Shining a light into Melbourne’s clandestine drag history

Stan Munro, Les Girls MC and compare outside Les Girls Melbourne

Stan Munro, MC & compare of Melbourne’s Les Girls, circa 1970s. Photograph courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Archives.

In the beginning there was the incredibly successful 1994 movie, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And, as if out of nowhere, drag was everything. “People saw the movie and all of a sudden every man and his dog wanted drag at their staff Xmas party,” a drag queen told Melbourne’s gay newspaper Star Observer that year.

At least, that must be how it seemed at the time. For a longer, more in-depth take on the history of drag, its role in creating awareness and acceptance of gay culture, and the evolution of Melbourne’s gay community more generally, you should check out the What A Drag! exhibition, showing as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival.

Priscilla’s success proved what anyone brought up on ’70s British television series such asDad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Are You Being Served? with their frequent plot lines involving men dressing as women, knew already, if only subconsciously; there’s an allure to cross dressing.

You can read the rest of this piece here on Crikey’s Daily Review site.

Mid-summer reading report back: Perfidia, Japanese tattoos, eighties sleaze

Perfidia

Summer in Melbourne is usually the one time of the year I can be guaranteed to get a fair amount of personal reading done. As has become my annual practice, a short report back on the books I have got through is in order.

Perfidia, James Ellroy

I need to preface my comments on Perfidia by stressing I am a massive Ellroy fan. I have read all of his books – ALL of them – many more than once. I even liked The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover, the two books that most divided readers. So, it is with a heavy heart that I say Perfidia is very disappointing. The long awaited prelude to Ellroy’s LA Quintet, Perfidia takes place in Los Angeles over 23 days in December 1941, a period in which American went from being at piece to the attack on Pearl Harbour and the country being at war.

The focal point of the book is the brutal murder on the eve of Pearl Harbour of a Japanese family. The killings have all the hallmarks of traditional Japanese ritual deaths. Drawn into the murder investigation are future LAPD chief William H Parker, the meanest crime fiction cop ever created, Dudley Smith, a brilliant young Japanese police forensic scientist, and Kay Lake, a woman with a major thing for bad men.

Into the political, social and moral tempest of wartime Los Angeles, Ellroy throws every conceivable vice and abuse imaginable: torture, the unjust internment of Japanese Americans, police corruption and racism. There’s a subplot involving an unhinged plastic surgeon that wants to cut up wealthy Japanese Americans so they can masquerade as Chinese Americans and avoid imprisonment, and a marvellous detour in which Dudley carries on a passionate affair with Betty Davis. It’s an ambitious effort, written in slightly less staccato prose than marked the authors last couple of efforts.

But no matter how high Ellroy raises the stakes, I found it very hard to sustain my interest in the characters, particularly Lake. I am not sure whether Ellroy has ever been particularly good at writing women, and I’m not sure that’s bothered me before. But this time, I found the two dimensional aspect of Lake’s persona and actions unconvincing and annoying. As for the rest of the book, it was good, but there’s nothing really new or innovative in it and my sense of declining returns became more apparent the further into the nearly seven hundred pages I waded. This is not the first book by a successful mainstream crime author I have read in the last couple of years that has left me thinking nothing would have been lost and a lot gained by cutting a hundred or two hundred pages from the story. It certainly would have improved Perfidia.

Three Crooked Kings, Matthew Condon

Jacks and Jokers, part two of Matthew Condon’s planned three part examination of police corruption in Queensland from late fifties to the late eighties is among the wave the recent books that have redefined the craft of Australian true crime writing.

Three Crooked Kings, the first instalment, is also excellent. Three Crooked Kings details the rise of Queensland police commissioner Terry Lewis and the collection of crooked cops that coalesced around him, known as the ‘Rat Pack’, detective Tony Murphy, detective Glen Patrick Hallahan, and so-called ‘bagman’ and ex-member of the Queensland Licensing Branch, Jack Herbert.

Condon blends social history with a pinpoint accurate depiction of how crime and corruption developed into a cancer that would ultimately dominate the entire state. The book was written the assistance of Lewis, who was keen to use the book to help clear his name, but who fell out with Condon after the publication of Jacks and Jokers. Book three, detailing the Fitzgerald Inquiry that ultimately lead to Lewis’s fall from grace is out this year and I can hardly wait.

