Beat Not the Bones & the story of an Australian Edgar Allan Poe Award winner

Beat Not the Bones Avon 1955As many of the my US readers will no doubt be aware, America’s foremost crime writing awards, the annual Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Awards, will be presented on April 28.

The upcoming awards make it an opportune time to revisit the winner of the Edgar Award in 1954. That book was called Beat Not the Bones, and it was written not by an American but by an Adelaide-born woman called Geraldine Halls, writing under the pseudonym, Charlotte Jay. That the winner the next year was Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, gives you some idea how prestigious Halls’ win was.

Why some writers and their books go onto achieve lasting literary fame, while others, in this case Halls and her considerable work, sink into obscurity, always fascinates me. In a writing career stretching from 1951 to her last published novel in 1995, she produced fifteen books. Seven of these appeared under the pseudonym of Jay, her maiden name, and seven as Geraldine Halls, Halls being her married name. Another was published under the alias Geraldine Mary Jay.

There is very little information available about Halls, who died in Adelaide in October 1996, and the only image I could find on the Internet is on the Austlit site and is taken from the Adelaide Advertiser, dated May 8, 1853. Her books are similarly hard to come by, although the fact that some of her early editions for sale on the Internet fetch a considerable sum is a belated recognition, of sorts, she was once a significant literary presence.

Advertiser 8 May 1953

Halls is one of only two Australians to have won an Edgar, the other being Jon Cleary who won for Peter’s Pence in 1974. As if the fact that the 1954 Edgar Award for best novel was won by a woman from Adelaide was not enough to pique my interest, the book in question is set in the then Australian territory of New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea). Despite Papua New Guinea’s geographical proximity and close ties to Australia, there are few crime novels by Australian writers that have been set there since New York publisher Harper Collins released Beat Not the Bones in 1952. Exceptions are Gavin Holt’s Storm (1930), Adrian McKinty’s The Sun Is God (2014) and a smattering of pulp novels and short stories.

A young woman, Stella Warwick, travels to the fictional island of Marapai, off the coast of New Guinea, to take a job with the island’s senior administrator, Trevor Nyall. Her real motive for coming to Marapai, however, is to investigate the supposed suicide of her anthropologist husband, who was working there for the colonial administration.

Stella doesn’t believe her husband killed himself and maintains he was murdered. The possible culprit could be any one of the island’s expatriate community: her husband’s devious friend, Nyall; his sickly, paranoid brother, Anthony, who appears to know far more about the death than he lets on; or a shifty hustler Alfred Jobe, whose discovery of gold in a remote area of the island led him to clash with her husband.

The other possible factor in her husband’s death could be a witchcraft practising tribe who reportedly dwell in the remote valley where Jobe claimed to have discovered the gold, and where her husband last travelled to investigate the find before he died. In what has definite echoes of Heart of Darkness, Stella decides she has no choice but to the valley to find out what happened for herself. Sorcery is everywhere in this story, but Halls’ depiction of it manages to be menacing without resorting to the cheap orientalist histrionics that characterised a lot of similarly themed stories from the same era (although you wouldn’t know this from looking at the cover of the Avon edition).

While the plot Beat Not the Bones is genuinely suspenseful, what really makes this novel come alive is the depiction of New Guinea and its white expatriate elite. I lived in Asia for several years in the nineties, and she absolutely nails the bizarre nature of so much expat culture, the drunks, cheats, liars, carpet baggers and the just plain insane individuals that are attracted to remote developing countries, the racism and atrocious behaviour that results from the brew of boredom, cultural disassociation, heat, excessive drinking and underserved privilege.

Halls also vividly depicts the paternalistic nature of the white man’s burden in New Guinea. It’s a “heartbreaking” place, is how a colonial administrator describes New Guinea to Stella at one point in the story, “a young, savage, uncultivated land, full of people who are amongst the most primitive in the world.” While she manages to avoid didacticism, the book is very much alive to the futility of Australia’s colonial project.

Beat Not the Bones, one of three books Halls would set in New Guinea, was influenced by her time working as a court stenographer in the country from 1942 to 1950. It was one of many far-flung locations her novels were set in, facilitated by her marriage to an Oriental specialist who worked for UNESCO. She also set books in Pakistan, Japan, Thailand, and Lebanon, as well as England.

Beat Not the Bones was not the only work by halls to find success. Her 1953 novel, The Fugitive Eye, which appears to have been a spy thriller, was adapted for American television in 1961 as part of a weekly drama series hosted by Fred Astaire, and starred Charlton Heston.

Second hand copies of Beat Not the Bones are reasonably easy to source, particularly the edition republished by the Soho Crime in 2003.

Beat Not the Bones made me wonder not just about Halls’ other works, but what lost Australian crime fiction treasures remain out there.


13 Responses

  1. David HONEYBONE

    Peter’s Pence by Jon Cleary the only other Australian to win an Edgar, 1975. The cover of my copy has a picture of a Robert Shaw look alike in cassock with gun but can’t find a reference to film adaptation?

