Thrills in the hands of women

6 August 2021

We’re about to be introduced to four debut crime and thriller writers – and they’re all West Australian women.

Over the next three months, a quartet of Perth women join the ranks of WA fiction as crime and thriller writers with their debut novels.

Published by Fremantle Press, they showcase an engaging variety of styles, varying amounts of humour, death and thrills.

It’s also a refreshing and timely reminder that interesting stories happen in our backyard too, rather than leaving bigger cities to be literary heroes. These books are packed with places, spaces, references and moments we recognise. Karen Herbert’s The River Mouth draws on a childhood spent in a small regional town, lawyer Lisa Ellery approaches her knowledge of WA’s legal system and suits on the Terrace with wry humour in Private Prosecution, and Sally Scott’s journalist in Fromage discovers that Margaret River wine and cheese sometimes come with a side of murder. And though Zoe Deleuil’s The Night Village walks the streets of London, the story is packed with the close observations of an expat.

These books are packed with places, spaces, references and moments we recognise.

Fremantle Press publisher Georgia Richter says she’s not sure why the imprint’s female crime writers have all arrived at once. Mostly it’s just a happy coincidence.

“We have certainly been on the lookout for a while and we are delighted by this confluence and to be adding to the very well-regarded list of Western Australian female crime writers,” she says. “It’s a great time to be a female crime writer and readers are hungry for works that are delivered from the perspective of female protagonists and for victims that are not necessarily women.”

It’s a common plot line in crime fiction to have a female victim and a male perpetrator. While this trope reflects one way violence occurs in our society, Richter says that type of crime writing must be delivered with the utmost care because violence written can reinforce an idea as much as lay a truth bare.

“While I am hesitant to generalise, I think that female writers sometimes choose to stay away from this predictable dichotomy, and as a result crime writing by women can feel more free, less predictable, more subversive and also more playful, including the way that male and female heroes, villains and victims are written.”

…crime writing by women can feel more free, less predictable, more subversive and also more playful…

She loves how each of the writers has brought their own life experience, interests and personalities to bear on the books.

A headshot of Zoe Deleuil. She is positioned at right angles to the camera and turns her head to the lens. She has wavy hair tied back, with some strands left out to frame her face. She wears glasses, a white scarf with a red pattern and a grey top.
Zoe Deleuil. Photo: Jan Radke

Zoe Deleuil’s The Night Village is an unsettling thriller set in London. Her main character Simone is a new mother who pines for her home in Perth.

Now based in Berlin with her husband and two sons, Deleuil drew on missing Perth and used the birth of her boys to give her a base to intimately describe how a new mother feels right after the birth of her first child. She then heard plenty of stories on mum forums, which helped her round out Simone’s isolation and desperation, while other aspects of the book’s bleakness were inspired by world affairs, channelled into the shrunken world of a new mum.

Deleuil told a friend she was going to write a book and decided it was a good opportunity to dig in and remember the decade she spent in London. Deleuil has a communications degree and a masters in creative writing and has worked as an editor and freelance writer, so her proclamation didn’t come out of the blue. In fact, The Night Village manuscript was shortlisted for the City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 2018 while an earlier manuscript was shortlisted in 2012 and also longlisted for The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award.

“I did take a lot of liberties in the book, but I loved going back to London in my head. When you leave a place it’s gone, your whole life there is gone and the book was a way to go back over it,” she says.

“Once I started going down that path is was easy to create a narrative that focused on the less positive aspects of someone’s experience of London.”

Among the lovely pieces of light in The Night Village are the characters Simone meets as she pushes the pram – the random people who give her understanding looks, words of encouragement when the baby is screaming or a place to quietly breastfeed. These fleeting moments mean the world to Simone and, remind the reader of the importance and beauty of a simple kindness. And how we’re all doing the best we can.

The power of Deleuil’s writing comes in everything just feeling a little off kilter. Simone is vulnerable and her boyfriend is making many of the right noises but isn’t quite present.

The power of Deleuil’s writing comes in everything just feeling a little off kilter.

Three of these four books are set in Western Australia and while Deleuil’s book isn’t, her main character is clearly an Aussie and laments not being here, while looking to Perth as a safe haven.

“As someone who grew up on the East Coast, I understand how the west side of the continent is often simply not part of one’s imaginative landscape,” says Richter. “Crime novels often feature place as a kind of character in its own right.

“When this occurs in a vivid, tightly plotted context, it’s a great way to fill in some of the geographic blanks readers may have in their mental maps about their own country, be that Perth, the lush (and cheese-filled) South-West or the vast rivers and reef-filled oceans in the north.

“Western Australia is a picture-postcard place but it can also use its wide-open spaces and ancient landscapes to lean into the gothic or to keep long-held secrets. It’s a great place to set a crime and it makes for entertaining reading too.”

Karen Herbert sits on the sand. Behind her is coastal scrub. The has bobbed blonde hair that is blowing in the wind and wears a casual white shirt and black pants. Her hands are clasped and rest on her bent knees. She looks directly at the camera with a slight smile.
Karen Herbert

In The River Mouth, Karen Herbert paints a picture many people who grew up in WA might recognise – a small regional town and close-knit community. There’s the coast, a river and plenty of bush; all places ripe for exploring and adventuring. In her case, the Weymouth River and the surrounding areas were inspired by a childhood in Geraldton.

Herbert started writing about the memory of a rope swing which careered out over a river and she kept writing. The rope swing ended up in chapter four in the story of a 15-year-old boy who is killed and somehow the DNA underneath his fingers matches his mother Sandra’s late best friend. Digging reveals a town with many secrets – and not always the ones you want to uncover.

“My sisters and I used to free range and wander and the area was a bit wild,” Herbert remembers fondly. “There are lots of pieces of me in this book. I wanted to show Sandra’s exhaustion. She’s drunk the Kool-Aid on having it all and is pretty tired at 50.

“That exhaustion seems to seep into so many places. With the Indigenous people in the town, who are so much worse off, Sandra sees them but I wonder if she has the energy to make sense of it all when she is feeling so tired herself. I want to explore that more, as empathy seems to be a casualty of our busy world.”

Western Australia is a picture-postcard place but it can also use its wide-open spaces and ancient landscapes to lean into the gothic or to keep long-held secrets.

An aged care executive in her mid-50s who was made redundant a couple of years ago, Herbert decided it was time to tell some stories. For the next three months she sat down at her desk every day and wrote. That delivered the draft of her second book Cast Aways (which comes out next year).

“I didn’t think I was a person for a big mid-career change,” she says. “But once I started writing, I really liked the lifestyle and being less stressed.” Herbert now works two days a week in an HR position and writes for the rest of the time.

The River Mouth was such fun to write and I think writing is making me look at the world differently. It never occurred to me to set the story anywhere else. The setting here is so compelling and local readers will know how the road smells when it rains in summer or when the hairy caterpillars come out.”

The Night Village is out now, Private Prosecution is released on 1 September, The River Mouth and Fromage will be published on 1 October through Fremantle Press.

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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