AUSSIE CRIME 2023: Recent Australian Crime Novels To Read This Australia Day!
2022 was another stellar year for Australian crime fiction.
Once again the overall quality of the books greatly impressed, especially given that some of my favourite authors, such as Kyle Perry, Michael Brissenden, Gabriel Bergmoser and Sarah Bailey, did not produce books in 2022. I did not read every Australian crime novel released in 2023, but I did read a fair swag, close to fifty, and was impressed by the breadth and variety of the books released. Not every book was to my liking, but I have to say that the overall quality was extremely good, and certainly much higher than anytime in the past.
The growth of rural crime or bush/outback noir has been a major trend in recent years, and it was again very evident in the books produced in 2022. Of the twelve books listed below, five certainly fall into the category of outback noir, while another three have a strong rural or regional tinge to them. In addition to these, there were also several other notable examples which fell a little short of making the list. In addition to the instantly recognisable mainstream crime novels, there was also a steady stream of rural romances, by authors such as Fleur McDonald, Penelope Janu and Lee Christine, which had clear crime elements to them. All of which shows the continuing public enthusiasm, both in Australia and overseas, for books that are situated in the outback. Making the most of this interest, all the books below, with two exceptions, sport striking covers that prominently display the Australian landscape.
On the flipside, there was again a shortage of books set in Australia’s major cities. There were exceptions, Matthew Spencer’s Black River which made great use of its setting along Parramatta river, and promising debuts by Sally Bothroyd and Rae Cairns, but by and large books set in capital cities were in short supply. There was also not a lot of books in 2022 which dealt with big city crime themes or political corruption in the way that Michael Brissenden’s Dead Letters and Chris Hammer’s Trust did in past years. Kevin Price’s Poetic License provided an idiosyncratic take on political wheeling and dealing in Western Australia in 2013, and Dinuka McKenzie’s forthcoming Taken also has a political/police corruption sub-theme, but generally such books were missing in 2022.
A strong theme that did emerge in 2022 was around female victims of crimes seeking their own form of justice against their persecutors and others. Sarah Barrie, Nina D. Campbell, Jane Caro and, more recently Katherine Kovacic, all had books that fitted into this category, as did Rae Cairns’ The Good Mother to some extent. There were also a number of books which fell into the domestic suspense or ‘family dramas with crime’ categories, with Rebecca Heath’s recent The Summer Party probably being the best of them.
Pleasingly, some books successfully took a very innovative approach to crime fiction, most notably those by Benjamin Stevenson and Sulari Gentill below, but also Joanna Morrison’s The Ghost Of Gracie Flynn and Michael Levitt’s The Gallerist.
Without a doubt the most impressive aspect of the current surge in Australian crime writing has been the steady stream of very good debut novels every year. 2022 saw four outstanding first novels by Dinuka McKenzie, Shelley Burr, Harley Scrivenor and Mathew Spencer, with a number of other books closely behind them. It was also pleasing to see Margaret Hickey follow up her good debut from 2021, Cutter’s Way, with the even better Stone Town.
The local crime fiction community was again also bolstered and supported by the presence of several successful international authors who set their novels overseas, such as Michael Robotham, Dervla McTiernan, Candice Fox, Megan Goldin and Tony Park. All of whom helped to draw international attention to Australian crime writers.
Set out below in a rough order of preference are twelve outstanding crime fiction books with an Australian setting, which have appeared in the past twelve months or so, including two from early 2023. It is not a definitive list of good local crime novels from 2022, and books by Sarah Barrie, Harley Scrivenor and Mathew Spencer, and several others could have also easily found their way onto this list.
I have also included links to my original reviews of the books for those who want to read more. And links to previous Australia Day lists are at the end of the article.
Without doubt the wittiest and most original crime novel I read over the past twelve months was Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone (Penguin).
It was a witty, clever and very funny novel, that played homage to the classic British murder mystery in a very original way. I will not attempt to describe the plot other than to say that it revolves around a strange family reunion in a snowed-in resort in the Australian alps and involves several killings, in the past and the present. It is a top notch read and one which has stayed in my mind during the year: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/everyone-in-my-family-has-killed-someone-by-benjamin-stevenson-penguin-29-march-2022/
Emma Viskic’s Those Who Perish (Echo) came out early in 2022, but apart from the Benjamin Stevenson novel was not bettered during the year as one of the best Australian based crime novels of 2022. The fourth novel in Emma’s award winning series about deaf Melbourne private eye Caleb Zelic, it opened in dramatic fashion and maintained a strong sense of suspense throughout.
The plotting and characters were superb and enhancing the story were some vivid descriptions of Muttonbird Island, sharp-eyed reflections on modern society and credible dialogue. There were also flashes of wry humour: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/those-who-perish-by-emma-viskic-echo/
In my view Dinuka McKenzie’s The Torrent (Harper Collins) was the pick of a very good bunch of debut Australian crime novels in 2022.