The Tattoo Murder Case, Akimitsu Takagi

A classic of Japanese crime fiction, this book was first published, albeit in a slightly different form, in 1948, at a time when the country was still recovering from the impact of war.

A young forensic medical student with post-traumatic stress after a stint as a medic in the Philippines, begins a passionate affair with a beautiful woman who is covered with strange, sexually alluring traditional Japanese tattoos. Soon after, she is murdered, dismembered and her tattooed torso stolen from the scene of the crime. The suspects include an assortment of unsavoury gangsters, one of whom was in a relationship of sorts with the dead woman, and an aesthete college professor who has a morbid obsession with tattoos.

On one level, The Tattoo Murder Case reads like a traditional whodunit . But underlying this are some very dark, warped, highly sexual themes that feel as though they belong to a book of much more recent vintage. The highlight for me was the descriptions of a shattered Tokyo, the bombed out buildings, the shell-shocked population. It functions as much as a social document of post war Japan as it does a crime story. Highly recommended.

Spiders and Flies, Scott Alderberg

Raven, a bored American fugitive on the lam in Martinque meets a wealthy couple visiting their young daughter who is living on the island. With the help of a friend back in New York, Raven hatches a plan to kidnap the daughter and hold her for ransom. To say things don’t go to plan is a massive understatement.

Alderberg’s first book read like one of those exploitation crime films that were common in the eighties. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, don’t read it. If it does sound like something you would be into, and I like those films, then you should check it out. A genuinely gripping page turner.

The Master of Knots, Massimo Carlotto

A reader alerted me to Carlotto’s books after seeing my list of top ten reads for 2014, which included Dominique Manotti’s Escape, a crime novel set in the dying days of Italy’s Red Brigades and the legacy of the so-called ‘years of lead’. The Master of Knots is number five in a series of books featuring Marco Burrati, also known as the Alligator. Burrati is a former card carrying leftist who has done jail time for his political activities (not unlike the author, a former leftist activist who, charged with a crime he did not commit, went on the run and eventually ended up in Mexico).

Burrati operates a private investigation business, along with his associates, a former Mafioso, Rossini, and IT whiz, Max the Memory. The Master Of Knots involves the disappearance of a woman involved in the S&M scene. The woman’s sleazy husband is the next to vanish and the investigators uncover evidence other woman involved in the scene have also gone missing. Woven into this are a number of other plot lines, including the aftermath of the G8 Summit in Genoa, at which numerous people where injured and one killed when police attempted to disperse anti-globalisation protestors. Carlotto utilises the event to show the methods of the Italian state in the seventies may not be not as much a part of history as many people think. This book was an entertaining and somewhat unusual take on the standard PI tale.

Pulse Fiction, Vol 1, edited by Paul Bishop and Tommy Hancock

Sometimes you just need to read a bit of pulp. Pro Se Press model themselves very much on the traditional pulp publishers of old, with the kind of characters and plot lines which, as the back cover of this book says, “many have thought lost to yesterday”.

This book is a good example of their fare on offer. It contains six stories of varying quality, but two stood out. The ever reliable Eric Beetner delivers an entertaining story about a female burglar. James Hopwood aka Melbourne writer David Foster, pens a great take of murder and intrigue set in the ranks of the French Foreign Legion. Not great surprises in this book but a lot of entertainment.

Pulp Friday: The Art of Robert E McGinnis

mcginnisMy first Pulp Friday post for 2015 is a selection of pulp paperback covers from my collection illustrated by Robert E McGinnis.

I have been keen to do a McGinnis related post on this site ever since picking up a copy of The Art of Robert E McGinnis, published by Titan Books, during my travels in the US late last year.

Most Pulp Curry readers will be familiar with McGinnis, whose striking illustrations appeared on the covers of numerous pulp novels and who is still working at the age of nearly ninety, doing the occasional cover for the Hard Case Crime imprint.

One of the main reasons there is so much contemporary interest in pulp fiction of the fifties and sixties is the striking cover art. I find this interesting given that it is often the aspect of pulp fiction we know the least about. The artists behind the wonderfully lurid images that grace the covers of most pulp books are seldom acknowledged and we know very little about most of these people and how they worked.

McGinnis was an exception. His images, including his signature illustrations of femme fatales and other female pulp characters, are well known and have appeared on books by authors as diverse as Lawrence Block, Jim Thompson, Erskine Caldwell and the US editions of Australian pulp writer Alan Geoffrey Yates, aka Carter Brown, to name just a few.

