Some time back, the writer of this article had occasion, in company with the police, to explore that half-mile of alleys and rights of way that run off from that portion of Little Bourke Street bounded by Bilkem Square and Synagogue Lane. To the majority of our readers these names will convey no ideas; they are names, and no more. But for the detective, the night constable, and the thief, they have a world of meaning ... (Marcus Clarke "A Melbourne Alsatia" 1869)
In the late nineteenth century Australian colonies two popular writing forms chose the colonial metropolis as their site, and explored what was most to be feared in that location and yet of which more knowledge was desired - crime. This article is about some themes which appear in the genres of Australian crime fiction and crime journalism in that period. 1 Although neither genre has been seen as peculiarly "Australian", both have relevance for that nationalistic period of the 1890s which is still debated among cultural historians. Detective stories, like other formulaic literary genres of the period, reflected the challenges to gender roles, the anxiety about the colonial "type", new politics, economic instability and the policing of urban spaces which emerged in the 1880s and 1890s in metropolitan Australia as elsewhere (Docker passim; Magarey xv). Their metropolitan focus presents a contrast to the more well known Australian works of the period which celebrated the bush, yet they reflected and distributed influential ideas which have been overlooked in the national literary tradition (Knight "Missing Genre" 235-6).
I particularly want to focus on how ownership and control of space was contested in these stories - domestic space, the workplace, the city and the bush. However in terms of the literary text - since detective fiction and reporting of crime are both genres in pursuit of knowledge and a resolution - it is not only ownership of the space but the ability to read and interpret the space which is a source of anxiety. In this vital sense the literary activities echoed those of the emerging professionals of crime - criminologists, police and others - in producing forms of knowledge about crime and why it flourished in certain locations. In the literature I will examine two new heroes who emerged to help the nervous middle classes read the colonial city and its inhabitants - the investigative journalist and the detective. In this article I will also attempt to illustrate the significance of these figures in each genre and their role in the dissemination of dominant forms of knowledge about crime in the colonial context.
Detective fiction emerged as a popular genre in the late nineteenth century. It focused on the metropolis, on rationalism, and the nature of modern delinquency, balanced somewhere between the exotic and the everyday. Detective fiction validates scientific knowledge and while it uncovers secrets which may threaten the reader, it always reassures the reader through the figure of the rational detective, who resolves any problems and restores order. For this reason it has been seen by cultural historians as a rich source of information about the ideologies and anxieties of modernity (Cawelti 98-105; Knight Form and Ideology passim). Feminist reviewers have also pointed out how in detective fiction the mystery often operates as the unacknowledged feminine, in a genre where the detective is usually masculine (Cranny-Francis 146-9). The detective is rational, objective and "truth" seeking. The mystery is emotional, signifies disorder and tries to obfuscate the "truth". In the phallocentric detective story the focus of desire is the mystery, the (dead) body, the feminine other.
Colonial detective fiction first appeared in the 1860s, mainly in the weekly papers which were the reading matter of educated colonists. Marcus Clarke was one of the earliest identified enthusiasts of detective fiction and wrote several stories in the style of Edgar Allen Poe (Sussex "The Earliest Australian Detective Story" 30-31). The Australian Journal began its "Memoirs of an Australian Police Officer" in 1865; these were begun by James Borlase and carried on by Mary Fortune, who wrote under the pseudonym 'Waif Wander'. Her stories under the title "The Detective's Album" appeared from 1868 to 1908 (Sussex "Shrouded in Mystery" 117 ff). A second wave of colonial detective fiction appears to have begun in 1886 with the publication of Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, which is one of the best selling detective stories ever written. Hume was educated in New Zealand but wrote his book in Melbourne where he hoped to gain work as a playwright. A Melbourne bookseller told him detective novels by the French author Emile Gaboriau were the most popular books among his customers, so Hume set out to write a detective novel with local colour. His success led others to emulate him. Percy Albert Greg's Hidden Scenes, J.E. Harrison's The Kara Yerta Tragedy , Henry Hoyte's The Tramway Tragedy and Charles Bradley's The Belgrave Case were among the first rivals published. Hume's book was so famous it was even the subject of a parody, entitled The Mystery of a Wheelbarrow.
