Reflecting the Detectives: Crime Fiction and the New Journalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Australia

By Weaver, Rachael | Australian Literary Studies, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Reflecting the Detectives: Crime Fiction and the New Journalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Australia


Weaver, Rachael, Australian Literary Studies


WHEN Fergus Hume's overweight and overly methodical detective, Gorby, in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, visits the home of society bachelor Brian Fitzgerald to question his housekeeper, Mrs Sampson, regarding 'Mr Fitzgerald's habits,' she is immediately suspicious (Hume 68). But far from imagining that Gorby is a private detective seeking to establish a charge of murder against her employer, she accuses him of being a journalist. Gorby's methods of soliciting information, his purposeful demeanour, and his evasiveness regarding his intentions alert her to the idea that his business was producing articles 'about people who don't want to see themselves in print' (68). To a large degree Mrs Sampson's confusion of the role of the journalist and the detective is an understandable ease of mistaken identity, representing a much broader pattern in the relationships between journalism and detective fiction that became increasingly pronounced throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. This essay will trace the growing connections between the two forms of writing in relation to two examples of detective fiction produced in Melbourne in the late 1880s--Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab and The Murder of Madeline Brown by journalist Francis Adams--and the crime reportage surrounding Australia's most famous nineteenth-century murder case, known at the time of its detection in March 1892 as 'the Windsor tragedy'.

The intense, international media sensation that surrounded the Windsor murder provides an ideal opportunity for investigating popular print culture in late-nineteenth-century Australia. The case's relative obscurity today is perhaps indicative of a more general critical neglect of ephemeral, sensational forms of literary production, a neglect that belies the centrality of a popular, sub-literary fascination with true crime to the lived experience of the times. The discovery of the naked, badly decomposed body of a woman beneath the hearthstone of a house in the suburb of Windsor on 3 March 1892 was met with a widespread popular fascination that continued to escalate as further details of the case came to light. Following the discovery of that unnamed corpse--with its gaping skull and cleanly-sliced throat--it emerged that the Windsor murder was just one episode in the remarkable criminal career of Frederick Bailey Deeming (alias Albert Williams, Mr Drewn, Francis Dobson, Baron Swanston and many other pseudonyms), an international jewel thief, conman, serial bigamist and killer with a host of assumed identities and professions.

The national press seized upon the case from the beginning. Daily and weekly newspapers rivalled each other to produce the most startling reports, maintaining constant coverage of the search for Deeming and his arrest and trial, obsessively updating the details of his nefarious history of travel, deception and crime. Beyond the reports that dominated each day's press and gave rise to many extraordinary editions throughout the autumn months of 1892, newspapers worked to collate the history of the case as it emerged, providing 'useful summaries' that emphasised the historic and cultural significance of the crimes. At least six book-length studies of the case were published in the weeks before and after Deeming's execution in May, some running to several editions, each embellished more extravagantly than the last. Their anonymous authors practiced a form of sub-literary bricolage that engaged diverse generic themes, mirroring a travel adventure one moment, a penny dreadful the next. However, the most frequently deployed motifs throughout the everyday reportage and the book-length 'histories' were drawn--often with great clumsiness--from detective fiction.

Of course, the relationship between crime journalism and detective fiction is historical and enduring. From the early detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe to the sensational 'newspaper novels' of Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and others in 1860s Britain, the two forms have been theoretically and stylistically linked. …

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