Review - MURDER IN THE TELEPHONE EXCHANGE, June Wright
Before any rumours get started, when I read MURDER IN THE TELEPHONE EXCHANGE many years ago, it wasn't quite as far back as 1948! No idea where that copy sadly disappeared to, but the book was one of those Golden Era, mostly by female author's books that got me started on a life long love of Crime Fiction. Particularly if it has a very strong sense of place and time.
Which is something you really get from MURDER IN THE TELEPHONE EXCHANGE. For a start June Wright had worked in a telephone exchange herself, so she knew the "mechanics" of how the systems worked; and she obviously was a keen observer of her fellow workers, as she has been able to put together some excellent characterisations in this book. Given this was also her debut novel it's remarkably competent on a number of levels.
Of course, it is one of those Golden Era novels which means it's considerably more wordy and mannered than books written these days. There's also quite a strong sense of 1940's sensibility - with young working women seemingly focused on catching a husband, and much whispering behind hands about any "spinster's" in the group. What's less expected is an illicit love affair. Not that that sort of thing never went on, but it was quite surprising to come across even the suggestion of such in a book of this era. But there's a lot about this book that feels real and seems quite brave for the time. Of course that's combined with touches of the technicalities of how those exchanges worked which, for this reader, was actually quite interesting, as was the whole idea of so much work based facilities - canteens, sleeping facilities and so on. (Even in my early working days we were down to the twice daily tea lady only!)
The saddest part of the republishing of MURDER IN THE TELEPHONE EXCHANGE really has to be how long it's taken. June Wright's books deserve a considerably wider audience and really should be part of the whole Golden Era consideration. It's always amazed this reader just how much local crime fiction has been written, over such a long period of time and how much of it has slipped from notice - particularly, it seems, that of many of our female writers.
Dark Passage / Verse Chorus Press are republishing a range of June Wright's books - starting out with MURDER IN THE TELEPHONE EXCHANGE, followed, also in 2014 by a previously unpublished book DUCK SEASON DEATH. From there her remaining five Mother Paul books are scheduled to appear over the next two years. Hopefully this is the beginning of a resurgence of interest in both June Wright's writing, and in many of our other Golden Era writers who have slipped from the radar.
June Wright’s debut stars feisty young telephonist Maggie Byrnes. When one of her more unpopular colleagues at Melbourne Central is murdered – her head bashed in with a “buttinsky,” a piece of equipment used to listen in on phone calls – Maggie resolves to turn sleuth. A couple of her co-workers are acting strangely, and Maggie is convinced she has a better chance of figuring out who is responsible for the killing than the stodgy police team assigned to the case, who seem to think she herself might have had something to do with it. But then one of her friends is murdered too, and it looks like Maggie might be next in line.
Narrated with verve and wit, this is a mystery in the tradition of Dorothy L. Sayers, by turns entertaining and suspenseful, and building to a gripping climax. It also offers a marvellous account of life in Melbourne in the late 1940s, as young women like Maggie flocked to the big city, leaving behind small-town family life for jobs, boarding houses and independence.