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A tale of two cities

By Tony Smith - posted Tuesday, 9 September 2008

At the start of this millennium something happened in the balance between Australia’s two largest cities. In one fateful week the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne headed north to reform sinful Sydney while a senior police officer from New South Wales headed south to tackle the criminals of Victoria.

Such crossings are not unusual in literature with both Salman Rushdie (Satanic Verses) and David Lodge (Changing Places) using the device, although in Rushdie’s case the characters’ planes collided. This month, the cultural shift between Sydney and Melbourne became clearer, as both cities received international recognition: one became a property in the Monopoly board game, while the other secured nomination as a UNESCO world city of literature.

There have been many stages in the rivalry between “staid Sydney” and “marvellous Melbourne”. Needless to say a great deal of subjectivity is involved in the views of the advocates of both. Sydney’s supporters would no doubt argue that Melbourne’s reputation for reading reflects the southerner’s horrendous climate, which makes indoor activities more popular than they are in the Harbour City, where the mild weather constantly draws residents outside to enjoy the beautiful scenery. Melbourne’s admirers would probably counter that Sydneysiders are too narcissistic to be aware of important national trends.


Some weight might be added to the northerners’ case by the fact that UNESCO has honoured only Edinburgh previously as a literary paradise. The chilly Scottish capital is home to many authors and the crime fiction genre known as “tartan noir” is well represented there. Ian Rankin, creator of Inspector John Rebus is among the world’s most respected crime authors. Alexander McCall Smith, whose whimsical tales of the Botswana detective Ma Ramwotse are far from “noir”, but he too has an Edinburgh sleuth in philosopher Isabel Dalhousie.

During the 1990s, Australia’s best crime fiction originated in Sydney. Among other authors Peter Corris, Marele Day, Jean Bedford, Susan Geason and Gabrielle Lord wrote entertaining and socially relevant stories. While the evergreen Corris and Lord have continued to flourish in the new culture, many others have let their heroes retire. A very notable absence is the work of Phil Scott who penned camp novels such as Gay Resort Murder Shock! It might well be that Sydney society has become too conservative, preferring to discuss real estate values, or it might just be that works about the gay sub-culture have lost their edge.

In the early 21st century Melbourne leads the way in crime fiction. The multi-award winning Peter Temple created an anti-hero named Jack Irish, Garry Disher continued his Inspector Hal Challis series set on the Peninsula and Shane Maloney strengthened his tales of political fixer Murray Whelan. A relative newcomer Jarad Henry has begun a series set in St Kilda, which is also the home of Simone Kirsch, stripper, private investigator and the raunchy heroine of Leigh Redhead’s highly entertaining series.

Interestingly, Dorothy Porter’s most recent verse novel ElDorado is set in Melbourne although her earlier Monkey’s Mask was set in Sydney. And if the balance is heading south, Canberra seems to have had some benefit. Noted writer Marion Halligan has produced two novels in her “Apricot” amateur detective series, and Kel Robertson recently made a lively debut with his first novel starring Inspector Bradman Chen.

Of course, literature is about more than authors. The literary scene includes libraries, bookshops, publishers, agents, critical journals, conferences, festivals and universities. It is true too that there some new stories are set in Sydney. In A Deadly Business Lenny Bartulin brings fresh interest back north where the second-hand bookseller Jack Susko is involved in a desperate search for all copies of works by one poet. But Bartulin’s publisher is located in Melbourne, so perhaps the literary scenes are not as distinct they might initially appear.

Some writer, somewhere, is in all probability currently working on a novel in which a Melbourne author is murdered while playing Monopoly on a houseboat on the Murray River with an Archbishop and the Victorian Police Commissioner sends her finest to investigate. That should be a diverting read and well balanced to boot.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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