Mystery of the Month – Where the Truth Lies

Dedicated journalist Chrissie O’Brian thinks she’s onto a big story investigating a number of mysterious workplace accidents at the Melbourne Docklands. But her stories keep getting slashed and instead she’s assigned to a profile piece on solo female crane driver, Masina. Things take a sinister turn when Masina tells Chrissie she’s in danger, and then is found dead the next day – another ‘accident’. As Chrissie digs deeper, yet another worker is killed and a bloodied parcel turns up at her desk. She realises she’s onto something – and she has to get to the truth before it gets to her.

Karina Kilmore’s debut novel Where the Truth Lies is crime fiction at its finest with an intriguing mystery at its core – are these really workplace accidents or are they murders? The plot is complicated by an ongoing dispute between the unions and the wharves, missing cargo, dodgy crane records and financial trouble. Could the unions be staging accidents? Or are the wharves involved in large scale fraud?

Main characters in crime fiction typically have a dark past (that’s what makes them so interesting) and Chrissie is no different. She lives alone, self-medicating with alcohol and painkillers, trying to dull the pain from a past trauma, throwing herself into her work and taking comfort in neighbourhood stray cat, Skinny. The successful career she forged in New Zealand hasn’t translated to Australia; her senior position at The Argus newspaper was given to her as a favour and her news director resents her. But Chrissie’s backstory, involving the tragic loss of her husband and her downward spiral into self-blame and depression, is so heart-breaking that the reader cannot help but feel empathy for her and root for her to succeed.

Like Chrissie, Karina Kilmore is a New Zealand native who lives in Melbourne. An experienced journalist, Kilmore uses her knowledge to great advantage with vivid depictions of the newsroom, crammed with desks and people, and buzzing with noise from televisions, radios and phones. She brings the wharves to life with descriptions of the patchwork of coloured corrugated containers and picketers spinning their clicker rattles high in the air, chanting about safety.

The plot ticks along at a fast pace, the suspense increasing as the story speeds towards a revealing conclusion. Chrissie is hit with several gut-wrenching setbacks – just when she seems to be making headway, she’s forced backwards again. But like all compelling protagonists, she ploughs on, undeterred. Karina Kilmore’s confident writing style and talent for telling a great story, teamed with her flawed but extremely likeable main character, makes it easy to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Unpublished Manuscript Award at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2017. Like Chrissie, you’ll be racing to the end to find out who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

Where the Truth Lies by Karina Kilmore is published by Simon & Schuster.

Standout Simile:

She could deal with the visions, the flashbacks, but her other senses remained raw, like bear traps they would jump out of nowhere, crush her throat and screech in her ears.

How to Guess Whodunnit in a Murder Mystery

If you enjoy reading whodunnits like I do, it might be because the puzzle of trying to guess the identity of the murderer has you completely hooked. A well-plotted mystery by a talented writer can have you up all night, turning the pages, demanding to know – who is it? Who is the killer? Will the author thwart you and pull the wool over your eyes? Lead you down the garden path with red herrings and misdirection only to shock you with a startling twist? The suspense is killing us all!

I’ve read (and watched) a lot of murder mysteries and have developed a list of characters you should watch out for if you want to correctly guess the murderer before the big reveal. But if you prefer to be surprised, don’t read on!

The “Really, Really Nice Person”

Who does the main character trust the most? Which characters are they closest to? Think best friends or favourite aunties. The person that the main character calls first when they need help. Someone they tell all their deepest, darkest secrets to. Or sometimes it’s a person who’s well-liked by everyone, the cornerstone of the community. The person who goes out of their way to be helpful with a friendly ear, a cup of tea and a pat on the back. Look out for this character. There’s a good chance that towards the end of the novel, they’ll use those secrets against our protagonist, lace their tea with arsenic or pat them on the back with a dagger.

The “Why Are You Here?”