The colonial detective fiction of the 1880s and 1890s almost invariably chose the metropolis as its location. Its authors tried to place the colonial city on a similar level to those in the Old World. For example, Melbourne's Collins Street, according to Fergus Hume, was 'to the Southern city what Bond Street and the Row are to London, and the Boulevards to Paris' and its wealthy inhabitants were 'quite as charmingly dressed, and as pleasant as any of the peripatetics of those famous cities' (69). In The Belgrave Case Melbourne is described as 'The Queen of Southern Cities - the Austral Babylon, with its countless spires and towers, its palatial buildings and spacious thoroughfares - mighty and marvellous'(14). But the colonial city is divided into two spheres, high and low, and it is only a crisis which reveals one to the other.
One point of the detective story therefore is to bring the two spheres - one rational, well-lit and masculine, the other mysterious, gloomy and feminine - into contact. For this to happen the characters must cross social and geographical distances. Robert Dixon has pointed out that although the characters in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab are forced to travel by various means across the city to solve the mystery, there is a sense that such travelling outside of one's sphere contravenes a moral imperative - in Hume's words: 'The tram, the railway station...above all the streets themselves, were shockingly promiscuous' (Dixon 40). As part of the city's expansion in the late nineteenth century, new forms of transport encouraged such social crossings and created greater opportunities for 'promiscuous' encounters. As people travelled more they also read more - new selling methods for newspapers and popular fiction developed to serve the constantly travelling urban population. The NSW Bookstall Company, for example, had branches at all the busy railway stations, ferry jetties and tram waiting rooms by the turn of the century, selling periodicals and popular light railway reading to travellers (Australasian Printer 32). In Sydney in the 1880s two major morning newspapers and four evening papers could be purchased. The evening papers tended to cater for the public's taste for sensational news (Walker 88-89).
The low sphere of the colonial city - usually depicted as the backstreet slums - was its darker side, its conscience, where the detective went to uncover the secrets of the middle class characters. Its opium dens, rookeries and thieves' hideouts are frequently described as dark and gloomy places, with undercurrents of female sexuality, which the detective and his friends must penetrate in order to elucidate the mystery that baffles them. 'It seemed like descending into a pitch dark cavern' Bradley wrote of one character's entrance into a thieves' den (123). 'A gaping black chasm' was how Hume described the staircase leading to the room in the slums where the detective, Kilsip, led the family lawyer. The room is populated only by women and children, dominated by the fearsome Mother Guttersnipe and her grand-daughter Sal Rawlins who possess the secret which has dragged the wealthy Frettlby family into crisis. The two men find this enveloping female experience quite exhausting: ' "Thank Heaven," said Calton, taking off his hat and drawing a long breath, "Thank heaven we are out of that den!"' (119).
In The Mystery of a Hansom Cab these sites of mystery are located in the notorious Melbourne slums of Little Bourke Street which featured brothels, rookeries, and Chinese opium dens. Charles Bradley's The Belgrave Case (1891) also describes a scene in Little Bourke Street . In this extract, the detective Dromaine is being guided to an escaped convict's hideout by his accomplice:
Even Little Bourke Street was more or less crowded, chiefly by the passing up and down of companies of Chinamen in single file: like patrols of phantoms they appeared, being so noiseless. The guide turned into the alley...then he halted before a dark passage. After looking around cautiously, he motioned for Dromaine to hide in an adjoining doorway. The rattle and gibberish of Chinamen playing fan tan could be heard. (121-122)
These colourful yet alarming images appeared in many other media. The new candid photographic studies of cities and documentary journalism also encouraged the belief in the delights and dangers to be found in the modern city. Susan Sontag wrote of nineteenth century urban photography:
The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, the flaneur finds the world "picturesque". (Sontag 55)
The figure of Baudelaire's flaneur, or privileged urban spectator, is a forerunner of the fictional detective. He is someone who can confidently "read" the city and its inhabitants. Dana Brand has demonstrated this connection in his study of the works of Edgar Allen Poe "The Man in the Crowd", "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget". The first story is about a privileged urban male who amuses himself divining the history of people in the passing crowd; when he finds a face he cannot read, its illegibility becomes associated with criminality. In the two later detective stories, Poe created a detective who shared many characteristics with the flaneur - social status, a liking for seclusion, an interest in urban observation and an immense knowledge of the city gained through observation and, interestingly, through newspapers (Brand 220-227).
