It was my pleasure recently to be on a ‘Something Rotten in the Apple Isle’ panel for Sisters in Crime where I met Poppy Gee and Livia Day aka Tansy Roberts. We were all raised in Tasmania and chose to set our mystery/crime books there. I loved this panel because not only did I get to meet both writers, but it was fascinating to hear how Tasmania shaped all our work. Livia said how impressed she was that when Poppy was talking about the murder of Victoria Cafasso that semi-inspired her book, I brandished an original folder of newspaper clippings on exactly that subject. More on my clippings later.
I recently finished Poppy Gee’s debut crime novel Bay of Fires which Poppy wrote as part of a thesis for her Masters in Creative Writing programme (for which she received the Dean’s Award for Excellence) and I am making it part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge (which I am woefully behind despite all good intentions).
I still remember my father’s distress over the slaying of young Italian tourist Victoria Cafasso on a deserted beach in Tasmania’s East Coast in 1995. I’d long had the habit of heading off to similar desolate beaches to enjoy time alone and so this murder was my parents’ worst imaginings. The case horrified a lot of Tasmanians and the images of Victoria’s distraught parents on those chilly, blue/grey Tasmanian beaches remain with me. Shortly after Victoria’s death, her father also died, allegedly of a broken heart. This particular case has haunted me for years and I kept all the clippings in my ‘crime-file’ – a rather grandiose name for a voluminous collection of clippings which I rifle through when seeking inspiration. Writing the word inspiration next to such a tragic murder feels most cold-blooded, but I am also totally intrigued/horrified by how something so terrible could occur.
Adding to the public interest was that the case was never solved. Victoria was a very attractive young woman which, alas, always ensures more media coverage, but her killer remains at large.
Before Victoria’s death, a young, vibrant German tourist, Nancy Grunwaldt, disappeared while cycling around Tasmania in 1993 – again on the East Coast. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Nancy’s vanishing and her family returned to Tasmania for a journey no parent would ever want to make. It’s horrendous to know that her grieving family have never had closure and have been left to speculate for so long.
image from Hobart Mercury
And so two young women who met met some sinister fate in Tasmania are forever linked in many people’s minds, but why you may be wondering has this anything to do with Bay of Fires? I mention these two haunting cases because Poppy herself mentions the two women and concedes she was inspired by the two cases for her book.
In Bay of Fires a small community is divided when a young girl’s body washes up on a Tasmanian beach where previously another young attractive female tourist had vanished. Poppy points out that Bay of Fires is not the story of Victoria Cafasso or Nancy Grunwaldt, but she simply wishes to acknowledge the two women. I would describe Bay of Fires as a literary mystery observing the ripple effect of murder – a theme that also fascinates me and with which I have worked repeatedly over the years both in short stories and novels.
WHAT KEPT ME TURNING THE PAGES IN THIS BOOK:
I found Bay of Fires a tense and absorbing read with characters skilfully depicted. I was very impressed by Hal and think Poppy did a wonderful job of bringing a male character to life. Poppy obviously knows this area of Tasmania well – her parents owned a holiday shack at the East Coast and she evokes the ‘shack holiday’ texture and the atmosphere of her fictional sleepy fishing village beautifully. I was very drawn into the story of what happens in a small community when a woman’s body is washed up amongst them. Bay of Fires skilfully shows the disruptive force that suspicion can bring to a community. I’m also a lover of secrets and the ‘microcosm of the macrocosm’ of small communities and Poppy obviously shares my love of the secret heart and the shadows that lie within us all.
The descriptions of the girl’s dead body are quite graphic but extremely well done. Poppy has quite a stern eye and is not one to romanticise her characters or death.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE AS MUCH ABOUT THIS BOOK:
Admittedly, the cover initially didn’t grab me, but it grew on me as I read the book and I appreciated the cover for its retro quality a lot more and could see that it would not only stand out on a shelf but also appeal to both male and female readers. A minor point, but I wasn’t a fan of the character of Sarah. She’s well-depicted but I sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books with ‘kick-arse’ women out there. I’m not saying I crave passive female characters, but I do get weary of women characters who can do everything so much better, whether it’s drinking, wrestling, belching or sex better than any man. I also pondered about the denouement wondering whether I would have preferred Poppy’s original idea (but I’m not giving away the ending!)
Bay of Fires is a sinister, gripping debut novel of strength, intelligence and literary appeal for both male and female readers. The book really made me think about using ‘real-life crime’ stories as inspiration for novels. I have folders and folders of press clippings of cases over the years which I have often dipped into. Although I blend and work off different true-life cases, I did wonder about the ethics of using real-life murders in a story when so many people in Tasmania know somebody connected to the cases. With such graphic descriptions of the young tourist’s dead body, it can’t help but bring back memories of the real cases. And I know how publishers need to use anything they can to attract media interest in a book. Around the same time another murder mystery came out which also used elements of the Victoria Cafasso murder.
However, I came to the conclusion that it is vital for these stories to be told. The landscape reveals its tales to those who chose to listen, and when blood has been spilt on the earth, the cries are louder. If Bay of Fires gets people talking again about Victoria Cafasso and Nancy Grunwaldt, then their stories – and the girls themselves – will never be forgotten. And of course – their individual mysteries may be solved. Somebody out there obviously knows the killer’s/abductor’s identity. It would be a great solace to both families to have some closure. I gave Bay of Fires five out of five on my Good Reads profile.
Poppy Gee in Tasmania
You can read another review of Bay of Fires in The Australian HERE
Poppy’s website can be found HERE
A link HERE that may be of interest regarding the mystery behind Nancy Grunwaldt
A link to an interesting article on Victoria Cafasso. HERE
And to inspire anyone who may be looking for an agent to represent their work, there is an interview HERE with Poppy where she talks about how she found her American agent online.
I do hope to find time to have an online chat with Poppy so I can find out more about her creative process and inspirations. If we manage to co-ordinate our times, (Poppy, like myself is a mother with young children) I shall post my interview with her here as well.
Thank you for reading this review. I hope it encourages you to buy Bay of Fires or seek out other Australian writers. We have such talent in this country and I’m always thrilled to discover a new Australian author who set their books in this stunningly amazing country we’re fortunate to live in.
And do be wary when wandering into ‘peaceful’ isolated places alone.
Keep Creative. Lock your doors.
The crisp sand, littered with marine debris, gleamed in the day’s freshness. Beneath a shapeless mountain of green eucalypts, the lagoon shimmered in purple darkness. It was full. Soon the Chain of Lagoons would overflow, pouring through the grassy dune and getting the beach to meet the ocean. A sharp undertow sucked on a steep wall of wet quicksand, making it dangerous for swimming. This part of the seashore was visited only by fishermen, surfers, and the occasional shell collector.
The fisherman’s were the only footprints on the beach.
from Bay of Fires.