Mystery writers are clever. Every character in the story has been deliberately included because they serve a specific purpose in driving the plot forward. So if there’s someone in the story who appears in several scenes but you’re halfway through and you think the story would be the same without this character – be suspicious. For example, I recently read a book where the main character’s daughter had a boyfriend. He kept cropping up in scenes. He had dialogue. But he was just there. He didn’t do much. But the point is exactly that – he was there. You get me? He was totally the murderer. Got ya.

The “Sure You Have An Alibi”

If a character has a rock solid alibi and couldn’t possibly have been at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder, then you should be giving them a massive raised eyebrow. If they’re telling you they were out of the country on business for two weeks around 3 January 2018 then I’m telling you they are LYING. Or if four potential suspects can confirm they didn’t leave a locked room all night when Mrs Winterbottom was thrown off the cruise ship, you can be certain that one of them is the killer. In short, if the author is trying to convince you it was physically impossible for it to have been them, then it was totally them.

The “Most Unlikely”

The least likely person is always the most shocking, which makes a great ‘what-the?!’ moment for readers who will be super impressed with the author’s plot twist wizardry. Think – children. I’ve read several murder mysteries where the culprit has been a child. The murderer is a child in my favourite Agatha Christie and in my favourite Victoria Holt. These characters behave as though they’re all sweetness and light and all the other characters are saying, “oh little Mary-Jane, you’re so cute, go and play with your dolls!” But as a reader, you’re getting the major creeps. That’s because you know Mary-Jane is really using human teeth to tile the floor of her doll’s house (yeah, you know what book I’m talking about).

Sometimes it’s easier to guess whodunnit when you become familiar with an author’s writing style. If they write several stories in the same genre, you might notice they stick to a similar formula with their mysteries. Or if you read a series of books with the same sleuth, you might start to recognise a pattern. Have you read any books where you were way off track with who you thought the killer was going to be? What’s been your favourite plot twist? Are there any ‘usual suspects’ I’ve forgotten to mention? Let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – In the Clearing

Amy is a young girl who has grown up in the Clearing with her family. She will do anything to please her mother, who has great plans for Amy and her brothers and sisters. But when Amy’s new sister joins their special family, her protestations and resistance cause Amy to question everything she has been taught about the outside world. Who can she trust when her own family encourages acts of depravity and violence?

Freya and her son, Billy, live in the bush in a home installed with electric roller shutters and panic buttons. Freya is paranoid that someone is watching her and plotting to abduct her son. It soon becomes clear that Freya was right to be afraid – Billy has gone missing. But who took him? Her ex? A dangerous man from her past? Or could Freya herself be somehow responsible?

Eventually Amy and Freya will unite but it won’t be in the way that you expected. From the chilling first chapter where Amy and her family plot to kidnap a young girl (their new ‘sister’), the story alternates between both viewpoints, and uses excerpts from Amy’s journal to describe horrific episodes of life within the Clearing. They are both unreliable narrators – Freya openly tells the reader that she has learned to wear a mask to appear normal, and Amy is battling what she calls ‘deviant thoughts’. As the novel progresses, we learn more about the secrets they’re hiding, and wonder if what they tell us about themselves and other characters is the truth.

Just like his debut bestseller Call Me Evie, J.P. Pomare has again written a story that will have you scratching your head, demanding to know “what on earth is going on here?” The answer to that question will have you turning page after page after page. A significant reveal occurs around the midpoint that will cause you to re-think everything you’ve just read, and then the twists continue until the very end – just when you think it’s safe to take your hand off the panic switch.

J.P. Pomare has a polished writing style – every sentence feels like it’s been carefully constructed and considered, but without leaving the reader feeling bogged down in description. In the Clearing is an all-consuming read that explores the sinister goings-on of life within a cult, using themes of paranoia, identity, manipulation, loyalty, trust, forgiveness, control and fear to create a truly dark and chilling tale – made even more so by the fact that the events were inspired by a true story.

In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare is published by Hachette.

