Crime fiction fan and Balaclava resident Carmel Shute - former communist and union organiser, and devoted bibliophile - traces her feminist origins to the appalling behaviour of regional Queensland school boys some 60 years ago.
“I found out that boys were taking grade eight girls into the tool room and basically molesting them,” Shute told *PS Port Phillip.
This was in Imbil, a town of a few hundred people about 40km south of Gympie in the southeast of the Sunshine State.
She figured “the girls should know how to defend themselves”, and so organised for her female classmates to take self-defence classes with a local farmer.
It was at the newsagent in Gympie that a 10-year-old Shute purchased her first piece of mystery fiction, using money she had saved from writing to The Gympie Times column for kids Uncle Gym.
She said: “It was Five Go Adventuring Again, which is the second in the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton [first published in 1942]. I bought it in the early sixties for nine and six.”
Nine and six being the equivalent of 95 cents, “which was quite a lot of money back then”.
“That set my whole life on its current trajectory,” recalled Shute, who founded the Sisters in Crime Australia group in 1991. A life obsessed with crime fiction, and one where any spare coin went straight into filling bookshelves."
Sisters in Crime Australia was created with the goal of celebrating women’s crime writing and bringing a “collective critical eye to the field”. It welcomes not only “sisters-in-crime” but “brothers-in-law”. Shute is Secretary and a current co-convenor.
On Saturday members will descend upon the Rising Sun Hotel in South Melbourne for the 29th Scarlet Stiletto awards, which celebrates the best in women’s crime fiction short stories.
Shute’s extensive home library contains thousands of books, and includes what is likely one of the best collections of crime fiction written by women.
As she prepares to relocate to a retirement village, most of the books in her collection have been donated to the Footscray Mechanics’ Institute. Five Go Adventuring Again is not among those she has parted with.
Shute, the daughter of a cleaner mother and school teacher father, was inspired to start the Australian chapter of Sisters in Crime after finding out about crime writer Sara Paretsky’s group of the same name in the United States.
In 1984 Shute had bought Paretsky’s first book, 1982’s Indemnity Only, from Melbourne’s New International Bookshop, where her partner Ken was working at the time.
She and Ken met through the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which Shute joined in the 1970s when she was still in Queensland. She signed up partly due to her ties to the union movement, but also because of a disconnect with the conservative politics of the Queensland Labor Party at the time.
“[The CPA] had embraced feminism, gay rights and environmentalism,” which appealed to this young progressive. “That’s not to say it was perfect or anything, but had it not embraced all those new social movements, I wouldn’t have joined.”
In 1990 Shute travelled to Montreal to present a paper on women in the trade union movement at a conference.
Whilst in North America, she interviewed five authors involved in the crime fiction scene.
“It was the first time - and I thought it might be the last time - I'd ever get to go to America … So while I was there I interviewed women who were part of a new wave of crime fiction.”
The interviews formed the basis of a program for Radio National, which went to air on Good Friday in 1991. Shute said the show received a huge response from the audience.
“After that we decided we should set up Sisters in Crime in Australia.”
Among the members are some of Australia’s most celebrated crime writers, including Kerry Greenwood, author of the Phryne Fisher series. The series has been adapted into the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries TV series for the ABC.
Shute said: “Kerry was part of a new breed of Australian crime writers and now she’s gone on to become a global sensation.”
The Scarlet Stiletto Awards are open to authors of short crime stories, with the winner taking home a trophy – a scarlet stiletto shoe with a steel stiletto heel plunging into a mount.
$12,365 in prize money is on offer.
“We thought it would be a really good name, as it follows in the tradition of the gold and silver dagger.” The gold and silver daggers are awards given out by the Crime Writers’ Association in the United Kingdom.
In early Sisters in Crime meetings Shute discovered she wasn’t the only Trekkie.
“The co-convenors would meet on a Tuesday night, and we’d all be looking at our watches to make sure the meeting ended on time. Later on we worked out we were all trying to make sure we made it home to watch Star Trek at 11pm.
“So later on, we also ended up forming a separate group called the Sisters in Space to attend Star Trek movie showings."
Some of Carmel Shute's favourite books:
Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only (1982): This was the first book in the V.I. Warshawski series, and was one of the first in the wave of feminist crime fiction to galvanise women readers all over the world. It also changed my life as Paretsky went on to form Sisters in Crime at the 1986 Bouchercon, the world’s most prestigious mystery and detective convention.
Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues (1989): The first in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series was terribly exciting – a 1920s flapper sleuth who was smart, adventurous, had great politics, wore to-die-for clothes, and had a love life we’d kill for. She spoke at Sisters in Crime Australia’s launch debate in 1991, became a founding member, and is now a global sensation thanks to her books, which have subsequently spawned a TV series and film. Her 22nd Phryne book, Murder in Williamstown, has just been published.
Dorothy Porter, The Monkey’s Mask (1994): Dorothy’s full length crime novel in verse bowled us over. Such a command of language and plot. No wonder the ABC produced a four-part drama based on the book. We were devastated when she died, far too young, of breast cancer, in 2008.
Kimberley Starr, The Map of Night (2022): This unconventional crime novel has no murder but the suspense is killing. A woman astronomer falls down an abandoned mining shaft in the Yarra Valley and nobody, bar her daughter, appears to be concerned. While she hopes to be rescued and has to drink arsenic-contaminated water, all that she has to contemplate is the night sky. The lyrical writing is compelling – and epitomises the broad church of contemporary crime writing.