Tag Archives: crime

Review: Lillian Armfield by Leigh Straw

Leigh Straw, who has previously written about infamous Razor Gang crime boss Kate Leigh, has picked up the threads of the first female detective, Lillian Armfield, who played a significant role in policing the 1920s ‘Razor Wars’ between Leigh and Tilly Devine, in Lillian Armfield.

There was a lot more to Lillian Armfield’s trailblazing policing work than those infamous and bloody battles in Sydney, and Straw has set to unfolding Armfield’s life in the police from the earliest days, when she and Maude Rhodes were recruited in 1915 as the only two members of the Women’s Police.

Straw has pulled together a comprehensive view of Lillian Armfield’s professional life, and a some of her closely guarded private life, by working from a variety of sources – including contemporaneous newspaper reports, articles from the Police Gazette and other periodicals, published histories of the events (including Rugged Angel, Vince Kelly’s 1961 biography of Armfield based on interviews with her and witnesses of the events and times) and interviews with surviving family and Sydney locals.

After a glimpse of her work helping to apprehend cocaine dealer “Botany May” Smith in 1928, Straw backtracks to examine Armfield’s family history, with its First Fleet convict connections and Hawkesbury River settlers through to Lillian’s early life in Mittagong.

What follows is a detailed study of Lillian Armfield’s life and work, first in an asylum and then as a police woman who worked for 35 years, until her retirement in 1949. The quality of her dedication, compassion, toughness and skill becomes clear very early on, particularly as it served as a beacon to others. She was even respected (if not actually liked) by her arch-enemy, Kate Leigh.

Straw takes the time, throughout the book and particularly at the end, to look at Lillian Armfield’s legacy; the way she argued for more women to join the force, for their work to be taken more seriously, and the success of the Women’s Police which led to police services around Australia eventually recruiting women to active roles in detection and policing.

I particularly liked both the Epilogue, highlighting some of the women who have followed “In Her Shoes”, and the Afterword, which looks at an unsolved mystery in the public understanding of Armfield’s private life which may suggest a key in understanding the attitude she took with her into working with women, children and communities on the often mean and sometimes bloody streets of Sydney in the first half of the 20th century.

Lillian Armfield is an excellent study of how one determined and gifted woman changed the shape of Australia’s early policing and women’s roles within it.

Cover Reveal: Duo Ex Machina – Kiss and Cry

I’m delighted to reveal the cover for my upcoming fourth Duo Ex Machina novella, Kiss and Cry.

Set in 2014, Kiss and Cry sees musicians and life partners Frank Capriano and Milo Bertolone facing new challenges. Milo is taking part in a celebrity ice dancing show for charity; Frank is a busy music producer. They’re both working too hard and losing touch with the love that has kept them strong for so long. At the same time, some odd things are going on with other participants in Icing It! What new and unlooked-for danger threatens them now, and is it worse than the miserable estrangement they’re going through?

Kiss and Cry is currently being serialised for my $3 supporters on Patreon. That will finish in February 2020, when all Patrons will get the book as one of their regular awards. Soon after, it will be available for general sale.

In the meantime, this is the lovely cover by Willsin Rowe, who has created all the new series covers to date.

Review: The Secret Art of Poisoning by Samantha Battams

When I first moved to Melbourne in the late 1990s, I lived in Richmond. At some point during my five years there, before I moved to the city, I learned about Martha Needle, the woman who lived on Bridge Road in the 1890s and poisoned her husband, three children and the brother of her fiance.

That’s as much as I knew, but that little conjured an image of a sly, vicious woman, disposing of unwanted encumbrances to get her own way and maybe a spot of insurance money.

As with all true stories, however, a lot more complexity is unravelled when you start to explore the details. Martha Needle’s guilt, on the face of it, is undoubted, and she was hanged for her crimes – but author Samantha Battams does an excellent job of uncovering the details of Martha’s tragic history and the circumstances of her crimes in The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner.

Martha Needle circa-1892. Photo: Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria

Battam goes into Martha Needle’s life in detail, beginning with the life of her mother, Mary Newland, who arrived in Adelaide in 1852, one of many women who came to be brides for the male-dominated colonial outpost.

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a very thorough account of Martha’s harsh and difficult life, her precarious mental health and the deeds she committed and for which she was punished. Biased news coverage, many personal letters, the court proceedings (including the judge’s summing up) and other primary documents are quoted at length, and the final chapter brings together Battams’ observations on the social and historical influences that are so deeply embedded in the fate of Martha Needle and her victims.

On the technical side, a more stringent proofread before publication would have caught some of the more obvious typos and inconsistencies in punctuation which caught my eye and interrupted the reading flow, especially in the early chapters, but it’s a minor niggle in the presentation.

It’s a solid account, but if there’s a disappointment, it’s in an early promise not fulfilled. Battams reveals in the introduction how she stumbled across Martha Needle’s story by first encountering the story of how one Alexander Lee poisoned his wife and children in the 1920s. Lee was Martha Needle’s nephew.

The early suggestion of looking at how these two relatives and their fates were connected is only lightly touched on. I’d have enjoyed a bit more analysis, involving a more explicit look at their parallels, especially since the introduction specifically notes “I was also curious to know, did Alexander Lee know his Auntie Martha and grow up with stories of her infamous deeds?’ while the back blurb reads “What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives… to commit virtually the same crime?” Any answer is inferred rather than fully examined.

Although my curiosity is left largely unsatisfied, The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a thorough examination of a horrible crime, trial by media, the treatment of poverty, trauma and mental health by the 19th century justice system, and how the truth is always so much more complex than a sobriquet like “The Richmond Poisoner” can ever hope to show.

Buy The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner:

My Library: A is For Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup

Cheering, flaily-hands thanks to Sally Koetsveld, who gave me A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie as a gift two Christmases ago, before I went to Lorne for a break.

Kathryn Harkup is herself a chemist, as well as a writer and avid reader of Christie. This makes her the perfect choice to write about the kinds of poisons Christie used in her stories from the combined storytelling and scientific points of view.

Some of the books I get for research I dip in and out of. Some, like this one, I read cover to cover. A is for Arsenic was perfect reading for a beachside holiday. Well. If you’re me.

It’s not an A-Z, but 14 letters of the alphabet are covered, describing the poisons most commonly used by Christie in her stories. Agatha Christie’s background as a dispenser in 1917 and beyond meant she was very familiar with several common poisons and their effects.

Harkup examines the stories in which they’re used (usually mostly spoiler-free or with clear warning before the spoilering commences). She talks about each poisons origins, whether they have antidotes in both the historical and contemporary contexts, how right Christie got the symptoms in the story and exactly how these poisons work in the body to kill the victim. The latter is pretty technical, but also very clearly laid out. 

When you write both Victorian-era and contemporary crime and horror, a book like this is a superb helpmeet. With it, I can determine, for example,  how much either Dr Watson’s medical background, or Holmes’s as a chemist, will inform their responses and deductions, how easily a poison might be obtained, and how long it might take someone to expire (or be saved!).

A is for Arsenic is entertaining reading on its own, but as a tool for the writer, it promises to be both a useful reference work and a probable source of inspiration!