Australian Crime writer Leigh Redhead spoke at Belfast’s “Setting the Scene” conference, organised by the ICRH at Queen’s University. Prior to embarking on her literary and academic career, she worked on a prawn trawler, as a waitress, exotic dancer, masseuse and apprentice chef. She burst onto the crime fiction scene in 2004 with Peepshow, which introduced the trouble-finding, fun-loving, ex-stripper, PI Simone Kirsch, to readers. Simone made her next appearance in Rubdown (2005), followed by Cherry Pie (2007) and Thrill City (2010). In 2005 and 2006 Leigh was one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists and also won the Sisters in Crime Davitt Reader’s Choice Award. She is currently working on the fifth Simone Kirsch book, as well as wrangling a couple of toddlers and completing a PhD at the University of Wollongong.
[Dominique Jeannerod] How would you introduce your novels to someone who had not yet read them?
[Leigh Redhead] Peepshow, Rubdown, Cherry Pie and Thrill City are a crime series set in Melbourne, Australia about stripper turned private investigator Simone Kirsch.
What are they about?
The novels follow Simone as she transitions from full time stripper to PI. Along the way she investigates cases that take place in strip clubs, legal and illegal brothels, the hospitality industry and even the literary world. Simone is a fun character to write, she’s cynical, funny, has trouble controlling herself when it comes to booze, men and violence, and is equal parts feminist, hard-boiled dick and femme fatale. As she doesn’t have any superhero-esque skills (Simone can’t take down a bar full of bikers with judo moves, hack into government databases or have sidekicks who can summon up vast arsenals of weapons to get her out of a jam) she has to use her wits and intelligence to solve her cases.
Why do you write Crime Fiction?
Probably because I love to read it, plus you can explore any theme or topic you’d cover in a literary novel, but you get to entertain people at the same time.
What was your first encounter with Crime Fiction?
I was obsessed with the Trixie Belden girl detective series when I was a kid: The antithesis of prissy, perfect Nancy Drew, Trixie was a grubby tomboy from the wrong side of the tracks who constantly messed up, but always solved the mystery in the end. My favourite book was The Secret of the Unseen Treasure in which Trixie and her mates stumbled across a dope crop hidden in a corn field, burnt some to have a smell, then got seriously busted for stinking of pot!
Now that I think about it, Simone is just like Trixie. If Trixie had grown up with a bunch of hippies and ended up working in a titty bar…
Over various periods of your life, who were the authors you read the most?
I spent my entire twenties totally addicted to crime fiction. If someone didn’t die a hideous death in the first fifty pages I didn’t want to know about it. I read all the serial killer books, Patricia Cornwell, Thomas Harris, but got sick of them pretty quick. I mean, where’s the motivation? The characters are serial killers. It’s just what they do. I became more interested in reading stories about ordinary people who resorted to crime – what was their motivation? What drove them to such extremes?
I dabbled in police procedurals, which were okay, but the characters, being cops, were a little straight for my liking. Then I got into PI books and I absolutely loved them. Peter Corris, Marele Day, Raymond Chandler, Sue Grafton, Sarah Paretsky, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais. I had the pleasure of working out not only who, but why, and after my upbringing I related to characters who often had to work outside the law. I liked noir thrillers for the same reason, but always wanted the femme fatale to win instead of being punished at the end.
Why did you write Peepshow, your first novel, and when, and how long did it take you?
I first started Peepshow in 2000, because I was working in peepshows in Melbourne and wanted to write about that world. I was pretty sick of how strippers are usually portrayed in books and on screen (generally getting cut up on the autopsy table). However I didn’t think I’d be capable of writing a crime novel as I assumed you needed to plot everything out first, and have spreadsheets and wallcharts with all your clues and red herrings, so I decided Peepshow should be a literary, young-stripper-comes-of-age type novel. I started writing it and it was terrible. Nothing happened beyond Simone lying around in the peeps pondering her Brazilian and her existential angst while she watched the interplay between the coloured lights and the mirrors in the peepshow booth.
Then I went to a Melbourne writer’s festival session with Robert Crais and Kinky Friedman called Why Write Crime and they said, why wouldn’t you? You can explore any theme or topic you’d cover in a literary novel, but you get to entertain people at the same time and have a better chance of selling some books. It was a bit of a light bulb moment. Why not make Simone a private investigator? So then I went and did the actual Certificate IV Inquiry Agents course for research, and I came up with the plot when I found out that a strip club boss had molested a couple of my friends. I was so angry I wanted to kill him, so I did the next best thing: fictionalised him and had his mutilated body wash up on St Kilda Beach. I had no idea who’d murdered him, and had to write the book to find out.
I wrote the first draft in long hand in 4 black and red A4 notebooks and it took me about a year, then did a couple more drafts on a laptop over the next two years. I was then lucky enough to be accepted into a writers centre mentorship program (with my idol – Marele Day – who wrote Australia’s first female PI Claudia Valentine), and that’s how I came to be published.
What were your influences while writing it? In the genre and outside?
Probably every crime novel I’d ever read, especially ones with private investigator protagonists. I also read a lot of true crime and I think receiving Sex Tips for Girls by Cynthia Heimel for my 13th birthday (my mum said it had advice on giving a blow-job) influenced how I write humour.
How influential was the example of Sara Paretsky? What are the differences between her work and yours?
Sara Paretsky is hugely influential, along with other feminist PI writers such as Marele Day and Sue Grafton. I think the difference between their characters and the ‘tart-noir’ heroines are that the latter get to have a little more fun. Susan Geason, in her essay Ain’t Misbehavin’, argues that the feminist PI’s of the 70’s and 80’s are ideologically sound ‘good girls’ without the flaws of the male PI characters. Simone, on the other hand, has quite the appetite for booze, drugs, men and even violence. Geason writes:
“For all their posturing, female PIs must have a similar attraction to the seamy side…otherwise they’d be physiotherapists or lecture in semiotics, but that fascination with evil is never made explicit in feminist crime…Perhaps this is why they overcompensate and act like Mother Superior on a pro-bono case for the Holy Spirit.’ (http://www.susangeason.com/hsc.html)
What does Sisters in Crime mean to you ?
I adore Sisters in Crime and have been a long term member. Sisters in Crime Australia was set up in 1991 at the Feminist Book Festival in Melbourne, inspired by Sara Paretsky’s organisation in the US, to share their collective passion for women’s crime writing. The sisters are enormously supportive of both emerging and established crime writers and run the Davitt and Scarlett Stiletto awards. They also know how to party!
Tell us about your fans? Do they write to you ? Do you meet them?
I have some lovely fans who send me emails and often I get to meet them at writer’s festivals, which is great. They often hassle me about when the next book is coming out – I’m afraid it’s been a long time coming after having two babies in quick succession.
Do you get any feedback on your translated books?
No formal feedback, but my German grandparents read the translation of Peepshow and said it was really different from the Australian one. I’m thinking maybe Australian slang was difficult to decode
What’s your next novel going to be about?
In book number five (which I’m working on at the moment) Simone goes back to the alternative, dope-growing community she grew up in and gets involved in corruption, a crop rip-off, and a decades old murder.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions, it has been an absolute pleasure having you here in Belfast.
Thanks for having me. I’d love to come back some day!