceptively dark tale, much of which takes place in Melbourne’s former Central Telephone Exchange. Wright, like the book’s narrator Maggie Byrnes, worked there as a telephonist and the book is full of vivid descriptions of how the Exchange worked and the Fordist labour conditions of the mainly female employees.
Sarah Compton, a supervisor, is bludgeoned to death on the premises by a buttinsky, a heavy half phone that operators used to butt in on calls. The police believe the crime was committed by someone working in the Exchange and there’s no shortage of suspects.
Compton was a gossip, a bully, and used her position as supervisor to prey on new female employers, many fresh from the country, lulling them into a false sense of security with an offer of board at her house, getting them to sign ludicrously long leases and threatening them when they tried to leave.
The killing even has a hint of class politics. One possible motive is a widely unpopular suggestion by Compton that telephonists on duty on Sundays should not have a day off during the week, meaning they would work two or three weeks without a break.
Like many of her co-workers, Byrnes hails from the country, has left behind small town life for paid employment and independent living, and she’s no wallflower. At first, she’s a possible suspect: she doesn’t cower to the police when they interview her, nor feign to like or feel sorry for the victim simply because she’s dead. ‘It was a tragic enough little story, and one that in no way impaired my original animosity towards Sarah Compton,’ Byrnes thinks at one stage. ‘Rather than manufacturing some respect for Compton now she was dead, I found myself disliking her the more.’
Slowly, Byrnes comes to the conclusion she can do a much better job of solving the crime than the police.
Published locally in 1948, the book was a bestseller, outstripping sales of then queen of crime, Agatha Christie. Wright went onto write another five books, including three featuring a nun-detective called Mother Mary St Paul. Her last book, Makeup for A Murder, was published in 1966.
According to historian Lucy Sussex, who interviewed Wright before her death in 2012, Wright cut an attractive figure, and had a demeanour that appealed to the press. While she was careful not to pass herself off as too threatening, she also elicited a lurid, tabloid fascination for the fact that she was both a mother and a crime writer.
Responding to one reporter who quizzed her on how a mother could use Who Would Murder a Baby? as the title for her second book, she quipped, ‘Obviously, you know nothing of the homicidal instincts sometimes aroused in a mother by her children. After a particularly exasperating day, it’s a relief to murder a few characters in your books instead.’
Given Wright had both the talent and discipline for writing, why did she stop? We’ll never know the exact answer, but it appears a number of factors culminated in making a literary career too difficult.
Sexism probably played a part, as perhaps did the fact she was Catholic, which bestowed outsider status in what was then deeply Anglican Melbourne. There was also no sense of her being a part of a community of writers that could provide support.
Although her books sold well in in Australia and the UK, she was never published in the US, a breakthrough which, had it happened, would have enabled her to make enough money to make writing full time a possibility (ironic, given it is a US publisher that is now re-issuing her books).
In addition to raising children, Wright’s husband had a breakdown. When he recovered, he wanted her help with a new business he’d established. Sussex had the feeling writing was always ‘a bone of contention’ in the husband’s eyes.
As an Australian writing crime set in Melbourne, Wright was pushing against a strong current of cultural cringe. While it is true expatriate writers visited and saw possibilities others didn’t, publishing was also very much a gentlemen’s club that favoured stories by writers from Australia’s mother country, and plots set elsewhere.
Up until the nineties, the history of local crime fiction set in Australia is often portrayed as a blank space between Fergus Hume’s 1886 The Mystery of the Hansom Cab and Peter Corris’s groundbreaking 1980 book, The Dying Trade, which introduced the now legendary fictional Australian private investigator, Cliff Hardy.
Of course, as Wright’s work demonstrates, there were many prolific local crime writers, most of whom are unknown today.
In terms of big names in the fifties and sixties, those that immediately come to mind are Arthur Upfield (born in England) and the English immigrant, Alan Yates, better known as Carter Brown, who moved to Australia in 1948. Upfield sucked up a huge amount of the oxygen available to local writers, while nearly all of Yates’ three-hundred-plus books are mainly set in America because he thought that’s what readers wanted.
It appears this cringe affected mainstream publishers well into the seventies. As Corris recalled in a Crime Factory interview last year (an online magazine I help edit):
there was resistance to it [The Dying Trade] from publishers for at least 4 years. They said that Australian crime readers wanted books about New York, LA or London. They weren’t interested in local crime apart from, as you say, the pulp stuff, Carter Brown, Larry Kent, which was really sort of faux-American. It really wasn’t set anywhere. But those publishers were wrong, there are letters in the Mitchell Library [in the NSW State Library] from some of those publishers saying, this will never work, Peter should do something else. Fuck ’em.