After a couple of failed attempts, I’m delighted to finally be able to feature one of my favourite crime reviewers here. Bernadette is joining us all the way from Australia, the land that book publishing forgot, as she humorously says on her blog Reactions to Reading. In an effort to improve international knowledge of Australian crime fiction, she also runs a blog called Fair Dinkum Crime and you can find her on Twitter too.
How did you get hooked on crime fiction?
I guess I can thank (or blame?) a combination of my mum and the librarian at our local branch of the Mechanics’ Institute (it didn’t become a Council operated public library until I was a teenager). Mum always took my brother and me along on her weekly trips to the library, so from early on I became as voracious a reader as she was. Early on I read the Famous Five and Bobbsey Twins, although apparently I derided these at an early age declaring them not to be criminal enough. I then moved on to Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew, but it wasn’t long before I’d exhausted the kids’ stuff. So Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nero Wolfe and Dick Francis followed. I’ve dabbled with other genres over the years – including a pretty intense horror phase in my teens – but I always make my way back to crime fiction.
Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
I used to say I give anything a go but that’s not really true anymore. If it ever was. I avoid some subjects all together – gangsters and mafia storylines top of the list – and am very choosy these days about reading books featuring serial killers. I guess it’s still possible that someone will come up with a new take on that trope but most of what I see is derivative and boring. I also avoid books that feature ‘too much’ gratuitous violence. I know that defining ‘too much’ is subjective but I am heartily sick of reading about the hacked up bodies of women (‘cos in the types of books I’m thinking of it is almost always women who are tortured and mutilated).
Other than the above-mentioned things, I try to read a mixture of subgenres but my heart will always be won over by a story with a point. I love a good yarn, and even more one that explores some political or social issue. Books that show me some aspect of life I am unfamiliar with or take me into some part of the world I’ve never been to (even those close to my backyard) or make me think differently about a topical subject are the sort of thing I look for these days.
What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?
I’ve had a really great reading year so far but if pushed to choose just one I’d have to say Malla Nunn’s Present Darkness is the most memorable. Malla Nunn migrated to Australia from South Africa many years ago (lucky for us) but she sets her books in the country of her birth in the early days of apartheid. Present Darkness is the fourth book in her series and while I’ve thought its predecessors all excellent this one was her best yet. It does exactly what I was talking about earlier – it really gives readers a glimpse of the day-to-day grind and fear and inhumanity of being a black person living under that regime. Plus it’s a helluva yarn.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
I’ve spent way too long thinking about this question. Way, way too long. The likelihood of me actually being stuck on a deserted island after having had an opportunity to select some books to take along is really, really tiny. So I know my answer doesn’t actually matter. But still…
For a while my answer was going to be Dick Francis. I have a soft spot for this author, partly due to him being one of my mum’s favourites. For years each time he had a new book out, we would both get hold of a copy and compare notes as quickly as we could. The other part of my fondness is due to the global availability of his books. When I was young and un-arthritic I did a fair bit of backpacking and the biggest problem was finding something to read (I am woefully monolingual). Even when travelling there is lots of down time but in a pre-Kindle world you couldn’t carry a dozen or more books. I have scoured newsstands and second-hand stalls in many countries of the world and can report that if you’re looking for something to read in English in some far-flung part of the globe you can just about guarantee to find novels by Barbara Cartland and Dick Francis (or at least you could in the late 80’s and 90’s when I was abroad). As I’ve never been a romance reader, I always opted for the Francis books and I am eternally grateful to his global appeal.
But I have read them all multiple times so think I would want something a bit fresher on my island sojourn. It is tempting to opt for a long series that I’ve never started – maybe Ed McBain’s 87th St. precinct novels for example – but what if I don’t like even the first one? How depressing to be stuck on an island with plenty to read and no motivation to do so.
So after way too much thought I’ve decided to opt for the novels of Reginald Hill. I’ve read enough of them to know that I like his style a great deal but some would be completely new to me and even those that would be re-reads are still fresh enough. If I were allowed two series/sets of authors I’d throw in the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I’ve only read 2 or 3 of these and very much want to read them all. But there are only 10 and they’re very thin. Not bulky enough for a long stint on a deserted island.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
I’ve just put all six books shortlisted for this year’s Petrona Award on hold at the library. In recent years I have thoroughly enjoyed expanding my reading horizons via the explosion in translated crime novels from across the globe. But I have a soft spot for this award named in honour of a fellow crime fiction lover who passed away far too soon. Her love of good quality crime fiction in translation has been ably honoured by the previous shortlists and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into this year’s selection.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I love historical fiction and not only the kind that involves murder. I think the book I’ve recommended most over the years is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders: plague, a strong female character, a not so subtle dig at religious hypocrisy – what more could you ask for?
Thank you so much, Bernadette, for your very amusing and candid observations; it’s certainly been worth the wait. I love the fact that all of my interviewees seem to assume a lengthy stay on a deserted island and are very much afraid of running out of reading material. As for me, I’d be terrified that I get rescued too soon and don’t have enough time to read everything!
What do you think of Bernadette’s choices? It reminds me that I certainly must read Malla Nunn, about whom I’ve heard such good things. You can see previous respondents in the series here and for future interviewees: well, you know the drill… Please let me know if you’d like to participate. I’m always eager to hear your recommendations.