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Historical Crime: Our One True Genre

Written and presented by Jock Serong for the 2023 Colin Roderick Lecture – Cairns Qld

First things first: a nod to my previous career, where I learned that it’s very important to box things up in as many disclaimers as you can.

I’m not a writer who writes from certainty. I write from doubt, and as a result the things that I publish, and the things I want to say to you tonight are ultimately questions I want to share with you, not declarations. I’m not sure about a lot of things, and that’s why I’m a writer: I want to see if the things that intrigue me and trouble me might also intrigue and trouble you.

I know that some extraordinary writers have been asked to give this lecture. I read the list and I nearly died of fright. A lot of them are a lot more sure of their ideas than I am, but I hope you will accept what follows in that spirit of inquiry, and doubt.


Two of my favourite things are currently facing existential peril.

I’m not referring to surfing, which seems to be doing fine.

I speak, of course, of the novel and test cricket. I’m pretty sure in this room I’m safe speaking affectionately of the novel. Some of you will roll your eyes at test cricket, but bear with me. Both require time, concentration, endurance. Both build and expand outwards from a blank canvas: the empty page, the perfectly rolled pitch, into something complex and limitless and innately messy and human and to participate in either, as maker or audience, is to commit to something demanding.

Which is why society is inexorably turning its back on both. We are time-starved, inattentive, addicted to instant gratification. We are compelled to monetise (that awful verb). And so in both instances we have invented an abridged version that will free us up to spend more important time staring at our phones.

In the case of test cricket, this replacement is of course T20. Childish, violent and incapable of containing nuance, these games are essentially a two-hour vehicle for selling fried chicken and gambling. Stacked up against test cricket, with its rivers of numbers, permutations and possibilities, characters under pressure and emerging plots, T20 has all the gravitas of TicToc.

Novels have been replaced in more multifarious, but no less mendacious ways. Take podcasting. Recent research reveals that about 43 per cent of the population aged 12 and over listened to a podcast in the past month. The figure translates to 9 million people. we lead the English-speaking world in podcast listening.

There’s no way known that 43% of the population have recently read a novel. When I threw in everything, ten years ago, to become a novelist, the medium was already in crisis. I had, in effect, arrived at the party just after the cops had gone through the place.

The advantages of podcasting are obvious. Here, you can have your storytelling, but you don’t need to set aside time and actually read the story. You can continue obsessively running, driving, poking a water bottle into the corner of your mouth while the story takes the shortest possible route from the outside world to your brain, via your ears. A narrator can tell you when to be shocked, and when to laugh. They’ll even recap the major points for you every ten minutes in case you’re American.

True crime is the hottest genre in podcasts. The world simply can’t get enough of it. Oddly, it’s not the need for ear buds or the oversimplifications of podcasts that distress me about this: it’s the subject matter. I don’t understand why people want to rake over the misery of others – real, grieving others – so they can play amateur detective while they walk the dog. I don’t understand why we are so glued to the personal, specific wrongs that people do to each other, and so oblivious to the collective harms we – Australians - have done, and continue to do. And that leads me a little closer now to my thesis:

The entire continent’s a crime scene and we’re all criminals.


In his 2018 book Deep Time Dreaming, historian Billy Griffiths quotes John Mulvaney’s startling assertion that a billion people have lived on our continent. I don’t have the mathematical ability to assess that statement – it requires contemplating estimates of length of occupation, regional population densities and the rapid, destructive influence of settlement.

But nor can I disprove it.

A billion people. It means that every time we look at our feet, at the patch of ground we’re standing on, we are almost certainly looking at a place that humans have occupied, maybe even left their material culture or their mortal remains, down through unimaginable stretches of time. It’s hard to point to anywhere on the entire continent that this doesn’t hold true. In all likelihood, it is true of this very room.

But we forget. Every day we forget because it’s easier not to contemplate. It’s easier to do the instantaneous stuff.


But let’s just dart back to that affection for true crime momentarily.

