Three suspicious-looking characters: me, Stephen Knight and Lucy Sussex. (I only got back from the USA that morning, so I wasn’t quite at my best!) In between us is the cover of the new edition of MURDER IN THE TELEPHONE EXCHANGE by June Wright, which was first published in 1948. Following is a press release by Carmel Shute:
Queen of Australian Crime Rediscovered: (Re)launch of June Wright’s Murder in the Telephone Exchange, Sun Theatre, 10 Ballarat Street, Yarraville, 4pm Sunday 27 April
Murder in the Telephone Exchange, the long neglected 1948 crime novel of Melbourne-born June Wright, is set to win a new generation of fans, thanks to its reissue by US publisher Verse Chorus Press in April. Murder in the Telephone Exchange, Wright’s debut novel, was remarkable for its ‘scene of the crime’ (a central telephone exchange), the murder weapon (a ‘buttinsky’, a piece of equipment used to listen in on phone calls) and its setting (Melbourne). According to Wright, it was the first detective novel set in Melbourne since Fergus Hume’s Mystery of the Hansom Cab was published in 1886. Wright drew on her own experiences at Melbourne Central Telephone Exchange from 1939 to 1941 to create the richly detailed plot with a telephonist sleuth. In 1948, Murder in the Telephone Exchange was the best-selling mystery in Australia, sales outstripping even those of the reigning queen of crime, Agatha Christie. Wright went on to publish five more top-quality mysteries over the next two decades – including three featuring the irrepressible nun detective, Mother Paul – while at the same time raising six children, one of whom was severely intellectually disabled.
When Wright died two years ago at the age of 92, her books were largely forgotten and very hard to find, despite the praise she received at the time and the championing of her work in such recent surveys of the field as Stephen Knight‘s Continent of Mystery. All that’s about to change as Dark Passage, a Verse Chorus imprint, is republishing all of Wright’s novels, including a previously unpublished mystery, Duck Season Death, due out later in the year. Both these books include extended introductions by Derham Groves, a Melbourne academic and crime aficionado. The other five novels will follow at intervals over the next two years. Sisters in Crime Australia is joining forces with the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville to re-launch Murder in the Telephone Exchange – 4pm Sunday 27 April – Sun Theatre, 10 Ballarat Street, Yarraville (Melbourne).
Speakers at the launch include crime fiction historians Lucy Sussex and Stephen Knight, Derham Groves and Wright’s eldest son, Patrick. All crime fans are welcome to attend. Sussex, who interviewed Wright in the 1990s whilst working as a researcher for Knight’s history of Australian crime fiction, says: “Wright was a type of woman I met often from the generation born in the early twentieth century: highly articulate, clever, toughened by the experience of the Great Depression and a World War, but doomed to the domestic sphere. She had it worst than most, with six children. Her writing was a means of keeping her sanity, regaining respect via self-expression. She was a housewife literary superstar before Edna, and people loved her for it. Wright chronicled Melbourne and women’s lives with great acuteness. She believed in her writing, but never was a pushy author. Rather in person she could be self-deprecating, as a defensive weapon. But like her writing she was observant, intelligent and also charming.”
Knight, who is currently Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne, says that in 1948 Wright began a career notable in two ways. “She was the first Australian crime writer to take seriously the idea that a woman can play a major role in detecting crime – and internationally one of the first to see that role as not merely enacting female stereotypes. But Wright also, just as unusually, experimented through her novels with the form and structure of the crime novel to release in the best way her proto-feminist instincts. Murder in the Telephone Exchange is a very capable classic mystery, notable both for being set in a large city – Melbourne – and also for the practical way in which Maggie Byrnes, quick-witted young telephonist, goes about her inquiries.”
Groves has long admired Wright, in 2008 curating an exhibition, Murderous Melbourne, which featured the work of Wright and another largely forgotten Australian crime writer, S.H. Courtier. He says Wright’s books are “distinguished by finely drawn settings in and around Melbourne, Victoria, feisty female protagonists and credible social situations, and in my opinion, they thoroughly deserve a contemporary reappraisal.” In his introduction to Murder in the Telephone Exchange, Groves recounts the story of Wright’s second book, So Bad a Death, originally entitled Who Would Murder a Baby? When challenged by the editor of the Australasian Post, she declared: “Obviously you know nothing of the homicidal instincts sometimes aroused in a mother by her children. After a particularly exasperating day, it is a relief to murder a few characters in your book instead.”
Wright’s son Patrick, a retired university lecturer now living in Newport, says: “For my granddaughters I hold June up as a role model of someone who had a dream, claimed their talent, and with courage, application, focus, hard work and resilience achieved their dream, something worthwhile.” Wright stopped writing crime fiction to earn a regular salary when her husband Stewart became unable to work. She returned to the telephones, this time at the TAB, where she worked for six years. Stewart later established a cleaning business, and Wright retrained in business to assist him until his death in 1989.