Vale June Wright (1919 – 2012)

Derham Groves’ foreword for the as yet unpublished Australian crime novel, Duck Season Death by June Wright

The crime novels by the Australian author, June Wright (née Healy), are not known as well as they should be in my view. She was born in 1919 in Malvern, Victoria, and educated locally at Kildara College, Loreto College and Manderville Hall. After leaving school and briefly studying commercial art, June got a job as a telephonist at the Central Telephone Exchange in Melbourne (she is pictured operating a switchboard, above).  In 1941 she married Stewart Wright, a cost accountant.  They had six children: Patrick; Rosemary; Nicholas; Anthony; Brenda; and Stephen. June wrote eight crime novels, six of which were published between 1948 and 1966. Her ability to successfully juggle crime fiction writing and motherhood was the subject of several colourfully named articles in magazines and newspapers, such as “Wrote Thriller with Her Baby on Her Knee” (1948) and “Books Between Babies” (1948).

When June’s first child, Patrick, was one year old, she began writing her first crime novel, Murder in the Telephone Exchange (1948), which was set in her former workplace. Sarah Compton, a supervisor at the Central Telephone Exchange, is bashed to death with a “buttinski,” a gadget used by telephone operators to interrupt telephone conversations. Maggie Byrnes, a spirited young telephonist, who June emphatically denies was modelled on herself (but I don’t believe her!), narrates the Dorothy L. Sayers-style whodunit. (At the time, Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935) was her favourite detective novel.)

While wrapping up vegetable scraps in an old newspaper, June happened to see an advertisement for an international literary competition run by the London publisher, Hutchinson.  She entered Murder in the Telephone Exchange in the competition, and while it did not win the £10,000 first prize, Hutchinson agreed to publish it. Australian crime fiction reviewers were generally full of praise for June’s first book, often singling out its quirky local setting, which she described in minute detail as only an insider could do.  For example, one reviewer wrote: “Perhaps it was the Melbourne setting that gave a new freshness to the form.  (One almost expected to meet the characters walking down the streets, to hear their voices over the phone.)  But I think there were other factors, too.  The atmosphere, the plot, the characterization, all are good.” June energetically promoted Murder at the Telephone Exchange in the press, on radio and at a number of literary events. The book was a bestseller, which “outsold even Agatha Christie and other world-famous authors in Australia” in 1948, according to The Advertiser in Adelaide. With the royalties from the book, June bought herself a fur coat and remodelled the Wright’s kitchen.

June’s second crime novel, So Bad a Death (1949)—the title is a line from King Henry VI by William Shakespeare—once again features Maggie Byrnes from Murder at the Telephone Exchange, who is now married to John Matheson, a police inspector who she met during the investigation of Sarah Compton’s murder. The newly weds are frustrated by the post-World War Two housing shortage until they finally manage to rent “Dower House,” an “Elizabethan solecism” according to Maggie, which is located in Middleburn, a fictitious country town that seems to have been based on real-life Berwick, near Melbourne. Despite its apparent gentility, Middleburn turns out to be a hotbed of criminals. The crime fiction reviewer for the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, “Dr. Watson Junior” (a.k.a. Richard Hughes, the renowned China watcher), thought that So Bad a Death was “perhaps the first Australian will murder,” while The Advertiser claimed that it had been “already voted one of the finest Australian thrillers ever written.” So Bad a Death was serialised on A.B.C. radio and in the popular women’s magazine, The Australian Women’s Weekly. June had written another hit!

By this time, June had four children—Patrick aged five, Rosemary aged three and the twins, Anthony and Nicholas, aged almost two—and two bestselling crime novels. People wanted to know how she managed to do it. “With washing to do three days a week, I never get up later than a quarter to seven,” June told The Australian Women’s Weekly on the eve of the serialization of So Bad a Death in the magazine. “On Monday, the biggest wash day, I rise at 5.30, light the copper, and have the washing on the line before breakfast. The twins are dressed in time for their breakfast at 7.30. Then come the other two, who have their meals with us. Monday is kitchen-cleaning day, Tuesday bedroom day. On Wednesday I scrub the back verandah and bathroom, and clean the two play rooms. On Thursday the lounge and study are done. Friday it’s back to the washtub, and the front verandah gets scrubbed. I cook an especially nice hot meal on Saturday morning, but like to sew or garden in the afternoon. Oh yes, I have to spend one night ironing, but I write on the others.”

