Under ceaseless rains, the Murray has burst its banks and engulfed the remote Mosquito Creek goldfield. Life on the diggings just got even tougher.
As disease adds to the camp's miseries, a suspiciously abandoned tent suggests frictions have turned murderous. The experienced Sergeant Niall Kennedy knows that things are not always as they seem. But if the missing digger is on the run, what is he running from?
MOSQUITO CREEK, the first novel from Robert Engwerda is set in 1855 on the northern Victorian goldfields. It's a particularly pleasing experience to read about this area of the goldfields, deep in flood, when we've spent such a long desperate period in drought.
Engwerda has done a fantastic job at putting the reader into this location and the time period. There is a real sense of place and time, evoking the sheer weirdness of the alliances, tension, desperation and transience of the Goldfields. It's very easy to forget, in this day of easy transportation, just how much these communities moved around - constantly chasing the latest big gold find. There are references dotted throughout the book to people, last seen in Geelong, or Melbourne, or elsewhere on the goldfields, and it's only when you sit down and think it through that you realise what is now a 3 hour drive for us, must have been a many day walk for them. And they carted their home and chattels with them.
But in terms of a crime fiction novel, MOSQUITO CREEK is doing something different. This isn't your standard murder up front, investigation resolves the case type of book. There are crimes past and present, there is a disappearance, there are miners stranded by the flood. There is also a possible Cholera epidemic, the need for a quarantine station, and a budding romance. As well as a circus, a boat building exercise, and a hefty dose of barking mad officials.
A fair amount of this book is spent introducing Sergeant Niall Kennedy, and that, and the ending to this tale, means this reader has to assume that this will be the first book in a series. Because of that backstory concentration, and probably also because this isn't a traditional crime / investigation style book, there are points where the narrative does wander a little, or maybe get a little fuzzy, but that is not so surprising in a first book, and the difference in approach could impose that style. MOSQUITO CREEK relies more on developing a sense of place and a feeling of the time. It's a book for immersion reading - rather than pace, tension or even to some degree puzzle solving.
It's interesting to see something different being tried in local crime fiction, and the period and location definitely appeal. Where MOSQUITO CREEK really excels is in that evocation of the place, the time and the setting. It gives a realistic glimpse into the physicality of the Goldfields, alongside many more human elements. Obsession, Machiavellian revenge plots, politics and tensions within the Goldfields, differing groups of miners (on ethnic lines, but also some form of convenient tribal alliance), and the difficulties in building a Policing Authority from elements of free society and the convict community. Really, there's too little current day fiction being published set within this most influential place and time, and hopefully there will be followups to MOSQUITO CREEK.
THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE - Lucy Sussex (ed)
'To fall asleep and dream dreams that change as quickly as the forms in an unsteady kaleidoscope, and to awaken with a bewildered feeling that you are not yourself but have changed places with some other identity, must be a sensation akin to that I experienced when I opened my eyes in the morning after my first sleep on the diggings.'
First published by Penguin in 1989 THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE wasn't the easiest book to track down. In fact it took a lot of driving across the Goldfields region of Victoria to get my hands on a copy, which is somewhat appropriate given that the Central Goldfields is one of the locations that Mary Fortune wrote so much about.
THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE is edited by Lucy Sussex who is undoubtedly the expert on a woman who deserves a wider audience and considerably more acknowledgement for both the quality of her writing as well as for her historic place in Australian literary history.
From the book blurb: "Little is known of Mary Fortune. She kept her identity secret by writing under the names of Waif Wander or W.W.. Arriving in Australia with her young son, she supported herself by writing about life on the goldfields and in the cities. She became Australia's first female writer of crime fiction."
The book is made up of a series of stories that Mary Fortune wrote - Part One is subtitled The Memoirs: Twenty-six years ago or The Diggings from '55. This is made up of stories that set in Arrival in Melbourne, Kangaroo Flat (now a suburb of Bendigo), Buninyong (now a suburb of Ballarat), Chinaman's Flat and Inkerman in and around the general area of Maryborough Victoria.
The second part of the book is subtitled The Journalism - Fourteen Days on the Road, Looking for Lodgings, How I Spent Christmas, Down Bourke Street, Towzer and Co, The Spider and the Fly.
Each of these stories evolve around crimes and people, detection by observation and interaction, whilst being firmly set in the time and the place. You get such a wonderful feeling of the goldfields, the difficulties of living in such harsh circumstances, and the people - the miners and the shopkeepers, the police and the criminals. You also get a real feel for the thinking / the prejudices and the humanity of the people involved. You're also allowed very small glimpses of the life of Mary Fortune herself, albeit dressed up / disguised just enough as she did with her own identity.
There's nothing like a quest in life, and there's something very satisfying about a quest involving Australian literature by a little known pioneering literary woman. If you've not read any of Mary Fortune's work then I can highly recommend a quest to track down a copy of THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE.
THREE MURDER MYSTERIES - Mary Fortune
Three 'Murder Mysteries' are examples of Mary Fortune's great skill in writing 'detective fiction' at this early period when the genre was in the beginning stages of a now popular form of fiction. The three stories are introduced by Lucy Sussex.
THREE MURDER MYSTERIES by Mary Fortune is an absolute little treasure of a book and I feel so grateful to Lucy Sussex for her pursuit of Mary's story and her writing, and for getting this wonderful little book published.
Mary Fortune had over five hundred crime stories published, all set in Australia. In 1871 a collection of these were published under the title The Detective's Album - a book which is now very very rare and very very expensive.
The three stories that Lucy has chosen to be incorporated in this little book are wonderful examples of not only Mary Fortune's skill as a writer, but how good crime fiction doesn't age. The themes of these stories are as valid now as they were in the late 1800's when they were written.
IN THE CELLAR is set in the goldfields in and around Maryborough in Victoria, THE HART MURDER in the fledgling farming world of early Victoria whilst THE PHANTOM HEARSE takes the reader into the city (and raises the tantalising prospects of ghosts on the streets of Melbourne!).
Not only are these short stories which are clever in their execution, they are extremely entertaining. Touches of a puzzle for the reader to solve, they explore the same sorts of social issues that we are still dealing with today. There is also a light touch of humour in some.
Leaving aside the tale of Mary Fortune herself, THREE MURDER MYSTERIES is made up of three wonderful short stories from the beginnings of the genre in Australia.