The English crime journalist Martin Brunt believes we project ourselves or our loved ones into the scenarios in which violent crime happens, because it usually occurs in circumstances broadly familiar to us. “Madeleine McCann vanished while sleeping in a holiday apartment on the sort of package trip millions of us have taken, but without such a tragic ending.”

With some noble exceptions, and I’m thinking here of writers like Helen Garner and Chloe Hooper, crime stories exploit our worst instincts. It’s voyeurism, pure and simple. Dress it up any way you want, but it’s all about revelling in gore and the suffering of others. Shivering and clutching your pearls and reassuring yourself that Brunt’s wrong, and the horrors you’re watching through your fingers don’t happen in good areas like yours – they happen to other people. Poor people. That’s the lesson of Jeffrey Dahmer, of the Long Island Serial Killer, of Jack The Ripper…and of the endless podcasts. “Join with me as we explore the shocking tale of…”

It’s gratuitous, pointless and repetitive – it de-sensitises, even as it shocks.


The irony, the disjuncture, is that any writing about Australian colonialism is true crime writing. And to go back to Brunt’s point, we don’t engage with it because we can’t relate to it.

As Richard Flanagan elegantly put it – (I mean, of course it was elegant, it was Flanagan) – “We need to understand that what happened in the foundation of our nation was one great crime composed of countless smaller crimes…”

When I open the Colonial Frontier Massacres Map, curated by Professor Lyndall Ryan, I see a google image of our continent, speckled with yellow dots that indicate massacre sites. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend taking a look: it’s a sobering reminder of the universality of frontier violence. Only massacres that can be established to a very high standard of proof are included, meaning that those yellow dots may be far more numerous and widespread than we are able to prove. And when I zero in on my little corner of the continent in southwest Victoria, the yellow dots are so crowded together, so piled on top of each other, that they come to resemble the speckled impacts of shotgun pellets. But to drive around the seaside tourist town of Port Fairy, located deep in the centre of that ugly cluster, is to see only affluence, ease and leisure. Somehow, down through the years, the violence has been alchemised into cafes and lifestyle blocks. By what mysterious process does that occur?

We live, happy and contented, in a crime scene.

The evidence is all around us, even if, like burger-munching LA cops we trample all over it and contaminate the traces. The massacre sites are evidence. The statues and plaques commemorating falsehoods are evidence. Schools, missions, family homes – all traceable to the crime. Keating’s Redfern Speech was a confession, made on all our behalves: We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. And the proceeds of crime are just as abundant: my family home in Port Fairy, built on the stolen land of the Eastern Maar peoples, is distantly but undeniably imperial loot. Maybe yours is too.

But let’s return to the idea of storytelling for a moment. We like our crime stories to be contained. We want one location, blood up the walls, hairs and fibres. Blue lights, tight shirts. An innocent victim and a dogged investigator. A manageable cast of half a dozen heroes and villains. We don’t want an entire continent and thousands versus thousands, sprawled over decades and generations. When those are the parameters, we prefer to call it ‘history’, and not ‘crime’.

In this other crime, the big, slow motion crime, we already know whodunnit – we dunnit. It is a far greater crime than any of the specific instances we obsess over: for the number of its victims, the cold and deliberate manner of its execution, for its cynical motives. It is greater for the innumerable times we, the perpetrators, could have chosen a different path and didn’t.

Why, and how, do we sleep through this story? Why do we shrug and say we kinda knew all that, and yet remain riveted to our seats when the story is one of an abducted child in the suburbs?

Who cuts the fly-wire screen in the big crime? Who reaches silently into the bedroom?

We, settler Australians, are deeply uncomfortable when we are positioned as the field of potential perpetrators. We prefer the feeling that when things go bump in the night we are the field of potential victims. Statistically, intuitively, we know the proposition is absurd. We are safe from the serial killers. In a surprising number of instances, we are descended from the serial killers.