The flaneur's attributes can be found, adopted and valorized, in detective fiction. The flaneur/detective guides the reader through unknown regions of the city, which are usually found surprisingly close to the city's respectable face, thus making the contrast all the more startling and alarming. In The Mystery of a Hansom Cab it is the detective Kilsip who guided the lawyer Calton behind the 'brilliant and crowded scene' of respectable Bourke Street, and revealed another world in the alleys of Little Bourke Street where a 'weird light' alone made the buildings and their inhabitants visible, and they perceived in the gloom 'a man cowering back into the black shadow, or on the other [side] a woman with disordered hair and bare bosom, leaning out of a window trying to get a breath of fresh air', children whose cries mingled with a 'bacchanalian' song of a drunkard, and silent rows of Chinese, whose faces showed only 'stolid, Oriental apathy'. Calton 'wondered how human beings could live in such murky places' (112-3).
The source of these images of the slums was the colonial press. Journalists had, many years before, traversed the urban territory later trodden by the colonial detectives. Marcus Clarke's investigations for a series of articles in 1869 on Melbourne's slums began in Little Bourke Street. 'To the majority of our readers', Clarke assumed, 'these [street] names will convey no ideas. They are names, and no more. But for the detective, the night constable, and the thief, they have a world of meaning' (Clarke "A Melbourne Alsatia" 125). Little Bourke Street's Chinese inhabitants, its opium dens, brothels and gambling houses, and its 'rookeries' of thieves were presented as colonial reality, however picturesque, by Clarke, but were really modelled on the images of colonial slums already well known in England, and described years earlier by Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew (Davison and Dunstan 30-31). The symbolism of two spheres, rich and poor, in the metropolis had been used many years before by English 'travellers among the poor' who discovered in London 'two nations, East and West'. Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor, called himself a 'traveller in the undiscovered country of the poor' and recast the slum dwellers as 'tribes' who might be observed in an anthropological manner (Epstein Nord 128-30). The detectives later mimicked these first investigative journalists and moral campaigners.
The slum dwellers were portrayed as exotic, whether they were the ubiquitous Chinese, or merely made exotic through their way of life. Marcus Clarke wrote of the Little Bourke Street inhabitants:
The miserable lanes, and filthy courts and houses, are the last strongholds of ruffianism, and it resists all attempts to dislodge it. The wretches who inhabit this sink of infamy seem to have no regard for time. Noonday or midnight, dawn or dusk, all times are alike to them. They sleep when it suits them, eat when it suits them, and steal drink and fight at all hours. (Clarke "A Melbourne Alsatia" 126)
This passage written in the 1860s expresses the heights (or the depths) of the colonial production of knowledge about slum dwellers. Yet twenty years after Clarke wrote these words, the image of the slum was an even more popular subject among writers. While Melbourne had its Little Bourke Street, Sydney journalists were inspired by the official tours preceeding slum clearances in the 1880s. 'It would surprise many', a journalist accompanying official tours of Sydney's backstreet slums in 1889 wrote, 'to see some of the rookeries which are to be found in many of our leading and most fashionable thoroughfares' (Daily Telegraph 9 February 1889). The skill of the journalist/detective was in showing the reader what lay behind the glittering city, in exposing the deceptiveness of appearances. Newspaper depictions of slums in the 1880s used and reused the stock images of "a hidden world", the need for a special guide, such as a Health Inspector or police officer, and the primitive, alien nature of slum dwellers, whose homes were variously described as lairs, dens, rabbit warrens and rat burrows (Mayne 10, 87-100).