McGinnis had more strings to his illustration bow than just pulp. He did magazine illustrations and work for Hollywood movies, including posters for Woody Allen’s Sleeper and the James Bond films Thunderball and You Only Live Twice.

All these aspects of his astonishing output are represented in the visually incredible coffee table book, The Art of Robert E McGinnis. In addition to some absolutely stunning reproductions of his work there is some interesting behind the scenes information about how McGinnis approached his work. For example, while McGinnis is best known for the highly sexually charged, erotic renditions of the female form, less know is the subtle changes he brought to his work, depending on the outlet and the audience.

While many pulp artists were only able to produce one kind of work, images for lurid male oriented pulp novels, McGinnis realised earlier than most, that this section of the publishing industry was on the wane by the late sixties, and changed his tack to suit the needs of publications such as romance and gothic novels and magazines like National Geographic.

It’s a pity more pulp artists haven’t had their work celebrated in a book like The Art of Robert McGinnis. It’s a must own for any serious connoisseur of pulp fiction.

In the meantime, enjoy the following selection of covers.

Angel!

The passionate Pagan

The unorthodox corpse

The Venetian Blonde

Assignment Tokyo

The turncoat

Find this woman

Black spice

The Dragon's Eye

Soft Touch

Only Girl in the Game

Harry and the Bikini Bandits

Stark_Parker_Green

Post traumatic noir – a note on the passing of Robert Stone

cover600spanThe death of US writer Robert Stone on the weekend has drawn me out of the break I planned on posting on this site over January.

Stone was the author of two tremendous works of neo-noir fiction, both of which I read when I was first getting into the genre.

The first, Stone’s debut novel, A Hall of Mirrors, was published in 1967 and partly set in New Orleans, where Stone lived briefly. It dealt with a dissolute, opportunistic right wing radio broadcaster and the desperate, doomed characters he associates with. It was turned into an excellent film called WUSA by Stuart Rosenberg in 1970 and starring Paul Newman, then in the throws of his battling his own alcoholism (I reviewed it on this site a couple of years ago here.

The second, the better known and probably more influential of Stone’s books, Dog Soldiers, was published in 1974. The 1978 film  adaption, Who’ll Stop The Rain (reviewed on this site here), is also very good.

Dog Soldiers concerns a liberal war correspondent in Vietnam, Converse, who disillusioned with what he has seen, decides to traffic heroin back to the US. He enlists Hicks, his friend in the merchant marines, to take the drugs back to Converse’s wife, Marge, in Los Angeles. Believing he is being followed, Hicks flees with the drugs and Marge. A shadowy government agent called Antheil is indeed pursuing him. Thus begins a cat and mouse chase through the sleazy underbelly of America’s post Summer of Love counter culture. The book masterfully evokes the drug soaked paranoia of the era, as well as being a devastating portrayal of the domestic blow back of America’s imperial war in Indochina.

Stone briefly worked as a correspondent in Vietnam. He spoke about the experience, a key influence in Dog Soldiers, as part of this detailed interview with The Paris Review:

It [Vietnam] was the kind of place where anything could have happened. There’s nothing that couldn’t have happened there. If you encountered choirs of seraphim up the river or if somebody said he’d just seen a vision of St. George on Hill 51, you’d just say, “There it is . . .” I was in Saigon a lot of the time. I did get deeper into I Corps, and I was in Cam Rahn Bay. But in Saigon I picked up with a guy who was involved in the dope trade there and in a very short time I had found out more than I really wanted to know. It was very frightening. I should also say that this period—1971—was a time when, in the line, there was not a lot of combat involving American troops. There was rocketing up around Phu Bai, there were some bombs going off in Saigon, but nobody was quite sure who was responsible for them. American troops were not heavily engaged. It was the time of Vietnamization. The talks were going on in Paris, and American troops were being kept out of the line to keep the casualty rates down.

In addition to the influence of Stone’s work on its own, he was the last man standing of a small group US crime writers working in the early seventies who had a major impact on modern crime fiction.

This group, which included James Crumley and Newton Thornburg, were not particularly prolific when compared to the book a year output successful contemporary crime writers are expected to maintain. And they had largely sunk from public view in the lead-up to the deaths, Thornburg so much so that it took months for the first obituary of him to appear in the mainstream media.