Standout Simile:

I have a meanness in me, something black and rotten that swells like a lymph node. That’s how I imagine it, as a growth you could cut out.

Taking My Writing Goals Into A New Decade

As I’m planning my new writing goals, I thought I’d go back and reflect upon my original writing goal, which was to write a really good mystery novel – something I could be proud to say I authored. Something my friends could read and say they enjoyed, a real page-turner.

While I’ve now written a mystery novel, and I’m proud of that achievement, I’m not sure I can say it’s a really good mystery novel yet. There’s more work to do. The plan for 2020 will be how we are going to get there.

I’ve got four main things I’m keeping in mind:

  1. Feedback. This year, I received positive feedback on my manuscript from a professional agent. Mere weeks later I received negative feedback on the exact same piece of writing from a different professional – an editor. While I could have chosen to ruminate on the negative feedback, repeatedly visualising the way the editor sat in front of me and kept turning over the pages of my manuscript as though it were soiled toilet paper (okay, maybe I did ruminate too much), I instead sought advice from a third professional, another editor. I wrote a blog post about my experience. It was the best thing that happened to my writing all year and it’s this advice that I will be taking on board to make my manuscript the really good mystery that I set out to write at the start of this journey.
  2. Time management. I’m not good at it. To be fair, I’ve got a child and he’s just started walking but also to be fair, there’s only one of him. Plenty of writers have several walking children and still manage to churn out bestselling fiction. So instead of spending my free time searching for things I’ve misplaced, marvelling at the magical unicorn qualities of mummy bloggers on Instagram, or fretting about the amount of cat hair on the furniture, I need to use my tiny pieces of free time to focus on writing.
  3. Writing colleagues. The online writing community has been a wonderful support from the moment I commenced my writing journey. One of the best things that happened in 2019 was finally meeting some of these jolly good folks in person – my very first online writing pal Natalie Hennekam and my simile friend Sarah Fiddelaers. I also met some lovely writers at a writers retreat and again at a conference (hi Inda!), was honoured to be invited to attend a lady writers lunch, and was asked to join a writing group. I hope to continue meeting with fellow writers in the new year. Who wants to meet me? When’s the next cool hang? Are they called cool hangs?
  4. Continuous learning. I’m ending 2019 by going back to basics. Husband bought me two books (at the recommendation of writer pal Kali Napier) – James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. Aptly titled novels to help me achieve my goal of writing a really good mystery novel! Frey recommends doing several exercises before you start writing your novel, which I didn’t do at the time because I was too cool and just wanted to start writing the book. But now, as I’m doing rewrites, I’ve decided it’s never uncool to keep learning – so why not give these exercises a go? Hopefully I’ll be spending the rest of the summer character journalling to get into the psyche of my murderer. Happy times.

So that’s how I will be going into 2020 – keeping in mind professional advice, managing my time, making meaningful connections with like-minded writers and going back to basics by doing more writing exercises. I’m also going to do a copywriting course because I think that’d be really neat. Happy New Year!

Mystery of the Month – The Strangers We Know

Charlie’s seemingly perfect life comes to a devastating halt when she discovers her husband, Oliver, has a profile on a dating app. Instead of confronting him, Charlie creates a fake profile on the same app to catch him out. But then something unthinkable happens and suddenly the police want to speak to Charlie. Oliver isn’t the man she thought he was at all; turns out he’s involved with some very dangerous people. Charlie must now find the evidence that will prove her innocence before the real perpetrator catches up to her. But who can she trust?

What follows is a suspenseful pursuit around South West London as Charlie breaks into buildings, downloads secret documents and evades the police, until she ultimately finds herself right in the middle of the danger she has been trying to avoid.

The story is told in an easy, conversational first person narrative from Charlie’s point of view, which is witty and sardonic, and despite her rich and beautiful lifestyle (she’s an actress who works in a vintage clothing store in Notting Hill) has insecurities that make her relatable, ensuring the reader remains invested in her story.