Why were these images so successful and so enduring? For journalists, the images created a need among their urban readers by depicting the colonial city to its residents as a world which only experienced flaneurs could read. The characters of the slum were important tools in this process of creating the newspaper as an urban survival manual. The slum was also in a curious way a tool for promoting the material success of the colony. These journalists were almost all among the colonial "Boosters" to whom no great city was complete without its slums and slumdwellers. While the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia in 1888 lauded Melbourne's streets for being 'as well paved, as well channelled, as well lighted and as well watched as those of London, Paris or Vienna', there was always the threat of 'the multitude' who might be seen when a disaster such as a city fire occurred:
in the crowd that gathers around the scene of the disaster, the lurid light of the leaping flames shines upon faces that are rarely visible at any other time - the faces of men and women who hovel in back slums - the social birds of prey - and many of whom only creep out from their lair at night, to steal purses and to practice burglary or petty larceny. (Picturesque Atlas 223)
Here again the writer is speaking as did Poe's flaneur - as one who can read the delinquency of the slum inhabitants in their faces. By the late nineteenth century the emerging disciplines of criminology, phrenology, and anthropometry boasted that the 'illegible' face of the criminal could now be recognised and interpreted by scientists and criminologists (Ludlow 45-51). As the slum dwellers became 'picturesque' they also became seen as irretrievably criminal. But while the discourses I have focussed on speak from a privileged masculine position of knowledge and resolution, signs of anxiety begin to appear in the period under examination. The location of women in the metropolis is one source of this anxiety which can be traced in the stories.
Feminist cultural historians examining the literature of the 1880s and 1890s in England have shown how women's fiction and women readers were marginalised by male writers in a response to increased feminine presence in spaces previously occupied by men. Judith Walkowitz argues that in representations of London in the 1880s there was 'a growing scepticism among men of letters about their capacity to read the city and to sustain a coherent vision of a structured public landscape. They expressed this unease by constructing a mental map of London marked by fragmentation, complexity and introspection, all of which imperilled the flaneur's ability to experience the city as a totalizing whole' (39). Walkowitz demonstrates that in the stories about the metropolis of this period, from Stevensons' Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to 'shilling shockers' and the sensational journalism on the Whitechapel murders, there were also expressions of internal and psychological crises precipitated by previously marginalised groups, primarily women, becoming increasingly visible in the metropolitan spaces and male haunts. 'Their presence challenged the spatial boundaries - of East and West, of public and private - that Victorian writers of the metropolis had imaginatively constructed to fix gender and class difference in the city' (80). Elaine Showalter writes of the emergence of the male quest romances of Rider Haggard and Kipling: 'Wielding the golden shield of male romance warded off the woman reader, set up by popular journalism as the antagonist of the virile artist' (Showalter 80). Such writing became increasingly introspective: 'Above all, the quest romances are allegorised journeys into the self' (81).
For Australian feminists attention has been focussed on the culture of masculinity created by the Bulletin and its siblings, and evident in the dominant laws, policies and visual and literary representations in the 1880s and 1890s which, posited against the growing numbers and influence of the women's movements, made the years under discussion crucial ones for cultural determination. Marilyn Lake has defined the period as shaped by 'a contest between men and women...for control of the national culture' (Lake 116).
Male writers associated with the nationalistic Bulletin in Sydney were developing a distaste for the city which said much about their internal preoccupations. Graeme Davison has described 'the deepening sense of urban alienation among Bulletin writers around 1890' (202) which gave 'an urban context for the bush legend' which they promulgated. Sylvia Lawson states that for the Bulletin writers and editor the city was 'the delusive maze, the inferno of wraiths and personal defeat; alluring and corrupting, with evil at its heart' (Lawson 192). These reactions are similar to the 'unease' felt about the city among male writers described by Walkowitz above. Most importantly these writers turned to the bush as a location free of women's cultural and political influence, and to the solitary figure of the bushman as their "love object" and so the Australian Legend took hold (Lake 117-121).
For in the colonial cities women were challenging the "professional bachelordom" of literary society. The fields of literature and journalism were opening up for women writers; slowly but significantly. In 1891 the Illustrated Sydney News noted that nearly every newspaper of standing had one or more women among its contributors or staff writers (Clarke 189ff). Women's columns became more common in major newspapers and Louisa Lawson's The Dawn, fully staffed by women, was first published in 1888. The nationalistic writers and critics responded by attempting to marginalise women's writing to "popular" genres such as romance. Women were not thought to be suited to write truly "Australian" stories (Sheridan 51-57).
