While sourdough starters, TikTok routines, and balcony dance parties have come and gone, reading has been a constant source of comfort throughout the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic. The last few years have seen books written, released, and consumed at ravenous rates—even as Australia’s publishing industry has struggled to adapt to the new normal and authors have wrestled with the prospect of releasing works without the help of launch events, literary festival appearances, and in-store book signings.
Instead, social media and other online spaces have become increasingly dominant platforms for readers and writers to share what they’re reading, seek recommendations, and build excitement for new releases. Bookish hashtags, such as #AusLit help readers connect with thrilling new novels. Here are five new Australian crime and mystery books that have appeared most often on #AusLit lists and stoked the excitement of isolation-weary readers.
The Last Guests
J.P. Pomare is originally from New Zealand but now lives in Melbourne, so we’ve claimed him as our own (stealing notable people from our neighbors is a proud tradition—previous victims include Crowded House, Russell Crowe, and Sam Neill). Pomare writes taut modern thrillers in the vein of Gillian Flynn, and The Last Guests is an expertly-plotted tale of surveillance and secrecy that will have you hooked from the first page. Beware, though—it will also have you scanning the walls and ceilings of the Airbnb on your next vacation, wary of the microscopic cameras and wireless transmitters that entrap the victims of this voyeuristic tale.
The River Mouth
Anyone who has lived in a small town will find elements of Karen Herbert’s debut offering distressingly familiar. While this tale is set amongst fishing boats and former football players on the rugged Western Australian coast, it deals in universals such as gossip, long memories, and tension in the wake of tragedy.
A decade after the unsolved murder of her 15-year-old son, Darren, Sandra Davies suffers another loss as her best friend is found dead on a remote outback road. In an unthinkable turn, her friend’s DNA is found to match samples that were recovered from under Darren’s fingernails all those years ago. The narrative alternates between the present and the events leading up to Darren’s killing, each timeline knotting and twisting, exploring issues as diverse as family dynamics, racism, and intellectual disability on the journey to an inevitable yet unexpected conclusion.
The last few decades have not been kind to Australia’s east coast: between unprecedented bushfires and mega-floods, the worsening effects of climate change have been on full display, so it’s no surprise that environmental catastrophes have begun to find their way into crime fiction.
Dinuka McKenzie’s debut crime thriller (and winner of the HarperCollins Banjo prize) begins with the titular torrent washing a drowned body into a storm drain and maintains its unrelenting force to the final page. Heavily pregnant and grieving the sudden death of her husband, Detective Kate Miles struggles to juggle the demands of two shocking cases and the needs of her own family as secrets and revelations dog her every step. Weeks away from the arrival of her baby, she must pick her battles carefully to avoid being consumed by the chaos around her.
The Ballroom Murder
Writer, historian, and Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame (yes, Australia has one too!), Leigh Straw is a master of true crime. Known for bringing the misdeeds and motivations of historical criminals to light with just the right mix of meticulous research and narrative drive, her latest offering digs into the circumstances surrounding the sensational 1925 murder of Cyril Gidley by his former fiancée, Audrey Jacob, in front of hundreds of guests at a political charity ball in Government House, Western Australia. The true sensation, however, lies in the way the subsequent trial is manipulated and misdirected by the media and Audrey's canny counsel, Arthur Haynes, leading to a verdict that sends shockwaves through the city.
Like all of Leigh Straw’s true crime work, The Ballroom Murder draws on a wealth of historical evidence and contemporary newspaper accounts to craft a story as compelling as any piece of fiction.
The Sawdust House
Perth-based crime heavyweight David Whish-Wilson has explored the history of Australian convicts in California before—in 2018’s blood-soaked bildungsroman The Coves—but returns to the setting this time with a historical figure in his sights: famed 19th-century pugilist James Ambrose, better known as Yankee Sullivan.
The Sawdust House is the story of Sullivan’s life, from his birth in County Cork, Ireland, and coming of age in London’s East End to his transportation and free years in the infamous Rocks district of colonial Sydney and subsequent boxing fame. In a San Francisco prison cell, he reflects on his disputed New York championship bout against Tom Hyer, his association with Walt Whitman, and the political roughhousing that would finally prove to be his downfall.