Pip Drysdale, author of the bestselling thriller The Sunday Girl, takes the reader on a journey of cleverly placed cliffhangers as Charlie’s life gets increasingly worse. The writing is imaginative and colourful. Charlie, who thinks in movies and tv, describes her life as though she is playing a role on screen, where everyone you meet is the star of their own film and you’re just an extra. As she tries to act like the heroine of her own story, Charlie soon realises her life has become more crime thriller than romantic comedy.

A riveting roller coaster of relationships gone wrong and what ordinary people do when they’re placed in extraordinary situations, The Strangers We Know is a gripping thriller that you will read in a day and then recommend to all of your friends.

The Strangers We Know by Pip Drysdale is published by Simon and Schuster.

Standout Simile:

And in that moment, my life seemed like one of those tapestries Mum used to do when I was little: beautiful and neat on the front, but a knotted, tangled mess at the back.

Rewriting Your Story In A Different Genre

I’ve spent quite a few years writing, rewriting, editing and finally finishing my first manuscript, a cosy mystery. But after receiving some professional advice that The Princess Murders might work better as a psychological thriller, I’ve had to make a decision. Keep the story the way it is, as a cosy mystery, or rework it as a thriller. And now, after a lot of thinking, some procrastinating, a few wines, and some more thinking, I’ve decided to give it a go.

How does one rework a story into a different genre? I wouldn’t have a clue. While there are loads of courses about how to write a novel, there aren’t so many courses about how to edit, rewrite or restructure your novel after you’ve written it. Luckily, a cosy mystery and a psychological thriller both fall under the umbrella of crime fiction, which minimises some of the trickiness. I imagine it would be far more difficult to rewrite a horror story into a traditional romance, for example.

Here’s how it’s been so far. It’s like I put an explosive device underneath my manuscript and pressed a button to blow it up. Then all the pieces – plot points, characters, and setting descriptions – broke up and exploded into the air. I waited for them to settle before I sifted through the remains, trying to determine what I could salvage out of the rubble. The opening scenes? Burnt to a crisp. A subplot and its associated characters are lost forever. But from the ashes has risen a character who was mentioned in name only, and who will now play a bigger role.

Then comes the process of trying to put the story back together – like a jigsaw but with loads of missing pieces. Some pieces no longer fit because the edges have broken off, so I need to think of new plot points to join the scenes that have survived the explosion. The missing pieces will be replaced with new scenes that explore the psychological motivations of the main characters, and introduce some small town secrets. Eventually I’ll have a whole new ‘big picture’.

Some changes are obvious. The main character is no longer an amateur sleuth returning to her hometown to investigate someone as part of her private investigation business. That’s very much a cosy mystery set-up. This means her motivations have completely changed; she needs a different reason to return to her hometown – and it needs to be a strong hook. And whereas the main character in a cosy mystery is essentially a good person, in a psychological thriller the intentions of the main character are more ambiguous. While they still need to be ordinary and relatable, they usually have an inner conflict they need to overcome and perhaps a dark secret, so the reader isn’t sure what they are hiding. In this way, I feel like I’m getting to know my main character all over again!

When you’re building or rebuilding anything, it’s always useful to have a blueprint, or some kind of guide. I’ve found my original outline and have been amending it as I go. It’s been challenging because I’ve grown so accustomed to the order of the events being as they are (in the cosy mystery) and changing them has left me feeling like my head is swimming.

It’s hard work and sometimes it feels like it might take forever. But with the end goal being a stronger story, it will be worth the effort.

Mystery of the Month – The Wife and the Widow

What if the person you thought you knew better than anyone turned out to be a stranger? This terrifying concept is explored by Christian White in his latest psychological thriller The Wife and the Widow, the follow-up novel to his bestseller, The Nowhere Child.

