CRIME CULTURE: It’s the historical true crime novel set in 1920s Sydney that places a “beautiful bad woman” at the centre of it all. Sarah McLean takes a look at Angel of Death.
Angel of Death is the latest true crime novel in Leigh Straw’s trilogy that reimagines the significant role women played in early Australian crime. This time, the trilogy turns its attentions to the story of Dulcie Markham: “one of the most enthralling women in modern Australian history”.
Through police reports and witness accounts, newspaper articles and a wide array of other records and photos, Straw captures the story of this beautiful bad woman and the violent underworld that had a tight hold on Sydney in the first half of the 1900s: a story that is just as enthralling as its main subject.
The tone is set right from the prologue, with Straw introducing the major themes of Dulcie’s life – violence and death – which also feature as the major themes of the narrative to follow. From here on, an unbelievably true story unravels about the woman who could come to be known as the ‘Angel of Death’ – a name given to Dulcie by the newspapers of the time.
Rather than simply compiling the facts about the life and times of Dulcie and calling it a novel, Straw weaves together all the different strands – romance, murder, prostitution, the Sydney razor wars, and tales about the prominent figures Dulcie worked with, including Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine – into a seamless whole.
Though it is crucial for a novel of this length and type to chart both the life of and major events that shaped such a notorious woman in great detail, at times it feels as though Straw is wanting to include every single detail about the major and minor players who feature, and the (under)world that they lived and breathed.
While all those details serve to contextualise Dulcie’s life, and her gradual progression into criminality, some details can distract the reader, disrupting the flow of the narrative. This then creates the impression that the novel is instead about the Australian underworld and its various workings, rather than a novel that is meant to provide insight into how Dulcie became Australia’s most beautiful bad woman.
Dulcie Markham was known to hang out with some of Sydney’s biggest criminals a century ago (Image: Supplied)
However, this is only a minor faultline in an otherwise carefully crafted narrative. And some of those distractions and asides – which do at first appear to be acting as filler – actually come to enhance the novel, making for a more vivid experience.
The reader will begin to feel as if they are right there alongside the police and criminals as they face court or walk down the streets of Sydney.
Therefore, it does not matter if the reader is not familiar with the Sydney of old or modern day Sydney – Straw’s writing allows the reader to picture it all, from the bustling city centre and terrace houses crammed together in the slums, to the dangerous back alleyways where the crims and prostitutes stalked their prey.
Straw’s latest work is an eye-opening read. It is quite shocking to discover what young, runaway girls like Dulcie were exposed to in the 1920s, and the various lengths that they would go to just to make a name for themselves; to enter the underworld.
It makes you wonder how Dulcie, the ‘Angel of Death’ – who apparently witnessed more deaths than any of her criminal associates – managed to survive the trail of death that relentlessly hounded her throughout her life.
Angel of Death is one of those rare, vivid yet realistic true crime novels that is currently in the market. What makes it a rare find is that it does not attempt to sensationalise an already unbelievably true story.
It is a must-read for the true crime fanatic, the history buff, and even the causal devourer of narrative crime.
Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman is published by Harper Collins.