Crime, she researched
KUALA LUMPUR, July 15 — She’s a professor who teaches media studies at the University of Wollongong, but what is even more interesting about Sue Turnbull is her specialty: crime fiction and the history of television.
In fact, she is a co-convenor of Sisters of Crime Australia, a network of crime fiction readers and writers.
Earlier this year, she visited Malaysia to speak to students from INTI International University and Colleges. On top of her busy teaching career, Turnbull is also a frequent media commentator and columnist on ABC Radio.
Here, The Malaysian Insider speaks to Professor Turnbull about the crime fiction genre:
What do you think about the current crime fiction offerings on the bookshelves? Have you noticed any authors doing something out of the ordinary, that are making waves in the crime fiction genre?
Every month I receive about 40 new crime novels — and I go through them fairly quickly — looking for the one which promises something a bit different.
For example, I’ve just read two books by a British author called Elizabeth Haynes (Into the Darkest Corner and Revenge of the Tide) which are really psychological thrillers with hardly a cop in sight.
They are very cleverly constructed crime stories centering on different female characters with very idiosyncratic profiles.
In the first, the character has a serious psychological disorder (obsessive compulsive disorder) which has been caused by a traumatic experience and in the second she is a former pole-dancer who has bought a boat and is renovating it when her past catches up with her.
I really loved both these books because they took me into some intriguing new places in the company of strong but not always predictable female characters.
On the other hand, I have just read a first crime novel by an Australian author who can really write, but who has reverted to the cliché of the serial killer who preys on young women and whose first person point of view intermittently surfaces in the novel to convince us of his madness.
I’m now really over the serial killer thriller and will take a very good one to get me back in.
Briefly, my tastes are very catholic, but I’m always on the look-out for a new voice and a new take on the crime novel. I suspect that this is one of the reasons for the enormous interest in Scandinavian crime at the moment as people search for new voices, new locations — with the familiarity of a formula which is instantly recognisable.
What do you think about the crime fiction authors in the Asia Pacific? Do you think the works of authors in this region give a more unique perspective of crime seeing that the crime scene in the Asia Pacific is different from the Western world in the way the crime is committed?
To be honest, there are only a few that I have encountered and that have made it to Australia and translation. However, those that I have read I have loved, largely because I appreciate any form of armchair tourism which takes me behind the scenes into the heart of a culture.
This crime fiction does so well — no matter what the locale. I always try to read the crime fiction of the country I am about to visit as crime writers are usually so good at identifying the zeitgeist of a place or a culture.
What can authors do to revolutionise the crime fiction genre?
I don’t think it’s about revolution but rather reinvention. One of the best ways to reinvent is to know what has gone before — and then tweak and adapt this in the spirit of recombination to produce something which looks completely new but which is built upon the foundations of the past.
What advice can you give to aspiring crime fiction writers?
It’s not about the plot. I read crime fiction for the writing, the prose style, the characters, the sense of place. The plot is simply what puts them all in motion. Having said that, the plot has to be engaging enough to keep me going.
I frequently read crime novels where who did what to whom is a pre-given. What we want to know is why. There has to be some sort of revelation — and the less this is anticipated, the better.
Writing crime fiction needs analysis and research on forensics, crime scenes, creating character profiles and setting up a fast-paced, interesting plot to make it work. To write a crime novel, the author needs to be familiar with the nitty gritty details and have at least interviews with people who are involved in real life. Would you agree with that or do you think that readers of the crime genre can write crime fiction if they read enough?
Authors can go either way. However, doing all the research and the interviews still won’t make you a good crime writer. I’ve always been firmly of the opinion that people who write well are also readers…. I myself read English Literature at university and taught English for many years.
I was convinced then that students who were exposed to a range of different kinds of prose not only had more confidence when it came to developing their own style, but also more tricks up their sleeves.
There comes a moment though, or so I have been told by many prominent crime writers, when you have to stop reading other people and just “do your own thing”: find your own voice.
So while writing is a craft and I am sure it can be taught… there is also the element of individual talent and originality.
What makes a good crime fiction novel or television crime show? What are your favourites?
I read so much crime fiction that quite often my favourite crime novel is the one I have just read — because the others fade away into the past. Having said that, I do have some favourites.