But as Woody Haut puts it in his 1999 work, Neon Noir, all three began publishing novels dealing with the effect of the war in Vietnam, something conspicuously absent in crime fiction until the late sixties, and the political disillusionment generated by that folly and domestic scandals such as Watergate.

“Addled by the war, drugs, drink and oppositional politics, the protagonists in of these novels, do their best to survive in a world that has altered beyond recognition,” wrote Haut. “With the line separating perpetrator and investigation having become blurred, they are inevitably drawn into a noir existence. With a live-and-let live attitude and scant regard for the law, these anti-heroes retreat into a primeval existentialism in which survival and quelling one’s demons are what matter.”

This description is certainly apt for Converse in Dog Soldiers, Alex Cutter in Thornburg’s Cutter and Bone and nearly ever single character Crumley ever wrote, but particularly C W Sughrue in The Last Good Kiss.

I should in fairness add that Haut includes The Friends of Eddie Coyle author George V Higgins in this cohort of important US noir writers of the late sixties/early seventies. Arguably, Don Carpenter, whose first book in 1966, Hard Rain Falling, deals with a drifter called Jack Levitt, an orphaned teenager living off his wits in the fleabag hotels and seedy pool halls of Portland, Oregon, is another. But I have to confess to not having read as much Higgins as I would have liked and none of Carpenters’ work at all (sometime I am going to try and rectify in the coming months), so I don’t feel equipped to talk about their influence.

Without going into too much detail, I do feel confident in agreeing with Haut that Stone, Thornburg and Crumley all wrote books that felt real and urgent, that broke previously held notions of what crime fiction could be and breathed new life into a genre that had stagnated after the anti-communist witch hunts of the first half of the fifties and cultural torpor of the latter half of that decade and the first half of the sixties.

Stone told The Paris Review: “What I’m always trying to do is define that process in American life that puts people in a state of anomie, of frustration,” Stone told the Paris Review. “The national promise is so great that a tremendous bitterness is evoked by its elusiveness.”

To put it another way, all three wrote about how America and much of the rest of the world was changing in the early seventies, where governments and big corporations were increasingly responsible for much of society’s wrongs and justice was, at best, a pyrrhic pursuit.

They wrote about a world like the one we are living in now.

My top fiction and non-fiction reads of 2014

Time for me to present Pulp Curry readers with the list of my best reads for 2014. As is customary, I will start off by admitting, yet again, I feel I have not read nearly as much as I should have. My reading this year has been dominated by books for work, including material for freelance articles and the various literary festival panels I’ve been involved in. A considerable amount of my attention has also been directed to reading related to the non-fiction book I have been co-editing, Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950-1980, which is scheduled to be published in October 2015.

With all that said, here’s the top ten books I read in 2014. I’ve split my list in two this year – fiction and non-fiction.

My top fiction reads are as follows:

escape-dominique-manotti

Escape, Dominique Manotti 

I have long been interested in the political history in Italy in the seventies and eighties, the so-called ‘years of lead’, when left wing paramilitary groups and right wing extremists in the military and police were locked in a shadowy, violent conflict. Dominique Manotti’s Escape is set in the late eighties and deals with the aftermath of that conflict. Filippo is a common street hood that shares a prison cell with Carlos, a charismatic former Red Brigade member. On a whim, Filippo joins a successful escape attempt by Carlo. Carlo gives his former cellmate money and instructions to seek assistance from his ex-girlfriend, Lisa, now in exile in Paris. Carlos is subsequently killed in a bank heist. Lisa becomes obsessed with investigating Carlos’s death, which she believes was set up by right wing elements of the Italian state, keen to eliminate former Red Brigade members. Meanwhile, Filippo has relocated to France and written a novel based on his relationship with Carlos, which also inserts himself into the failed heist story. The book becomes the toast of the Paris literary establishment. It also arouses Lisa’s suspicions and, more dangerously, attracts the attention of certain senior members of the Italian state.

Good political crime fiction is hard to pull off, but Manotti strikes just the right balance. There’s political intrigue as well as some fantastic detail about the ‘years of lead’ and the strange emotional and political no man’s land inhabited by exiles like Lisa. Terrific stuff.