Kate Keddie is at the airport with her 10-year-old daughter Mia. They’re eagerly awaiting the return of husband and father, John, who has spent the past two weeks at a work colloquium in London. But John never gets off the plane. As it happens, he never went to London and has been lying to Kate about his whereabouts. As Kate takes it upon herself to uncover the details of her husband’s secrets, her search leads her to Belport, a sleepy island town where they own a holiday home. It’s not long before Kate receives some devastating news – a body has been found and they think it’s John.

Abby Gilpin lives in Belport with her two teenaged children and her husband, Ray. They spend their days working hard to make ends meet – Ray as an island caretaker and Abby at the local supermarket. Belport is a bustling holiday town in the summer, but nothing much happens in the winter. Until now. One day, when Abby is out for a jog, she notices police at the beach. Someone has been murdered. Abby remembers finding Ray’s work clothes and boots in the rubbish and then she makes a shocking discovery in their garage. Could Ray be linked to the murder? Does she really knows her husband at all?

While these two women are independently investigating the secret lives of their husbands; how they ultimately connect will have you engrossed in the story, leading to the significant ‘a-ha’ moment where everything suddenly makes sense, before speeding towards a dramatic conclusion. The easy writing style and cliffhanger chapter endings will keep you reading well into the night – everyone I know who has read this book has finished it within a matter of days, if not hours, myself included. Familiar tropes of the isolated island setting, communities where everyone knows everyone, small town gossip, secrets and people who aren’t all they appear to be, are masterfully reshaped into a fresh and exciting story. In a genre where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for writers to think of original and creative twists, The Wife and the Widow has a real doozy that will leave you reeling.

I had the pleasure of meeting Christian White and listening to him speak about crime fiction writing at a recent event at Avid Reader in Brisbane. As a screenwriter, he has an excellent understanding of storytelling and how to create suspense, and he is also a very friendly person who is happy to share his wisdom and time with fellow writers and readers.

The Wife and the Widow by Christian White is published by Affirm Press.

Standout Simile:

‘John wouldn’t do that,’ Fisher said, but his words were like a backdrop in a Hollywood studio, held together by balsawood and coated in cheap paint.

Why You Need An Editor To Read Your Manuscript

After an unsuccessful one-on-one with a publisher at a recent literary conference, I decided to engage a professional editor to read my manuscript (a cosy-crime). Although I’ve previously had helpful feedback from mentors about sections of my novel, what I really wanted was to get a professional opinion on the entire manuscript. I found a great editor easily through the Freelance Editor’s Network. I read through each editor’s bio, and chose an editor that worked with books in the same/similar genre to my manuscript.

Editors offer a range of different services including structural and developmental edits, copywriting and proofreading. I chose to receive an editorial assessment comprising of an approximately 10-page report on my entire manuscript. The report took into consideration the plot, genre, structure, narrative and characters, and finished with some miscellaneous thoughts about consistency and plot holes. The feedback in this report has made me see my manuscript in a new light and now that I know how much it can be improved and reworked, I’m glad I decided to engage an editor before submitting to any more agents, publishers or competitions.

The editorial assessment has done two things. Firstly, it has confirmed that certain things I suspected needed work, do in fact need work, such as:

  • Those opening chapters! Previous feedback regarding my opening chapters was that they felt too rushed. It starts right in the action, but the reader doesn’t get to know the main character, or their motivations well enough first, and it’s confusing. There needs to be more information for the reader to be able to orientate themselves in the world of the story before getting into too much of the action.
  • Characters. I used to think the weakest part of my writing was scene setting, and while this is still an area that could use some work, the main thing I struggle with is demonstrating to the reader the motivations of my main characters.

Secondly, the editorial assessment has drawn my attention to things I didn’t realise needed work, such as:

  • More exploration of the psychological elements of the murder mystery plot, including the motive of the murderer. This will also assist in making the story a bit darker, which is something I’ve discussed wanting to do in an earlier blog post.
  • A greater sense of time moving to create more tension. Despite mapping out all of the dates and times of each scene, this isn’t clear to the reader.
  • Subplots that aren’t pulling their weight. I’ve got lots of subplots and some of them haven’t been explored enough to engage and maintain the reader’s interest.

