Australia does exist. Every single South African was rudely reminded of that fact last Sunday when the Springboks were pipped (criminally) to the post by the Australians in the rugby world cup. I was forced to watch the slaughter of dreams from a bar in Melbourne. It did not inspire the most neighbourly thoughts in me, I have to confess.
The reason for this sporting torture is that I’ve been at SheKilda in Melbourne, a crime writers’ festival hosted by the Sisters in Crime, a bloodthirsty group of Australian women who seem to have an infinite capacity for gore, alcohol and crime fiction.
The endless flight to this remote part of the globe has introduced me to a whole new world. Australia, like Sweden and Norway, is an astoundingly law abiding country by my rather jaded standards. Drivers wear their seatbelts, the stop at red lights, and they don’t seem to kill each other all that much. There was a mini-spate of mob killings in Melbourne recently, but that seems more like a service to humanity than a crime. And a great saving for the taxpayer too.
There would appear to be an inverse proportion of crime writers in a country to the numbers of actual crimes committed. Consequently, South Africa, with its spectacular display of crime has produced a handful of crime novelists, while Australia is bursting at the seams with them. Perhaps an increase in the number of crime novels in South Africa will bring our crime stats down. I find it difficult to commit crimes while typing. However, a crime reduction in South Africa seems as unlikely as a sunny day in Sweden.
It must have been clear, however, to the helpful citizens of Melbourne that I needed guidance in the gently paced city. On arrival I asked the hotel receptionist about the best way to get into town. ‘Have you caught a Melbourne tram before?’ she asked with one of those beaming Aussie smiles. ‘No,’ I replied. She gave me a look that mixed pity and incredulity in equal measure. A tram, she explained in a clear voice, is a train that runs in the road and I should look out for them when walking, as they could be dangerous. Armed with this life-saving information I made my way down to the Yarra River to visit the Immigration Museum and proceeded to have an even more surreal conversation when I bought an entrance ticket
‘Oh,’ exclaimed the ticket lady handing me my change, ‘you must be from Elsewhere.’
‘I’m from Cape Town,’ I replied.
‘You’ll find Identity on the second floor,’ she said with the same mix of pity and disbelief as the receptionist.
The Melbourne Immigration Museum documents a century or more of violent convulsions that have sent waves of immigrant across the sea to Australia. The British and European migrants who sought the sunny shelter of a new land after the second world war, the war in Vietnam, Cambodia’s killing fields, the implosion of Sudan, the endless skirmishing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Different places, different times do produce different crimes and ways of thinking about them. The complexities of race and difference are not easy things to put aside, but crime fiction is a place where these troubling social problems, can be explored.
The stories of colonial settlement and then the poignant narratives of more recent immigrants are layered over the loss of land and the violence suffered by the Aboriginal people of Australia. Lawyer Nicole Watson’s novel The Boundary takes on the theme of dispossession and revenge head on.
But those of you who prefer your crime cosy and puzzling rather than brutal and bloody, there is Shamini Flint. I’m convinced she has a second life as a stand-up comic but she was here in Melbourne talking about her series starring the Singaporean Sikh detective and curry addict, Inspector Singh. Singapore is probably the most law-abiding society on earth where not even a leaf dares fall in case it gets arrested for littering.
Her squeamishness, she claims, has meant that all her victims have died from a single bullet fired at close range. This being a sure fire way, so to speak, of ensuring that the victim is despatched quickly and as painlessly as possible. This enables her to unpack the plot-puzzle with wit and precision and no further bloodshed. As I get ready to return home to Cape Town I think longingly of the day when the South African landscape will be littered only with imaginary corpses.