An accomplished and very well written novel, The Torrent impressed with the depth of its characters and its confident plotting. The story opens with heavily pregnant Detective Sergeant Kate Miles counting down the handful of days left before she goes on maternity leave. She is hoping for a quiet week, but a violent hold-up at a fast-food restaurant in the northern New South Wales town where she works soon ruins any hope of a peaceful exit. It is a well developed and very engaging crime novel, with lots of poignancy and credibility and a fresh new voice.
Dinuka has also followed it up with a great second novel, Taken (Harper Collins), which is due out in February 2023.
Garry Disher is one of the veterans of the Australian crime fiction scene and the quality of his yearly offerings has rarely faltered over the past twenty five years, or more. Day’s End (Text) is the fourth in his series about struggling South Australian rural policeman Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen and once again it sets the standard in rural Australian crime.
Although it is a little slow to start with, the book builds to a terrific climax and holds interest throughout. The underlying story is intriguing and engaging, and Disher makes good use of the pandemic to examine current issues, such as the rise of extreme right wing groups and the influence of social media. It also introduces a great new character in the form of Belgium pathologist Dr Janne Van Sant. Another impressive novel by Disher. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/days-end-by-garry-disher-text-publishing/
Dave Warner’s After The Flood (Fremantle Press) is the third in his series about Broome detective Dan Clement and follows on from Before It Breaks, which won a Ned Kelly Award. As always, Warner combines a credible plot, involving the discovery of a crucified body in the outback, with a strong cast of characters and some wonderful descriptions of the Broome countryside.
Topical and gritty, it is a great read. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/outback-noir-after-the-flood-by-dave-warner/
Chris Hammer’s The Tilt (Allen & Unwin) is a compelling mixture of murder, rural history, old family secrets and modern day terrorism. Revolving around the discovery of old bones in a recently emptied reservoir, Hammer skilfully utilises three timelines to tell the story of how the bones got there and whose bodies they belonged to. Leisurely paced to begin with, it builds into a compelling crime novel with a powerful and exciting ending.
With Exiles, (Macmillan), Jane Harper returned to the popular detective from The Dry, Aaron Falk, and involved him in another complex case. Set in the heart of South Australia’s wine region, Exiles, revolved around the disappearance of a young mother during a local festival. Kim Gillespie’s baby is found alone in her pram towards the end of the night’s festivities, but there is no sign of Kim. Despite an intensive search she is never found. A year on and her absence still casts a long shadow over the community. Well plotted with rich characters and a vivid portrayal of the local wine community, Exiles is a thoughtful and engaging mystery.
Margaret Hickey made an impressive entry into Australia’s crime writing ranks in 2021 with Cutters End, and she followed it up in 2022 with the even better Stone Town (Penguin). Stone Town once again features Detective Mark Ariti, who has moved back to the small outback town in South Australia he grew up in to be with his dying mother. After his mother dies he stays on in the town enjoying the relative peace, but that quietness is destroyed when a property developer is found murdered and Ariti becomes caught up in the search for a missing policewoman.
I thought that Stone Town was a step-up on Cutter’s End, and a fine piece of crime fiction, with good characters, a twisty plot and crisp descriptions of an outback town undergoing change. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/new-australian-crime-fiction-margaret-hickey-allie-reynolds-and-sue-williams/
Shelley Burr’s Wake (Hachette) was not far behind Dinuka McKenzie’s The Torrent in terms of the year’s best debut crime novel, and was a very enjoyable read.
It is a very assured first novel that shows a maturity of writing that is often missing in debut books. The plotting about a cold crime case in outback Australia is original and interesting, and the characters have a real depth to them. A very impressive novel: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/cold-cases-and-missing-children-wake-by-shelley-burr-and-the-hiding-place-by-simon-lelic/
Sulari Gentill’s The Woman In The Library (Ultimo Press) only just makes it onto this list, not because of its quality, but because it is only partially set in Australia. There is, however, a strong Australian element to it, and it is also a very clever book. Along with Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone it is one of the more original mysteries of 2022. It is a well crafted and clever novel within a novel. The plot is too intricate to explain here, but trust me it was a very inventive story that managed to be both a good mystery and an interesting reflection on the art of writing.
Coming out early in 2023 was Simon Rowell’s Wild Card (Text, January 2023). Rowell’s The Long Game was one of my favourite crime novels of 2021 and Wild Card is a very good follow-up. Once again featuring damaged copper Detective Sergeant Zoe Mayer of the Victorian Police Force and her trusty service dog Harry, it is a well constructed novel that produces a few decent surprises and shocks along its way to a good climax.
John Byrnes’ Headland (Allen & Unwin, January 2023) is another recent release, and is also one of the grittiest Australian crime novels I have read in some time. Featuring a detective with addiction problems and a tendency to make bad judgements, it kept me avidly turning the pages as the flood waters rose and three young coppers found themselves stranded with a killer. A strong debut: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/new-aussie-crime-january-2023/
So plenty of enjoyable Australian reading, and the good news is that there is still a lot of impressive Australian crime writing to come in 2023, including Mali Waugh’s Judgement Day and new books by Michael Brissenden and David Whish-Wilson.
Here is a link to my column from Australia Day 2022: