The body in the library
An exhibition of detective fiction
Dr David Dunstan
An unpleasant thing in real life, crime takes on another life in our imagination. A skilled storyteller preys on our hopes and fears, providing all manner of excitement in a compelling narrative seemingly made for the sleepless small hours of the morning. Television and film take it as their stock in trade, with producers constantly looking for new angles, new locations and, above all, new villains. It is the same with books. This is what makes this Rare Books exhibition so interesting, particularly as crime in its myriad cultural forms feeds off itself.
Gangsters and standover men follow the Borsalino screen heroes of a previous generation. We see the tilt of homage to the supreme lady novelist of the genre, Agatha Christie, in the television murder mystery set in the totally unreal English village of Midsomer. Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled private detective, reappears in every imaginable post-modern twist of gender, location and identity. Without crime our contemporary fiction – and our writers – would be the poorer.
Australia was founded by transported criminals. Following hard on their manacled heels were importers of books. The Victorian period writers Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle all dealt in crime. Soon after he emerged from London's Baker Street fog, Sherlock Holmes was in Australian bookstores and lending libraries.
Byways explored in this exhibition include local evocations and parodies of crime literature. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by a New Zealander, Fergus Hume, set in Melbourne in the boom decade of the 1880s became a best seller. Then as now, crime paid. Publishers became adept at sending coded visual messages. 'Yellowbacks', so-called because of their yellow boards, were cheap sensational novels, mass-produced and beloved by collectors today. They preceded 'pulp fiction' usually associated with the United States but also published in Australia. Young men in the 1950s were struck by the lurid images of scantily clad women in compromising situations on the covers of novels by the Australian writer, Alan Yates, better known to the world as Carter Brown.
Dip into this exhibition and you will discover not only the delights enjoyed by readers of popular fiction in former times but also some of the key templates of the literature of crime. You will discover anew that crime is an almost irresistible prospect in a book.
The exhibition can be seen from 15 March - 8 June 2012 at the Rare Books Exhibition space, Level 1, ISB wing, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Clayton campus, Monash University.