Forever

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

Published in 1974, The Forever War is a science fiction classic and I can see why. The story focuses on several members of an elite military task force assembled for a war against a mysterious alien race known as the Taurans. The soldiers travel via interconnected ‘collapsars’ that allow ships to cover thousands of light-years in a split second. The catch is, a two stretch of service for the soldiers is decades in earth time.

Haldeman fought in Vietnam and draws obvious parallels between that conflict and interstellar war. The campaign against the Taurans is vividly depicted, long stretches of boredom punctuated by the occasional rapid burst of lethal combat against a largely unknown enemy. Haldeman’s take on the future earth, and the returned soldier’s alienation from it are also fascinating. I was a massive science fiction nut as teen, but that dropped away in my early twenties in favour of crime fiction. This book made me want to read more SF.

the-fever

The Fever, Megan Abbott

The Fever continues Abbott’s run of novels exploring the dark side of American suburbia and the unpredictable energy and chaos of young girls. A female student at the high school suffers what appears to be – but can’t be – an epileptic fit. The next day, one of her friends does the same, then another girl. Via the speed of social media, rumours, gossip, misrepresentations, innuendo spread like wildfire and soon the entire school community is in a state of complete panic. The media feeds the frenzy. Soon, the state medical authorities are involved but they are completely perplexed by what is happening.

As the father of a young girl, Abbott’s last three novels, The End of Everything, Dare Me, and now The Fever, have functioned as a sort of samizdat how-too parenting guide for me. Abbott’s take on the very noir lives led by young girls is razor sharp and it goes without saying The Fever is beautifully written. All that said, I think this is the weakest of the three recent novels and I’ll be interested to see where she takes her particular brand of suburban noir from here. Here’s hoping its something like her earlier books, This Song Is You and Die A Little.

Shake Him Till He rattles 2

Shake Him Till He Rattles, Malcolm Braly

Fawcett Gold Medal first published Shake Him Till He Rattles in 1963. The story is set in the San Francisco suburb of North Beach, ground zero of the West Coast beat scene in the early sixties. It centres on a horn-player called Cabiness, the target of some very unwelcome attention on the part of a junkie vice cop, Carver. Not only does Carver have it in for jazz musicians, he believes Cabiness is a major player in the North Beach drug scene and wants to turn him into his snitch. Cabiness is not a major criminal. He’s not a major anything, really. His only aim in life is to “smoke a little pot and blow my horn”, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Jean, who is getting tired of the scene.

Shake Him Till He Rattles is one of the many pulp novels I read for Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950-1980. It is also one of the best and easily holds its own with a lot of crime contemporary crime fiction. It is a well written, shrewdly observed tale. The characters, the way they speak, the descriptions of the drug milieu and jail, are vivid and real. The book is one of three Malcolm Braly, once called ‘the patron saint of losers’, wrote in jail, where he spent seventeen of his first forty years for various burglary related offences. Braly’s On The Yard, about his time in prison is now on my to-read list.

Any+Cold+Jordan

Any Cold Jordon, David Bottoms

Drifter Billy Parker plays guitar in a country-and-western bar in rural Florida. He hates what he does and the people who come to see him play, has a complicated relationship with his wife and drinks too much. In short, his life is going nowhere fast. That is until an acquaintance, Jack Nolan, a Vietnam vet with a shadowy past, asks him whether he wants to make money. Parker needs the money to finance his share of a bar he wants to buy. The downside is that the scheme is very illegal and, potentially, very dangerous.

Long out of print, my copy of Any Cold Jordan came via New Jersey crime writer Wallace Stroby, who strongly recommended it. I can see why. It was published in 1980, long before the inundation of books termed ‘rural noir’ and packed with meth labs, dying towns and dysfunctional communities. Any Cold Jordon has some of these elements, but they are beautiful understated and take the reader in a completely unpredictable direction. It is also a wonderful piece of prose.

