Ten of the Greatest Aussie Mysteries
The Australian landscape is known for being unforgiving. It’s vast, and a person can feel mighty isolated in some of the more regional areas. Plus, there’s the weather—from the relentless heat up north to the cool chill of Victoria and Tasmania—the large island country has it all. With all that space, you could say that it provides the perfect setting for a crime, especially if there is someone or something that you need to get rid of. The small fictional town of Smithson certainly provided the right kind of sprawling claustrophobia that I wanted my character DS Gemma Woodstock to experience in my book, The Dark Lake. For me it was important that the environment became a character of its own. Over the years, there have been many diverse Australian mysteries—both real and fictional—that have caught my attention. Here are some of my favorites.
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
A book that reads like a true-crime story, Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is an eerie, otherworldly masterpiece. It is a truly unique reading experience. A group of female students at a women’s college at the turn of the 20th century go missing at Hanging Rock on a Valentine’s Day picnic. The book explores the events leading up to their disappearance and the fallout their failure to be found has on the community. First published in 1967, it has an almost timeless quality, and the characters, though mysterious, virtually leap off the page, as does the Australian bush. The Peter Weir movie of the same name perfectly captured the tone of the book, further cementing the story’s place in Australian culture. The fact that Lindsay is alleged to have written the book over a fortnight in a creative frenzy after a series of vivid dreams makes the finished product all the more remarkable.
The Azaria Chamberlain Investigation
I wasn’t born when the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain made the headlines across Australia, but I certainly grew up hearing about the iconic case. During the ’80s, it seemed that everyone in Australia had an opinion about what happened to two-month-old Azaria at the Uluru campsite that fateful night. Lindy Chamberlain, Azaria’s mother, was sentenced to life imprisonment over the infant’s disappearance and murder. Her husband, Michael, was convicted as an accessory. It wasn’t until the chance discovery of Azaria’s baby jacket outside a dingo’s lair that Lindy was released after three years in jail and formally acquitted of all charges. In 2012, the coroner ruled that Azaria was taken and killed by a dingo, ending 32 years of doubt and speculation. The relentless media storm and nationwide judgment that the Chamberlains endured is a fascinating example of the way the public determines guilt and innocence on face value and has become part of Australian folklore.
The Dry by Jane Harper
The word drought summons up fear in all Australians who work the land. The financial and emotional strain drought puts on farmers is huge. In Harper’s The Dry, we’re forced to wonder whether Luke Hadler cracked under such pressure and murdered his family before turning the gun on himself. But if that were true, why did he spare his baby daughter? And why are his finances in good shape? Aaron Falk, Luke’s childhood friend, returns to the town and investigates. What follows is a whodunnit of the best kind, with a memorable cast of characters and the kind of twists that are both riveting and believable.
Big Little Lie by Liane Moriarty
Pirawee Public Primary School in New South Wales is the epicenter of Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, a story that covers everything from problematic teen and domestic violence to blended families, fancy real estate, and murder. The clever narration style means that we know someone has died right from the start; we just don’t know who, why, or how it happened. Moriarty is a master at catapulting readers into the lives of her characters and I could have spent a lot more time with Celeste, Jane, and Madeline. The TV series is definitely worth checking out, too.
An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire
I love crime thrillers and psychological mysteries and Maguire’s An Isolated Incident is this and so much more. It’s an astute observation about the way the media attaches itself to murder, especially if the victim is a beautiful woman. One of the things I liked most about the book was the character of Chris, the sister of murdered Bella. Her unique voice provides a firsthand account into the intense grief of a loved one, and the way she navigates her sister’s death in the small-town environment creates a palpable anxiety. Fighting traditional genre tropes, Maguire skillfully creates tension even though there is very little focus on the murder investigation itself.
Trace Podcast – The Murder of Maria James
Maria James was brutally murdered in her Melbourne bookstore in 1980. Her killer has never been found. Maria was divorced and her body was discovered by her ex-husband whom she had contacted on the morning of her death. They were on good terms and he was immediately cleared of any involvement in her death. Maria’s now adult sons are still deeply affected by her murder and desperately want their mother’s killer bought to justice. Earlier this year, journalist Rachael Brown launched her podcast Trace, the result of her painstakingly detailed investigation into Maria’s 40-year-old-murder. It makes for fascinating listening and as a result of its popularity, Maria’s cold case has since turned into somewhat of a live audience participation investigation. The Trace team has received several tip-offs, and subsequent episodes will provide updates into whether any of the new information can shed further light on what happened to Maria.
One of my favorite movies, Lantana, is a messy, sprawling 120 minutes of love, lies, and mystery. It starts with the disappearance of a woman. In investigating what happened to her, Detective Leon Zat uncovers a web of infidelity and ultimately is forced to confront his own relationships, especially his damaged marriage. It has shades of David Lynch but is less surreal. The sense of place—the “Aussie-ness”—virtually pings from the screen. It is complex, raw, and beautiful.
The disappearance of Harold Holt, Prime Minister of Australia
How can the leader of a country go missing? Odd as it may sound, that is exactly what happened in Australia on December 17, 1967. Holt went missing while swimming at Portsea Beach almost two years into his term as prime minister. His body has never been found. Investigators found nothing suspicious in his last movements. A routine domestic pattern had been followed and his behavior was normal. He was a strong swimmer but it was assumed that the turbulent conditions that day overcame him. Despite the ruling of accidental death, conspiracy theorists remain unsatisfied. Theories range from his being taken by spies and interrogated for political reasons, abducted by a Chinese submarine, or kidnapped by aliens to the good old-fashioned possibility that he ran off with his mistress. Regardless of what really happened to Holt, the colorful speculation has become somewhat of a national pastime.
Close Your Eyes by Michael Robotham
I was a bit late to the Michael Robotham party, but I have quickly made up for lost time. Though his books are not set in Australia, Robotham always guarantees a great read, and I particularly enjoyed Close Your Eyes, the most recent book in his Joe O’Loughlin series. While trying to reconnect with his ex-wife, Joe investigates the murders of a mother and her teenage daughter in a Somerset farmhouse. Before long, it is clear that the case is linked to a spate of other murders in the area and that Joe and his old friend Vincent Ruitz may have signed up for a lot more than they realized. I love the way Robotham weaves the criminal investigations with Joe’s always interesting personal life and I can’t wait for the next one.
Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra
Fictional Australia town Colmstrom is the setting for Snoekstra’s new book, Little Secrets, and the oppressive heat mixes well with the liters of beer her protagonist, Rose Blakely, finds herself pouring the locals night after night. Rose is an aspiring journalist desperate for her big break. Despite the fact that the town is reeling from a recent tragedy—the death of a young boy in a suspicious fire—Rose’s article submissions have so far led to a depressing pile of rejection letters. But when small porcelain dolls dressed to look like little girls from the town start turning up on doorsteps, Rose is convinced she finally has her story. With echoes of Gillian Flynn’s dark quirk, Snoekstra paints a small town in the throes of paranoia and despair, pulls us into a twisty gritty mystery, and, in Rose, has created a gutsy, memorable character.