CRIME CULTURE: Crime takes centre stage at BAD Sydney Festival 2019 as crowds flock

CRIME CULTURE: In just its third year, the BAD Sydney Crime Writers Festival has attained a kind of cultural cool cred that many other literature festivals would kill for. Therese Taylor was at the multi-day affair earlier this month for True Crime News Weekly and delivers her verdict on the increasingly popular event.

Crime writing is attaining a status equal to other forms of literature. It draws the public, and writers of quality. In Australia, the Ned Kelly Awards are established and sought after. This year, Australia’s Ned Kelly Awards for crime writing were given out at the BAD Sydney Crime Writers Festival dinner, held on the first night of the three-day event on Friday, September 6. 

John Ibrahim, nightclub owner, colourful Sydney businessman, and also author of memoir, was a surprise appearance at the dinner, where he presented one of the awards. He was unassuming, did not play to the audience, and quickly left the stage. The other speakers were more run of the mill – crime writers, lawyers, former police officers and journalists.

This line up of award winners and presenters was an attempt by BAD Festival to cover all aspects of crime, in fictional and non fictional forms, as it taints, inspires and shapes society. The same themes were found throughout the sessions, and it was a very successful conference.

CRIME CULTURE: Crime takes centre stage at BAD Sydney Festival 2019 as crowds flock

A poster for the Ned Kelly Awards 2019 (Image: Therese Taylor)

People flocked to the meetings at the State Library, and every presenter was well-received. The only point which some participants would have liked to see improved was to have more free talks, and also a single ticket available for the whole conference, rather than separate bookings for each session.  

Podcasts are the latest form of crime writing. The Australian newspaper’s podcast, Teacher’s Pet, won the Danger Prize, the BAD Festival’s own award. The international reach of podcasts, their ability to link audiences and online communities of commentators, and their living voices which can revive the past, were featured throughout the conference discussions.

Historical Fiction

In the panel on historical fiction, Sulari Gentill, who has recently published another “Rowlie” mystery – her series of stories about amateur interwar Australian sleuth, Rowland Sinclair – explained how she shaped his character in ways that were more sophisticated and tolerant than those of the average person in 1930s Australia. Exactly the same dilemma was faced by Robert Gott, whose crime novel set in the 1940s included a woman police officer, and he explained that he had to build aspects of the story above and around the historical reality of the restricted roles of women in the police force, who, at that time, did not even have uniforms. In these novels, the historical context is reproduced, but successfully defied by the protagonists.  

CRIME CULTURE: Crime takes centre stage at BAD Sydney Festival 2019 as crowds flock

Just a few of the true crime books on display at the ever-growing BAD Festival (Image: Therese Taylor)

But, as Peter Doyle, beside them on the panel said, this is not unrealistic, for in every era there are the exceptions, the other currents of opinion, and the alternatives to the norm. His own novel, The Big Whatever, offers a vivid picture of the late 1960s early 1970s. Doyle explained that this was when the Australian counter-culture included everyone who was at odds with the establishment, from artists to criminals. It could not last, and it did not, but a picture of this exuberant moment is to be found in his fiction. Some incidents in his novel were created out of stories about the Melbourne underworld which people had told him, and which they themselves had since forgotten. The writer of historical fiction can thus be a collector of the past as it is recounted and re-dreamed in the course of many people’s lives.    

Directions in Crime Fiction

On the eve of the Ned Kelly awards for best Australian crime writing, there was a panel of short-listed authors, who demonstrated the range of current crime fiction. The discussion turned to gender and crime writing, as women writers featured strongly in the crop of nominees as well as winning all three major awards this year.

The consensus seemed to be that women are doing well in crime fiction, but that a title with a feminine author name can start with a perceived disadvantage in the marketplace. There seemed, however, to be no self-censorship by women crime writers, who are reaching out to all topics, including the more hard-hitting topics previously seen as off limits to them. 

Possibly, a lessening of role models and repressive expectations will benefit both male and female authors. We do not seem to have an Australian man writing locally situated cozy crime mysteries. I predict that if one did take up the challenge, it could flourish in the market. 

Victims and Heroes

The more serious face of crime predominated at the conference, and the most significant panel was an interview with Gary Jubelin, a prominent homicide detective who resigned from the NSW police service when he was charged with illegal use of recording devices in the haunting case of missing child William Tyrrell. His trial will soon commence.

Jubelin spoke in a very measured way, and gave an impression of looking at an uncertain future with all the courage required. The topic of missing children in Australian history was also the topic of a separate panel, and it is a significant aspect of our national story.  Meanwhile, a coronial hearing into young William’s disappearance and possible murder continues at almost glacial pace due to a variety of reasons.

CRIME CULTURE: Crime takes centre stage at BAD Sydney Festival 2019 as crowds flock

Ned Kelly Award winner: Author and child sexual abuse survivor Bri Lee (Image: Therese Taylor)

Bri Lee, who won the Ned Kelly award for best true crime title, Eggshell Skull, reminded the audience, in her acceptance speech, that writing about crime should as much as possible focus on the face of the victims – and she herself is one. The importance of how to represent the victims of crime was woven into many of the discussions, but this is a void which can never be entirely filled, for it is the nature of crime that it silences many people forever.

Overall, the success of the BAD Festival shows that crime writing brings a significant readership to Australian publishers. The festival was sponsored by Booktopia and made frequent mention of the independent, Australian-owned, local bookshops which best sustain our writing and reading communities.

It was a marvellous conference and I’d dare say everyone is already looking forward to next time in 2020. 

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About Therese Taylor 6 Articles
Therese Taylor is a Lecturer in History at Charles Sturt University in Australia. Her book, 'Bernadette of Lourdes, Her Life, Visions and Death' is widely read. She has published articles in the Fortean Times, The Diplomat, and other magazines. She frequently comments on media studies, histories of crime, and religion and society.

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