Writing about crime was an even more contentious area. Many aspects of late nineteenth century Australian culture had criminal consequences for women - drunkenness, sexual assualt, domestic assault, abortion, and prostitution. Increasingly, therefore, criminal justice became a focus for Australian feminist activity at the end of the nineteenth century (Allen 86-7). Feminist writers exposed the injustices perpetrated against women by the criminal justice system, and the masculine construction of crime. Louisa Lawson for example ironically pointed out how the energies of the police could be directed in an instant to remove a vulnerable female newspaper vendor from her city street corner, while women who wished to walk past male haunts like Tattersall's club had to suffer the threats and insults of up to fifty loafers, at all hours of the day (Lawson "Cripples and the Police" 268). She also campaigned in her newspaper The Dawn for police matrons to protect arrested women in police cells (Lawson "Women Warders" 68-70). A paternalistic attitude by the State was replaced in the 1890s by one of increasing hostility and misogyny (Allen 54, 86-87).
The women writers of this period provided alternative views of criminality. The unconventional writer Barbara Baynton for example did not follow the colonial fashion and locate crime in the city slums in her fiction. Instead she challenged the nationalist myth of the pure, unsullied bush in her short story "The Chosen Vessel", which describes the rape and murder of a lonely bush worker's wife by a swagman (Schaffer 148-170). Mary Fortune undermined the usual representation of the detective as infallible and inscrutable by writing from his point of view, and making it obvious that he is sometimes several steps behind the reader. In "Heredity" a story in which disappointed love drives a woman to kill her rival, he denies that a crime has occurred at all. In "The Masked Lady", the clues to the murder are spotted not by him but by the wise midwife who has led him to the scene of the crime.
The reaction of the mainstream press to crimes against women were either such as to alarm women - of a notorious gang rape in 1886 one newspaper warned 'companies of twos and threes, and of tens and twelves have sought satisfaction of their lusts exactly as other parties combine and hunt for sport' (Walker) - or to warn men - the Bulletin had no doubt that the victim of the rape had brought it on herself and the execution of four of the gang was an inspiration for a sustained Bulletin campaign against women who complained of sexual assault. Crimes by women against men were held to be quite unnatural, and criminal women were somehow unwomanly. Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, drew upon accepted criminological theory when he refused in 1888 to recommend mercy for Louisa Collins, convicted of poisoning her husband: 'In all circumstances and at all times when a woman forgot her sex there was no barrier to the lengths she would go' (Mitchell Newscuttings vol 137 42).
Traditionally the detective and the journalist were both portrayed as independent figures who could observe the city with detachment - the direct opposite of the emotional, obfuscating woman.The gaze of the journalist detective perhaps had its apogee in Madelaine Brown's Murderer (1887) by Francis Adams, an English journalist resident in Australia in the 1880s. Its style and subject matter as illustrated below indicate why although Adams is remembered by historians as a social commentator and poet, this book is not well known:
He lifted his eye a little and looked at the bed. A woman was lying on it, half naked. Her nightdress, delicately wrought with lace work all over, was drawn back and folded tight, wrapped around her stiffened limbs and body...A large silk handkerchief covered her mouth. Her left arm, on which she was lying, hung over the edge of the bed. A sluggish stream of dark blood flowed down it from the vein inside the elbow and dripped into the basin. Her eyes watched it with a dull and dreamy horror. (Adams Madelaine 10)
When the narrative is detached and objective, violence itself becomes aesthetic. However it seems apparent that Adams not only wished to write a potboiler but intended the book to say something about the nature of Australian journalism which fascinated and sometimes spurred him to criticism (Adams 402-407). He dedicated the book to his fellow journalists in Brisbane where he was working at the time. The hero is a journalist (like himself) urged by a fellow journalist to 'constitute himself a detective' and find the murderer of the woman they both admired. 'Think of Poe and Gaboriau. It would be a triumph for Australian journalism - the real aboriginal product'. As a good journalist his personality is in contrast to the vibrant sexuality of the victim, Madelaine, whose sexual past - she was 'a mistress of every infernal art' (Adams Madelaine 94) - it is suggested, has led to her gruesome death. 'He had all the temperance of the true Australian. His body had the... clean and clearly porous look of the sober and the chaste...he had no illusions or vanities about things' (Adams Madelaine 76).
