Southerly 72/2: True Crime

Melissa Jane Hardie (guest editor), David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 2 2012: True Crime – Every Contact Leaves a Trace

Southerly 72-2 cover_Layout 1

The Southerly of my youth, whatever its contents, always had the same staid, non-committal design: a single colour cover with a small blowing-wind logo the only decoration. (For non-NSW readers, the southerly is a cool and often rain-bearing wind from the south-east, famously welcome for its sudden arrival on stinking hot summer days.) Those days are long past, though the little wind is still there above the title. This issue’s cover, featuring an enigmatic photo from the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, is a perfect teaser for an issue built around true crime stories, more than one of them drawing on that same archive.

The archive, consisting of 130 000 photographs taken in the first half of last century, found without any accompanying documentation and now held at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney,  is an Aladdin’s cave for researchers into Sydney’s criminal history. Peter Doyle’s ‘Detective writing: mapping the Sydney pre-War underworld’ is a fascinating dip into it, complemented with an account of a couple of relatively long-lived publications, which he describes as ‘kind of ‘ trade papers for cops, full of vivid and sometimes lurid portraits and narratives from the criminal scene. In Southerly‘s online section, The Long Paddock, Ross Gibson’s ‘Collision Course‘ plays with the narrative possibilities of a selection of images – though none of them are as queerly suggestive as the one on the cover – and refers the reader to his ongoing project with Kate Richards, Life After Wartime. Marise Williams, in ‘Women’s Work’, explores the same milieu, though without drawing on that archive: the women of her title are Kate Leigh and Tilley Devine,who ran organised crime networks in Darlinghurst in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s not just the covers that have come a long way since the staid 1960s.

My favourite single prose piece in this issue is Cassandra Atherton’s ‘Raining Blood and Money’. Classified as fiction, it’s a graphic imagining of New York’s terrible 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, in which 146 people, most of them women workers, died in 18 minutes. The fire was hugely significant in the history of women and labour in the USA, and in the century since it happened it has given rise to innumerable songs, stories, monographs, rallies, and organising activities, as the links on its Wikipedia page demonstrate. Some stories need to be told and retold, and Atherton’s telling feels as fresh and visceral as if it happened yesterday.

Of course, Southerly is still a scholarly journal, so: there’s a theoretical consideration of sensationalist 19th century crime writing; the formidable thinking of Deleuze and Guattari is brought to bear on Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter; a Black Saturday arsonist is considered in the light of the different understandings of the notion of  ‘abjection’ in the writings of Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler; Schapelle Corby is the subject of abstruse reflections that include such highly technical language as: ‘To be where you are … requires a sense of affective difference, understood as either the Spinozan–Deleuzian mapping of co-ordinates of intensities or as the forms of projective identification required in nominating and refining the arbitrary and violent constitution of the nation-state.’ Lit crit has moved on since my day.

There’s forty pages of reviews, including Kate Middleton in elegiac mode about the late Peter Steele’s Braiding the Voices, and a swag of poetry, of which Adam Aitken’s ‘The plein-air effect (after John Clare)’, Michael Farrell’s ‘Disapproval’ and Hazel Smith’s ‘Experimentalism’ stand out for me.

A dip into the Long Paddock  came up with not only Ross Gibson’s piece, but also Melissa Jane Hardie’s review of A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld & Teresa Brennan by Fiona Harari. I met Teresa Brennan once, and am glad to see that this book makes more of her than a name in a false alibi: it doesn’t mention that she was at one time a writer for Barry Humphries/Edna Everage.

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