To name but a few — Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers set in an Oxford College and really starring Harriet Vane rather than Lord Peter Whimsey… The Broken Shore by Australian author Peter Temple (whose next crime novel Truth went on to win a prestigious literary award in Australia thus blurring the division between crime and literary fiction).
Both are examples of crime novels which present a vivid portrait of a specific time and place. In both the plots are a bit perfunctory but both are extraordinarily memorable and beautifully written.
I’m also a huge fan of Barry Maitland and Garry Disher — both Australian based writers although Maitland sets his books in the UK — and as a former Professor of Architecture, they always have some kind of interesting twist around a particular place.
Tell us about your role in Sisters In Crime and what are the recent updates in the network.
I joined Sisters in Crime Australia in about 1992 and for the last 20 years have been part of a team of convenors who organise events every two months or so in which authors talk about their work.
We also run quizzes and two big conferences in Melbourne. My job on the team was to interview the authors — some of whom have become great friends including Kerry Greenwood who created the Phryne Fisher historical mysteries set in Melbourne in 1928 and now a major TV series.
This role led to my being invited to interview authors for the Melbourne Writers Festival such as Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin so I broke out of the feminist mould.
However, some of my favourite interviews have been with writers such as P.D. James, Minette Walters and Val McDermid. Having been born in Britain I have a predilection for British crime.
Who is your favourite female crime fiction writer?
That’s an incredibly hard ask… it would be better to say what are your favourite books... because I would then nominate The Sculptress by Minette Walters, Place of Execution by Val McDermid etc.
While I value all their work and always read it, there are books by many of my “favourite” writers which I think are a bit below par.
Having said that, I will always read Walters, McDermid, Rendell, James, and indeed Sara Paretsky who was one of the key figures in the early Eighties behind the second wave feminist embrace of the crime novel in the US — and the founder of American Sisters in Crime.
In your blog you mentioned Shamini Flint. Which is your favourite Sharmini Flint book?
I interviewed Sharmini at the Sisters in Crime Conference in Melbourne last year — she is a wonderful storyteller who could be doing stand-up — and I think that comes through in her books. I don’t have a favourite... they are all vastly entertaining.
You research on television crime shows. Do television crime shows portray what happens in real life crime scenes? Do what we see on the TV actually happen at crime scenes?
I’m writing a book on the history of the television crime drama as a genre — which involves tracing the origins of the TV series in other media forms including radio.
What’s interesting about this history is that there are two rival traditions.
One is the literary tradition which is expressed in the private eye series which has a more tenuous relationship with “real crime” although that is always there in the background.
The other is the police procedural which from the early days on radio, tried to be as authentic as possible, borrowing its stories from police files and often involving co-operation with the police.
These days, there is still a spectrum of shows which encompass those series which endeavour to be as realistic as possible in terms of police proeedure and crime — and those which play fast and loose with reality in the interests of story-telling and a more “poetic” truth.
Television is after all a medium of entertainment — and the crime drama is one of the most enduring television forms — but it’s an extremely diverse genre as my book will hopefully demonstrate
What direction is TV crime show industry heading? Do you see a change in the story lines of crime shows or is it the same old, same old?
What’s interesting about the television crime drama is that it has always reflected the culture and the time in which it is set. Even when you get a remake of Miss Marple it tends to reflect the current moment.
I’ve been fascinated with the ways in which both the British and the American TV crime dramas have developed alongside changing attitudes to crime, criminality and policing and while there have been rather right-wing establishment dramas such as Dragnet and its derivatives, there have also always been very left-wing critical series which have shown the police in a less than flattering light… such as those created by British producer Tony Garnett such as the original Law and Order UK in 1978 which caused a furore in Parliament with the result that the BBC promised never to show it again because of what it revealed about police corruption and the penal system.
The crimes also change as these tend to reflect the particular social anxieties of the day — so we might move from armed robbery in the Seventies and Eighties to sex crimes and serial killers in the Nineties — to gang warfare, drugs and terrorism post 9/11.
The crime drama also changes in form — from the episodic to the serial and back again – from the half hour to the hour to the movie length episode. And then there’s a series like The Wire with its seasonal story arcs.
I guess all I can predict is that the TV crime drama will continue to evolve as writers try to find new ways to think about and portray crime in ways which keep us hooked. If I really knew what the next big thing was to be, I’d be keeping it very quiet and looking for a producer instead of working in a university.