Whitstable(frontcover)

Whistable, Stephen Volk

This novella was given to my by my partner, Angela Savage, who knows I am a big Hammer Horror fan and thought I might get a kick out of a story based on the life of Peter Cushing. Whistable takes place in 1971, Cushing’s wife has recently passed away and he is distraught at the prospect of living without her. Going for a walk one day, he is approached by a boy who recognises him from his film roles as the the famous vampire-hunter Doctor Van Helsing. The boy wants Cushing’s help because he believes his stepfather is a vampire

Whistable is a wonderful read. The writing is dark and beautiful and Volk deftly mixes fiction with numerous factual elements, including some wonderful inside stories about the life of Cushing. A must read for anyone who love the actor and his Hammer horror films.

long-way-home-pbk

Long Way Home, Eva Dolan

Dolan’s debut novel (I believe a second has just been released), Long Way Home is set in a suburban satellite town in the heart of rural East England and opens with the discovery of a corpse of an adult male in the burnt out remains of a backyard shed. John Doe was a migrant farm labourer of Eastern European decent, part of the army of semi-illegal workers who have flooded into the area, with all the resulting problems and social tensions. That makes it a job for the Hate Crimes Unit of the local Peterborough plod, and introduces the two main characters, themselves immigrants, DI Zigic, a third generation Serb living in the town, and his offsider, Ferrier, a young policewoman of Portuguese decent.

I don’t usually like books like Long Way Home, but several elements elevated it from being just another police procedural. The plot is sophisticated and deeply researched. Dolan’s pacing is near flawless, helped by a vivid sense of her main characters and the way they interact. Also the writing is first class. Long Way Home is a deceptively hardboiled story that feels like the work of a much more experienced author.

My best non-fiction reads for 2014 are as follows:

goodis

Goodis: A Life in Black and White, Philippe Garnier

Goodis is seen as the pre-eminent noir writers of his era. After years churning out stories for pulp magazines, by the late forties Goodis had hit the big time – a screenwriting contract with Warner Bros. and a hit movie, Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, based on his 1946 novel of the same name. But within a couple of years he had tossed it all away, returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, moved back in with his parents and mentally ill brother and spent the next two decades churning out pulp novels. When Goodis died in 1967, he had been almost completely forgotten in his home country and none of his 18 novels were in print in the US.

The ebb and flow of literary fame is just one element running through French born, Los Angeles-based journalist Philippe Garnier’s biography of David Goodis, Goodis: A Life in Black and White, translated from the French and published in English in 2014 for the first time in thirty years. What motivated Goodis to deliberately embrace obscurity? Garnier doesn’t really get to the bottom of the mystery, but his attempt to unravel it is a wonderful journey. Goodis: A Life in Black and White is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of pulp and noir fiction.

Jacks and Jokers

Jacks and Jokers, Matthew Condon

Meticulously researched, broad in its historical scope, Jacks and Jokers is the second book in Condon’s examination of police corruption in Queensland from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, and part of a wave of recent books that are redefining Australian true crime writing. The narrative spine of Jacks and Jokers is the career of Terry Lewis. Lewis joined the Queensland police force at twenty and rose to be commissioner before the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the late 80s, which led to his trial and conviction on various charges, including accepting vast amounts in bribes to protect vice and illegal gambling.

Reading Jack and Jokers I couldn’t help but think of the sentiments expressed by Eric Hobsbawm in his excellent history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, about the ways in which late capitalism has created a break between contemporary perception and memories and events of the past. ‘Most young men and women,’ he wrote, ‘grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.’ Jack and Jokers is an essential history of a period of Queensland’s development that has been much talked about and often parodied, but little known or understood, both in and outside of the Sunshine State.

Kings Cross

Kings Cross: A Biography, Louis Nowra

Kings Cross has a special place in Australian popular culture. One of my favourite fictional private investigators, Cliff Hardy, the creation of Sydney author Peter Corris, has done his fair share of time knocking around the Cross. In the sixties and early seventies, Kings Cross was the subject of a number of risqué local pulp novels, many of which I have collected. Kings Cross: A Biography is an attempt to explore the reality and myths of an area that has exercised a considerable hold over our nation’s imagination. Nowra, who has lived in Kings Cross since 1990, is no stranger to the area’s darker side and has absolutely no desire to play it down. And the book is all the better for it. Nowra delves into the Cross’s reputation as a centre for sly grog, prostitution and police corruption. But he also examines other aspects of its history, including the fact that from the thirties to the sixties it became one of the few places in the country were alternative sexualities and lifestyles were openly tolerated. It had a thriving communist scene and was a haven for Italian, Greek and Jewish migrants, as well as Germans refugees escaping the Nazism.

I learnt so much from this book. It left me asking, where are Melbourne’s from the ground up social histories? Where is the equivalent book on St Kilda?