On the New South Side of the Border*

In 1770, Captain James Cook and his crew arrived at Botany Bay, New South Wales. His voyage had profound impacts on the region and helped change the course of global geopolitics. New South Wales has changed drastically since that time, but it’s still a breathtakingly beautiful place with a rich history and a lot to love about it. Little wonder there’s been so much great crime fiction that takes place there.

In Jock Serong’s Preservation, we are introduced to Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, who lives and works in Sydney. It’s 1797, and Grayling has been assigned a strange case to investigate. A ship called the Sydney Cove wrecked near what is now Tasmania. Seventeen crew members survived the wreck, but only three have made it all the way to their original destination of Sydney Harbour; William Clark (supercargo of the ship); his manservant; and Mr. Figge (a tea merchant who was a passenger). All three men are in terrible physical condition, and badly need rest and medical attention. As they begin to heal, Grayling interviews them and looks to find other information that might explain what happened to the crew. It’s a sad, dark story, and gives the reader a perspective on the customs, the challenges, and life both at sea and on land during these years.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River takes place about thirty years after Cook’s voyage. William Thornhill is a poor London bargeman who can barely feed his family. One day, he gives in to temptation and steals a load of wood he can later sell. He’s caught and sentenced to transportation to Australia. Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children land at Botany Bay and make plans to start over. Thornhill gets a job delivering goods by barge; Sal opens a makeshift pub. Then one day, Thornhill spots a piece of land on the Hawkesbury River – land that would make the perfect place to build a home for his family. This will set him directly against the Aborigines, who’ve already been there for many thousands of years. It also sets up a real dilemma. Since he’s a white man, Thornhill is expected to take the side of his fellow white newcomers in any conflict with the Aborigines. However, he has no taste for the cruelty and bloodletting that some of the whites have committed, and he doesn’t want to join them. Still, he wants that land, and he knows how hard it would be to go it alone, without allies. This novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel. But many crimes are committed in the story, and it’s an interesting look at life in New South Wales at that time.

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair series begins with A Few Right Thinking Men. It’s 1931, and the Great Depression has hit Australia hard. There’s real strife in New South Wales as the debate about the state’s future rages. Some support a right-wing government that they believe will establish law and order and focus on stamping out the unrest caused by troublemakers. Others support a more left-wing government that will represent the poor and rural citizens of New South Wales. Within this uneasy context, Rowly lives a rather privileged life; his family has been one of the lucky wealthy families that has escaped largely intact from the ravages of the Depression. He’s not a particularly political person, although he has liberal sympathies. But he’s drawn into politics when his uncle, also named Rowland Sinclair, is found murdered. There’s a possibility that the murderer can be found among the members of a far-right group that’s trying to assume leadership in New South Wales. To find out if that’s true, Rowly decides to penetrate the group and see what he can learn. That’s going to prove more dangerous than it seems…

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls begins in the summer of 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan goes to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle, Doug and Barbara Griffin, and her cousins, Jane and Mick. There’s not a lot to do in their small suburb of Sydney, so Angela, Mick, and Mick’s friends spend their share of time playing pinball at the local drugstore. One afternoon, Angela goes to play pinball and doesn’t return. She’s later found dead with a scarf wrapped around her head. The police investigate, concentrating at first on the family. There are no good leads, though. Then, another young girl, Kelly McIvor, is also found dead, also with a scarf around her. The police link that case to Angela’s death and start searching for a person the press calls the Sydney Strangler. That doesn’t go very far, though, and eventually the case goes cold. Nearly 40 years later, a documentary filmmaker named Erin Fury decides to do a project about families of murder victims, and how they’ve fared. She gets reluctant permission to interview Angela’s family, and as she does, we gradually learn what really happened to the dead girls.  There are, of course, many other novels and series that take place in Sydney. For instance, there’s Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy series, and Kathryn Fox’s Anya Crichton series.

But there’s lots more to New South Wales than Sydney. For example, Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice takes place in the Blue Mountains. Thea Farmer is a former high school principal who had her dream home built in those mountains.  But bad luck and poor planning have forced her to sell that home and move into the smaller home next door – a house she calls the Hovel. Matters get worse when Frank Campbell and Ellyce Carrington buy the home Thea still considers hers. She has nothing but contempt for them, referring to them as the Invaders. Then, Frank’s niece Kim comes to live with her uncle. Thea is prepared to thoroughly dislike Kim, but finds herself forming an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. She even has Kim accompany her to her writing group, and sees real promise in her as a writer. So when Thea comes to suspect that Fran and Ellyce are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, she decides to do something about it. The local police can’t or won’t look into the matter, so Thea makes her own plans…

Whether your taste runs to bushwalking in the Blue Mountains, surfing and tanning on Bondi Beach, learning about Australia’s past, or first-class food and wine, New South Wales has something you’ll probably love. Just as soon as we all can travel again. Little wonder there’s so much good crime fiction set there.

ps. Many thanks to Travelmyne.com for this lovely ‘photo of the Blue Mountains


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Bobkatz Little River Town (Howlong).


8 thoughts on “On the New South Side of the Border*

  1. The Secret River has been on my TBR for so long it must be due to appear in a People’s Choice vote soon! I can add one to your historical journey – The Silence by Susan Allott, set in Sydney in a dual timeline of 1967 and 1997. In the later timeline, the police are investigating the disappearance of a woman back in 1967. At the time, no one thought she’d disappeared – they thought she’d just moved away. But now the police have reason to think she may have died back then. The story looks at the issue of Aboriginal children being removed from their families in order to “integrate” them into white culture. Review soon, but I’ll give you a spoiler – it’s very good!


    1. Oooh, that does sound terrific, FictionFan! The premise is interesting, and the issue of Aboriginal children being removed is, sadly, a very real part of history. That sounds like an interesting perspective on some of the consequences of that policy. Don’t tell anyone, but I may just have to consider putting that one on the wish list. In the meantime, I do think The Secret River is good. Grenville did the research, so the story feels authentic (at least to me), and it’s an interesting picture of life in that place at that time. I liked the fact that she didn’t gloss over some of the issues, nor did she oversimplify some complex and difficult problems. Everyone’s different, of course, and your mileage may vary. But I enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Margot: You have listed some fine Australian fiction. I have not read any of those books. I have read Death of a Swagman by Arthur Upfield in which Napoleon Bonaparte goes to the southwest corner of New South Wales near the geographical feature of the Walls of China to investigate a murder months after the killing. Most interesting to me was how skillfully he went undercover.


    1. Thanks, Bill. And thanks for mentioning Death of a Swagman I enjoyed that book, too, and it does describe New South Wales quite well. I liked the way Bony went undercover, too, and maintained that guise as well as he did.


    1. If you do read The Precipice, Neeru, I’ll be very interested in what you think of it. It’s an unusual book, and has a fascinating protagonist.


    1. I have a whole list of those authors, Col. That said, though, I do recommend Serong’s work. I think you’d like it.


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