And yet we go on churning out pap about invented trauma, for our shivering entertainment. An outback town with a big secret, a cop on the edge, and a young hero returning to the place of her difficult youth to set things right. While we busily ignore the crimes we should be talking about.


Two examples of where we go wrong with our storytelling:

First: Some of the earliest historical crime fiction written in this nation was concerned with a thing called the Vanishing Girl Trope. A vanishing girl pits barbarity against purity, fragility against the wilds. Ever since Europeans came here, we have embodied our horror at the pitiless landscape by having people disappear into it. You’d most readily recognise the trope from Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, but it goes way further back than that.

I’m taking a detour here, but the Vanishing Girl Trope had its most interesting local manifestation in the White Woman of Gippsland Panic of the 1840s. Rumours had spread in what’s now eastern Victoria, that the Kurnai people were holding captive a white woman. She was variously believed to be the survivor of a shipwreck, or an abductee, or a runaway from a bad marriage. Such was the concern, that Kurnai people were dragged in and questioned, and armed parties went out into the bush, nailing handkerchiefs to trees with messages in English and Gaelic advising the mysterious woman that her rescuers were at hand. Such was the pressure applied to the Kurnai people that they ultimately agreed to a meeting on country to hand over the woman. When the official party arrived, they were presented – bizarrely - with the wooden figurehead from the wreck of a ship named the Brittania.

I spoke recently with a female writer friend who had written a novel about an Aboriginal girl who walks in out of the desert, into someone’s home. There’s a mystery element to it, but what’s fascinating about the story is that it’s the ‘vanishing girl’ trope, done in reverse. Girl appears: nobody knows what to do. It’s a clever premise, beautifully written. But several publishers asked her to solve the case at the end, to give it a satisfying crimey pay-off. It’d sell more that way, they said.

She made the point that there is no resolution to the historical crimes of this nation. That was the point of the book. She argued that the whole land is a cold case. ‘That’s nice,’ they said, ‘but we’d better call it ‘literary’ then, rather than crime.’

When this year’s Readings Top 100 books list was released, I took an amateur survey, wondering if it was just me that was noticing the trend-line favouring rural noir over colonial history. Scoreline – zero colonial history, 11 crime, and that’s Readings, a more literary measure than, say, airport sales.


Second example of where we go wrong:

You might be familiar with Ursula K Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.

To put it in its most simple terms, Le Guin argued that storytelling is as old as humanity, and that all the way back to the beginning, the telling has been dominated by the men, who were very keen to relate their brave exploits, stabbing and spearing and smashing. Wielding` sticks, in her shorthand.

In her Theory, Le Guin flips the narrative: “Before the tool that forces energy outward,’ she wrote, “we made the tool that brings energy home. Prior to the pre-eminence of sticks, swords and killing tools, our ancestors’ greatest invention was the container: the basket of wild oats, the medicine bundle, the net made of your own hair, the home, the shrine, the place that contains whatever is sacred.”

I’m interested in this as a way of analysing Australian writing, because Australia is our carrier bag, our vessel. This continent. We’re carried through time and space by it, borne aloft. But when we obsess over cops, or athletes, or explorers, we’re fixating on the stick version of the continent – our ability to subdue by daring and force.

The difference between the stick-side of Le Guin’s theory and the carrier-side can be seen in surf writing. We excluded women from the discussion for decades. So we got ‘Rip, tear, lacerate, shred, smash. Dominate.’ Things we thought we could do on the ocean, or to the ocean. The heroic myth of man conquering ocean. You get older and you realise – man never does conquer ocean. Man, and woman, ride at its pleasure, are carried, and if they’re very lucky, they escape drowning.

In national, historical terms, we saw ourselves, the settlers, in a similar way. These thrusting, stick-bearing heroes. We are not. We are carried, cradled, by this magical land, and it has carried millions – a billion? – before us. That is how to see our place in this place, and not remotely as conquerors.