It was the detective/journalist who possessed the privileged gaze and had the authority to speak, but women rarely had such authority. Like the victim Madelaine, they could be forcibly silenced by means of the pen. Women writers suffered too. Baynton's story "The Chosen Vessel" was savagely edited by the Bulletin's A.G. Stephens because its murderous swagman was seen as a threat to the national legend of the clean-living bushman. In the published version the story was renamed "The Tramp" thus suggesting to the reader that the man was not a true Australian at all (Schaffer 149 ff).
The dominant discourses about crime which I have described have a single dominant gaze and draw together possible reactions to the crime to create a united narrative. Most detective fiction was written in a style which accepted such knowledges and celebrated the privileged male gaze. The voice of the journalist as observer and translator of knowledges was therefore often used to give reality to the literary mystery. The first chapter in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is entitled "What the Argus Said" and purports to give that newspaper's account of the murder:
Truth is said to be stranger than fiction, and certainly the extraordinary murder which took place in Melbourne on Thursday night, or rather Friday morning, goes a long way towards verifying this saying. A crime has been committed by an unknown assassin, within a short distance of the principal streets of this great city, and is surrounded by an impenetrable mystery. Indeed, from the nature of the crime itself, the place where it was committed, and the fact that the assassin has escaped without leaving a trace behind him, it would seem as though the case itself had been taken bodily from one of Gaboreau's novels, and that his famous detective Lecoq alone would be able to unravel it. The facts are simply these...(11)
Newspapers play a crucial part in the story: the identity of the murdered man is discovered through his landlady's newspaper advertisement; another chapter after the hero is cleared of suspicion is again in the form of a newspaper leader, entitled "The Argus gives its opinion".
Detective fiction authors often made their fictional crimes the subject of wide discussion within the book, as in The North Shore Mystery, published in 1899:
On train, boat or bus, or wherever men are gathered together, it forms the sole and engrossing topic of conversation. Nearly every man one meets considers himself an armchair detective and has a solution of the mystery at his fingers' ends. (Fletcher 35)
Fletcher and other authors were describing a metropolitan society which could be united, however temporarily, by discourse.
The literary and journalistic representations of crime discussed above formed part of the struggle for control of the colonial city and the right to represent it. For the reader, the city and its inhabitants did not exist until discovered, classified and made over into forms of knowledge. The reader investigated by reading or visualising, rather than venturing into the city. Through the new genres of crime fiction and crime journalism, readers were led to believe that they participated in the investigation - in fact they were encouraged to believe that urban spaces and their inhabitants could be "read" as criminal. The connections between the two genres have relevance for our understanding of the discourses which inform our "knowledge" of crime. The popularity of detective fiction had consequences for the wide circulation of journalism about crime and influenced the acceptance of branches of knowledges such as criminology, and policing practices such as surveillance. These consequences cannot be further discussed here, but Foucault has persuasively argued, 'If we accept the presence in our midst of these uniformed men, who have the exclusive right to carry arms, who come and prowl on our doorsteps, how would any of this be possible if there were no criminals? And if there weren't articles every day in the newspapers telling us how numerous and dangerous our criminals are?' (Foucault 47).
Many images of the colonial city in the 1880s and 1890s reflected anxiety not only about crime in city spaces, but about internal and domestic spaces and rules which were threatened with breach, the most obvious being those governing the relationships between women and men. The hidden dark side of the city explored by the fictional detectives and the journalists could represent anxieties about the feared elements of masculinity - "the animal in man" - or the elusive but threatening nature of women. In the dominant discourses about crime we find attempts to promote unity; to centralise control in the figure of the detective and minimise dissent; and to avoid discussion of women's real involvement in crime as victims or perpetrators by marginalising, silencing or attacking them. There is evidence however that women writers of detective and crime fiction were, even at the birth of this overlooked colonial genre, aware of its power and willing to contest its view of themselves and of the power of the detective.
1. This article is a version of a paper presented at the Australian Historical Association Conference in September 1992. I am grateful to those present at the conference and particularly to Catherine Snowden and Greg Bousfield for their comments and assistance.
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