As an unpublished writer, after my experience engaging a professional editor to read my manuscript, I would absolutely recommend this to any new writers looking to improve their writing skills and learn more about the craft. Yes, it’s an expensive exercise but it’s absolutely worth the money if you can afford it. The feedback I received is another step towards my ultimate goal, which is to make my manuscript the best possible manuscript it can be. I knew it wasn’t there yet and needed more work. The editorial assessment has shown me there is still a lot of work to do before I will feel confident to submit it again to agents and publishers.

Have you ever sought professional advice on your writing? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – Meet Me At Lennon’s

Melanie Myers transports the reader back to wartime Brisbane with her award-winning debut novel Meet Me At Lennon’s. In the early 1940s, thousands of American soldiers descended upon Brisbane and their presence was felt by all – they were glamorous, better paid and skilled at charming Australian women. Meet Me At Lennon’s explores the huge impact of this social disruption through the lives of several female characters. While there is a mystery surrounding a woman murdered on the banks of the Brisbane River in 1943, this isn’t a whodunit but a story about the experiences of these women and their connection to the ‘River Girl’.

Dual narratives cleverly connect and intersect, often unexpectedly, as the story moves between the 1940s, the 1990s and today. The contemporary narrative sees Olivia Wells struggling to complete her thesis on forgotten writer, Gloria Grantham, when she chances upon Clio Manning, a woman who may have the answers she needs. In the forties we meet Alice who receives lots of tips as a maid at the exclusive Brisbane hotel, Lennon’s. Her roommate, Val, who works at the munitions factory, loves to spend her evenings dancing and plans to elope with a US submariner. June’s husband is at war while she encounters a mysterious American stranger, while her sister Edith is expecting a proposal from ‘Frank the Yank’. Back in the present day, Olivia is managing the men in her own life – a lousy boyfriend and her absent father who suddenly wants to reconnect.

The reader must be astute and pay close attention to these timeline shifts because little details are hidden in the story, revealed in whispers. This is a book that needs to be read slowly, every line relished and absorbed. I enjoyed the way the author invented and incorporated theatre reviews, old letters and interview transcripts – we feel like we are Olivia, slowly piecing together a picture of life in 1940s wartime Brisbane. Like her main character, Melanie Myers spent time at Queensland State Archives trawling through articles about reports on sex offences committed by US soldiers to inform the context of the story, which is so well-researched and eloquently described that every scene feels like stepping through a window into the past.

Brisbane naturally features very heavily in the story – the present day vista of South Bank and its buildings – the State Library, Queensland Museum, and the Wheel of Brisbane; as well as familiar buildings that have stood the test of time – City Hall, McWhirters, and the Paddington Antique Centre, and those now long gone – Lennon’s Hotel on George Street, and the Carver Club, which once stood on Grey Street in South Brisbane, built for African American servicemen who were not permitted to cross the Brisbane River. A simmering animosity between the Australian and American soldiers culminates in the novel when one of the female characters witnesses a riot in the Brisbane CBD in November 1942, an actual event which came to be known as the Battle of Brisbane, resulting in one death and hundreds of injuries.

But it’s female experiences at the heart of this story, which holds a mirror up to the lives of women in wartime Brisbane and asks, how much has changed and how much remains the same? Sexual violence and victim blaming are hot topics and this is a novel that seeks to give these victims of sexual violence a voice, particularly those forgotten by history, and by novel’s end has given the River Girl a name. A thought-provoking read that will stay with you long after you’ve read the final page.

Meet Me At Lennon’s by Melanie Myers is published by UQP.

Standout Simile:

She pressed the pointed end of it into her palm, wishing it hurt more, and hoping it would quell the relentless nausea that was roiling up again like sediment in a rain-swollen river.