    • No mention of Peter’s Pence as a movie or as a book adapted into a movie on IMDB. Interesting. I think Michael Robotham is up for an Edgar this year and may have also been in contention last year?

  2. Wonderful article. Actually, the first awards were presented in 1946 (this year is the 70th anniversary of the awards). That first year, we gave out 6 awards (a tie in two categories):

    Best First Novel Watchful at Night Julius Fast
    Best Motion Picture Murder, My Sweet John Paxton
    Best Motion Picture The House on 92nd St. Charles G. Booth, Barre Lyndon &John Monks, Jr.
    Best Radio Drama Ellery Queen Frederic Dannay, Manfred B. Lee
    Best Radio Drama Mr. and Mrs. North Frances Lockridge, Richard Lockridge
    Outstanding Mystery Criticism Anthony Boucher

    Yes, Michael Robotham is a nominee this year but he was not last year. There have been a few Australian authors nominated in recent years.

    We have a searchable database on our Edgars website – it has the entire history our awards.

    • Margery,
      Thanks for stopping by. I have corrected my post to reflect the fact that it was not the inaugural Edgar awards that Beat Not The Bones won.

  3. The English writer Peter Dickinson’s Skin-Deep includes a New Guinea tribe – living in West London! There are some scenes set in New Guinea, if I remember rightly.
    Jay/Halls sounds interesting: is there a difference between the books published under the different names, perhaps? Fifteen books in forty five years is a slow production rate, so are there yet more under other names, or did her other interests get in the way?

    • Roger,
      By the sounds of things she had a busy life. In addition to all the travel she did, according to the Austlit website she had an interest in antiques. Her and her husband lived in Somerset, England from 1958 to 1971 where they run a oriental antique business. They opened a similar business after they returned to Adelaide in the 1970s.

  4. Here’s a brief list of Australian crime writers who are worth reading. Nearly all of them are out of print: Patricia Carlon, A. E. Martin, Sidney Hobson Courtier (sometimes published as S. H. Courtier or Sidney H. Courtier), Paul McGuire, Max Afford. Of the lot Courtier I think is the most refreshingly original and writes about aboriginal Australia and Australian mythology with compassion and insight. Happy hunting!

    • John,
      Some great recommendations here, particularly the Courtier books, which I will have to try and track down. No doubt there are many other Australian crime writers out there who are ripe for rediscovery.

  5. If I may split hairs on the status of Jay’s award. It was indeed an inaugural award for the category “Best Mystery Novel.” Margery neglects to point out that there was no “Best Mystery Novel” category in 1946. The category didn’t exist until the mid 1950s. I always found it fascinating that the MWA created an award for first time authors. The organization seemed to have been created to foster the development of the genre and an award given out to first time writers was their way of encouraging new work. For almost a decade the veterans could only win the Grand Master Award while the rookies were the ones competing for the top prize. Don’t see that in many professional arts organizations these days.

  6. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for a great article on Geraldine Halls, who was in fact my step grandmother. I spent many summer holidays in the late 80s and 90s with her in Adelaide.

    To add a little colour to your article, Geraldine was an absolutely amazing woman in many ways. She would sit in the lounge area of her room with a cigarette in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other and spend most of her time thinking up new stories. Just after my grandfather John Halls died, she had a terrible fall. She later said of the pain that it was good because it gave her some experience from which to write about into her characters!

    She was always very modest of her winning the Edgar award. She never got to see the film version of her book The Fugitive Eye starring Charlton Heston. And she was not fussed about any accolades from writing. Her interest was in writing and developing new stories. First in her crime novels and later in what she called her “serious” novels.

    She was an incredibly independent woman who knew exactly what she believed in and wasn’t afraid of saying so. She didn’t suffer fools lightly but was respectful of others.

    From memory, the Edgar Allan Poe books were very influential for her. She loved horror films such as the original Nosfaradu. And she would humour my brother and I by sitting through the Nightmare on Elm Street series movies. We’d be petrified watching whilst she would be on her lounge watching, sipping gin and tonic, puffing on a cigarette and saying “oh, that’s an interesting way of telling that story”! Who has heard of a grandmother watching a bunch of horror movies with teenagers?

    There were lots of great things about Geraldine (aka Charlotte Jay). But she was a writer in the purest sense who lived and breathed her art.

    Thanks, by the way to John who clarified that Geraldine won the inaugural award for the “best mystery novel” category. While I don’t think Geraldine would have cared, I consider it a great achievement that’s worth noting.

    Regards, Dave Halls.

    • Dave,
      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your memories of your grandmother. She sounds like an amazing woman. It is probably the highlight of running this site, when relatives of the people whose books I have written about, stop by to correct or add to my post. I had no idea Beat Not the Bones was made into a TV play with Heston. I’ll have to see if I can find it.

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