June abandoned the feisty and popular Maggie Byrnes/Matheson in her third crime novel, The Devil’s Caress (1952), which is more of a psychological thriller than a whodunit, in favour of a brand new character, Marsh Mowbray, a pretty young female doctor. In this book Marsh finds herself unwittingly pitted against an unlikeable group of Melbourne’s leading medicos, including her boss, Katherine Waring, a Senior Honorary Physician at the hospital where she works, and Katherine’s husband, Kingsley Waring, a prominent surgeon, while they are staying at the Warings’ holiday house at Matthews, a fictitious coastal town in Victoria. One critic suggested that The Devil’s Caress made June’s first two books “read like bedtime stories,” however the book was not as well received as her previous two. A.R. McElwain, the crime fiction reviewer from The Advertiser, who June had corresponded with a number of times following the publication of Murder in the Telephone Exchange, wrote in his newspaper column: “Mrs. Wright’s reportage is as ever brisk and competent. But I eagerly await the day when she concentrates more upon genuine, plausible detection and less upon melodramatic situations.”

Hutchinson rejected June’s fourth crime novel, The Law Courts Mystery, explaining to her that: “The readers reported that although your book was likeable, with humour and movement, it was spoilt by the plot, which was unconvincing and rather muddled. Also, the relationship between the characters, even when they have a lot to do with each other, is always too remote and bloodless.” She locked The Law Courts Mystery in a drawer somewhere and threw away the key.

Undaunted by this rejection, June bounced back with her fifth crime novel, Reservation for Murder (1958). For this book she created a truly inspired character, the unassuming but strong willed Catholic nun-detective, Mother Mary St. Paul of the Cross, or Mother Paul for short, who in many respects is the female equivalent of G.K. Chesterton’s Catholic priest-detective, Father Brown. Mother Paul was based on the real-life Mother Mary Dorothea Devine (1900-1990), a Sister of Charity who was the head of the maternity ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne when June gave birth to Anthony and Nicholas there in the mid-1940s. In Reservation for Murder, which was originally going to be called A Hostel for Homicide, Mother Paul is in charge of “Kilcomoden,” a hostel for office girls and secretaries near Melbourne, the scene of a murder and an apparent suicide. John Long, an imprint of Hutchinson, published the book. The royalties from Reservation for Murder paid for the installation of sliding doors in the Wrights’ living room.

June’s sixth crime novel, Duck Season Death, was a psychological thriller rather similar in style to The Devil’s Caress. However, Hutchinson rejected it on the basis of three unfavourable reviewers’ reports. Typically, one reviewer said: “Quite candidly, this isn’t as good a book as the author’s previous work … There are very good features here, but the author has failed to capture the unusual atmosphere of Reservation for Murder, and has in effect produced a rather stock-box novel of the whodunit house party variety. Certainly she manages to spring a surprise at the end, but it comes rather too late, and there has been too little previous emphasis on the actual killer. In effect, a quite passable and unusual plot has been disguised with the banal tricks of rather outmoded detective fiction, and the author certainly hasn’t done herself justice.” As with her previous “failure,” June shelved Duck Season Death, never to return to it, and moved on to her next book.

June’s seventh and eighth crime novels, Faculty of Murder (1961) and Make-Up for Murder (1966), also feature the inimitable Mother Paul. In Faculty of Murder, she is running Brigit Moore Hall, a fictitious Catholic women’s college at the University of Melbourne. (Having worked at the university for several years, I cannot think of a better location for a murder!) Mother Paul investigates after a girl disappears from the college and a professor’s wife is found dead in the bath. In Make-Up for Murder, Mother Paul is now in charge of Maryhill Girls’ School in Melbourne. She investigates the murder of a former student and the disappearance of a famous TV singer.

Interesting local settings, feisty female protagonists and credible social situations characterize June’s six published crime novels.  Some experts, notably David Latta, the author of Sand on the Gumshoe: A Century of Australian Crime Writing (1989), and Stephen Knight, the author of Continent of Mystery: A Thematic History of Australian Crime Fiction (1997), have gently criticised her for “a tendency to cram her stories full of needless detail and […] leaning towards the Gothic,” however I will happily forgive her for that! June stopped writing crime fiction altogether when her husband, Stewart, suddenly became ill and could not work and she had to earn a regular salary. This was a real pity, because I am sure that she had more crime novels in her. The good news is that we can now read Duck Season Death—albeit 53 years after June wrote it. What a time capsule it represents! Let’s hope that June’s family will be able to discover The Law Courts Mystery and publish that too some day.    

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