Crime Fiction Tropes in the #MeToo Era

Ah, the beginning of September. One of my favourite times of the year because it means two things. Number one – winter is over. And number two – the Brisbane Writers Festival. This year, I attended a session called “Crime Fiction and #metoo” featuring a panel of women – poet and writer Meera Atkinson, professor, doctor and writer Caroline de Costa and writer M.J. Tjia (who also writes as Mirandi Riwoe), moderated by writer and academic, Meg Vann. The topic for discussion was whether crime fiction perpetuates a culture of violence against women because of certain tropes the genre typically uses. Can we therefore still morally read and write crime fiction?

Meg Vann referred to one particular trope as ‘fridging’, which comes from the Women in Refrigerators website developed by comic book writer, Gail Simone. The concept originated from the Green Lantern comic when the character Alexandra DeWitt (girlfriend of the main character, Kyle Rayner) was murdered and her body stowed inside a refrigerator. The meaning of ‘fridging’ has now widened to encompass violence against women as a plot device to motivate the (usually male) protagonist into action. It is a cliched type of storytelling with negative connotations because it’s seen as devaluing the life of that female character i.e. they are more plot device than person. An article on Vox states that tropes like these distort reality and our view of women: “They don’t exist in a vacuum, but in a context where they both reflect and perpetuate the idea that women don’t have any agency over their own lives in the real world.”

Calling out this trope has been a step forward in changing the way stories represent women. The negative connotations of tropes like ‘fridging’ or the ‘dead girl’ trope combined with the #metoo climate has crime fiction writers thinking twice when writing about violence against women.

Sarah Bailey, author of three bestselling novels featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock, wrote an article on Women’s Agenda about the challenge of writing crime fiction in the immediate aftermath of the #metoo movement. She found herself questioning how she depicted Gemma’s experience of sexual harassment, and whether she had a special responsibility as a writer to “present a certain kind of story” – one with an empowered ending, even though this wouldn’t necessarily ring true for the character she had created. And at a recent Meet the Author session with Melanie Myers, author of Meet Me At Lennon’s, she stated she purposefully tried to do something different with the ‘dead girl’ trope by making a statement about violence against women in the 1940s by comparing it to the present day and asking – has anything changed and what are we doing about it?

The Staunch Prize was created by author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless to encourage writers to come up with stories that don’t rely on sexual violence, awarding the prize “to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Sophie Hannah, poet and novelist, argues in an article in The Guardian that while its admirable that the prize wants to take a stand against violence against women, it’s not violence on the receiving end of that stand, but readers and writers. Instead she suggests a prize for the work “that most powerfully or sensitively tackles the problem of violence against women and girls.”

Certainly there are writers who have published books that utilise these tropes without being exploitative and gratuitous. In my opinion one of the best is An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire. This novel focuses on the impact of a woman’s murder on her sister, and on community reactions to her death, as well as exploring the media’s obsession with ‘pretty dead girls’.

So, what did the panel of women at the Brisbane Writers Festival say when asked: “Can we still morally read and write crime fiction?” The answer: “Yes, but it’s tricky.” The takeaway message was that writers should create crime fiction that doesn’t use traditional tropes and that gives female characters a strong voice. Caroline de Costa stated that recent crime fiction features women as the solution and not as stereotypes. She believes that entertainment can bring messages of social justice. M.J. Tjia, whose Heloise Chancey mystery series features two strong female main characters, asked people to refocus on what they’re reading, and ask – who wrote it? Where did it come from? What is its truth?

As crime writers, or fans of reading the genre, should we feel like we are committing a moral crime for reading and writing about violence against women? I’m certainly no expert and I don’t have the answers. In fact, the more I research the subject, the more complex it becomes. My current work in progress uses the ‘dead girl’ trope. I only hope I can write it in such a way that it doesn’t perpetuate negative stereotypes. What are your thoughts on using these tropes in crime fiction? Please let me know in the comments below.

Meg Vann, Caroline de Costa, Meera Atkinson and M.J. Tjia discuss women in crime fiction.