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.
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.