So to recap: A billion people have lived here. A massive, society-wide crime has taken place, within the chronological reach of oral storytellers, archaeologists and archivists. We are all receivers of stolen goods. But we’re a bit busy in our literature doing outback noir, true crime pearl clutching and police procedurals.

Why is it worth revisiting the scene of the big crime? People are entitled to their escapism, entitled to read what they want. I’ve got nothing against the writers of crime blockbusters, by the way. If anyone is making a buck out of this caper I say good on them.

The point of revisiting the crime is that there’s so much to be gained:

1. A fuller understanding of current debates – let’s take the Voice to Parliament. I’d need another entire lecture to advocate for the Voice, but in short - the VtoP is an antidote to what Roy Ah-See called “living at the whim of government” – an end to paternalism;

2. A whole new set of heroes – Tongerlongeter, Truganini, Tarenorerer, Mannalargenna, Pemulwuy, William Cooper, Doug Nicholls, Charlie Perkins, Cathy Freeman, Adam Goodes. And locally, James Morrill;

3. A more authentic engagement with landscape. Think about concepts of season, of natural disaster (Julie Jansen, Anita Heiss);

4. A prodigiously enriched national vocabulary, as places named after killers and imperial sponsors (who’d never been here) are restored to the names they’d held for thousands of years before that imposition;

5. An entirely new idea of Australian inventiveness – the Mabo High Court, the Wave Hill Walkout, the Wyabalenna Petition, The Yirrkala Bark.


What are the impediments to re-framing our national story around the Big Crime?

Imagine for a moment there’s a line in any story of the frontier, beyond which a white writer like me would be a cultural trespasser. It’s not an unreasonable idea. But it’s also not an excuse to opt out. We can, and should, write all the way up to that line, never crossing it but pressing towards the margin of what’s permissible - and I would suggest that by and large we’re not doing it yet.

White writers, or more particularly “settler” writers, will say – “I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to get in trouble.”

Firstly, getting in trouble is what writers do. It’s why we have PEN International. It’s what links Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Behrouz Boochani. So if you’re not willing to risk trouble, don’t turn up.

Secondly, seeking to avoid getting in trouble is akin to seeking a licence to be sloppy. If you don’t want to get dragged, do the homework. Research, consult, and write respectfully. Learn to accurately identify the material that is not yours to tell, and avoid it.

There is a very good reason why settler Australians should be writing about the frontier, about the Big Crime. It is that otherwise, we leave the explaining to First Nations writers, which is an unfair and asymmetrical burden. Part of making amends for the past is picking up some of the burden and carrying it.

No-one likes to examine our inheritance of guilt, our complicity. So we come up with reasons not to, like: “I don’t want to get in trouble.”


All this points to two vital questions: your answers to them will tell you a lot about where your deepest politics are centred:

1. What value do you put on the past? and

2. Are we the best nation we can be?

Let’s look at that first question. What value do you put on the past? There is much encouragement to view Australia’s past as something disconnected from us, something complete and shelved. It’s just easier to think that way. ‘Relaxed and comfortable” means “I didn’t do it.” We hurtle forwards, worrying about, and lusting after, the next thing.

But looking to the past, caring about what happened, is a way of finding patterns in our own behaviours.

There is a proverb that goes “A thief believes everybody steals” or, to put it another way, “no-one fears theft like a thief”. I thought about this when our cruelty to asylum seekers was at its peak: devious, expensive, dishonest and entirely bipartisan. There was nowhere to escape it. And I often wondered – what is it that we’re so scared of? How do we think these incredibly vulnerable people are going to harm us?

The answer lies in that proverb. We were insecure in our own standing on this ground, so deep down, we suspected a heist of some kind. Surely they’re up to something. They’re terrorists, said Abbott and Dutton. Possibly diseased. If we let a few in, they’ll arrive in their droves. They’ll take both our welfare and our jobs, suggested Dutton: a remarkable feat when you stop and think about it.

Because of course, nobody just rocks up in boats and settles in, do they?

Is it also possible that Indue cards or the abuses of Don Dale Detention Centre were not novel developments, but can be traced back to much earlier instances of paternalism, of deafness to First Nations insight about their own lives? All the way back to Wybalenna on Tasmania’s Flinders Island, a place I researched over some years for my novel The Settlement. George Augustus Robinson was so supremely confident of his rightness that he imposed a solution on the Aboriginal people in his care, and the solution was very nearly as lethal as the original problem, which was the genocide in van Deimens Land. He didn’t listen. The federal government didn’t listen when it sent the military into the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory in 2007.

What about that second question, are we the nation we could be? I first thought about this question when I was fourteen, and I invested my paper round money in a copy of Midnight Oil’s Red Sails in the Sunset. The question is treasonous, of course. You can’t suggest the Australia we are, is anything less than the most perfect Australia. But first track of side one, Best of Both Worlds, Peter Garrett said it out loud: “The Great South Land can be as great as the one it could have been.” It’s both optimism and condemnation, isn’t it. We can be that great, but the “could have been” is the sting in the tail. It suggests that somewhere along the road, we missed our potential. There was another South Land that we could have been. Alexis Wright issued the same rhetorical challenge around the time she wrote The Grog Wars in 2007 – “Surely we are more than that.”

All nations are imperfect versions of themselves, just as all stories begin to diminish the moment they are written down. The Americans, of course, continue to wrack themselves with their own constitutional promise to “seek a more perfect union,” and from the outside that goal seems to get further away, not closer.

But what’s our particular version of imperfection? What is this South Land that we could have been? It seems to me that coming to terms with our historical iniquity, eyeballing the truth and accepting responsibility, enacting that recognition in our words and deeds, in our culture – that would re-cast us as a different and more mature people. And to be clear, that’s not just a political task: it’s also a literary one.

To me, the answer to both questions – what value do you put on the past? - and - Are we the best nation we can be? lie in storytelling. I see it in the writers I admire the most: Tony Birch, Don Watson, Grace Karskens, Clare Wright, Tom and Billy Griffiths, Randolph Stow, to name just a few. Writers like Sarah Murgatroyd, who took one of our most encrusted myths – that of Burke and Wills – and remade it in its proper context.

But I would suggest, humbly and with the utmost respect for my fellow storytellers, that we are often telling, and selling, the wrong stories. We’re not there yet, as a community of storytellers. I’m not there. While we continue to fetishise rural and remote communities as places of violence and ignorance, while we fawn over American and British ideas of crime and punishment, even Scandinavian ones, we obscure the real crime story. Hardboiled crime comes to us from Chicago, New York, LA. From the 20s and 30s. Soft-boiled crime, the “cosies” comes from the drawing rooms of London and Boston, from the 40s. They all come from somewhere else and we’ve inherited them like bicameral parliaments and cricket.

Historical crime comes at us from the ground under our feet, where a billion people have lived.

The challenge presents itself to each of us, every time we write: how do I take the maddening reality that we’re all born of a crime here, and turn it into something that sings uniquely of us, and not of other origins?

We need to tell each other the stories of colonialism. Non-Aboriginal writers need to do the hard work and not avoid invasion stories because they look contentious. Timidity is useless, but hubris is worse. It’s not about manners, or deference, or vacuous notions of political correctness or “wokeness”. It’s about the patient building of an honest discussion, and the limitless potential of Australian literature.

It’s our inherited curse. It’s also our most vital conversation.


In closing I want to return briefly to the Redfern Speech, which happened 31 years ago and which continues to resonate so tragically because it could be given, word for word, again tomorrow. Keating said: “We cannot give Indigenous Australians up without giving up many of our own most deeply held values – much of our own identity. Nowhere in the world is the message more stark than it is in Australia.”

If those last words are true – and you will have reacted inside, when I read them – that there is a collective wound that is caused by turning our backs on First Peoples, then why doesn’t the great crime at the heart of our nation feature more prominently in our literature?

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