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Crime and the City: Adelaide and South Australia 

Crime and the City: Adelaide and South Australia 

The first time I went to Adelaide the first thing everybody told me about the city was its specifically non-criminal antecedents. Adelaide, I was repeatedly told, is the major Australian city not originally established as a penal colony by the British. Today Adelaide is a jewel of Victoriana and art-deco architecture, enjoys a close proximity to serious wine making country, and is home to a slew of fantastic arts and literary festivals. 

But it does have a rather interesting crime history too – particularly true crime. In 1948, a well-dressed, seemingly undamaged, male corpse was discovered on a beach in Adelaide with a half-smoked cigarette left by his side. It became known as the Tamam Shud Case, after a tiny piece of rolled-up paper with these words printed on it was found sewn into the dead man’s pocket – words from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Suicide or a particularly clever murder? And if so, who was killed, who was the murderer, and what was the motive? It’s Adelaide’s longest running unsolved case. Kerry Greenwood’s Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man Mystery (2012) reinvestigates the case. 

Now those in the know will realise that Greenwood is also the author of the bestselling Miss Phryne Fisher books (and the hit TV show). And so her interest in the Tamam Shud case had tipped over into fiction – Tamam Shud (2021) – with a returning Phryne Fisher (who is usually Melbourne-based) in 1948 (rather than her usual Jazz Age persona) returning to Australia having served with the French Resistance during the Second World War. She stumbles upon the Tamam Shud man on Somerton Beach. The Adelaide police are baffled, and Phryne recognises the Tamam Shud clue as a coded message. 

Then there is the Beaumont Children mystery, three kids that disappeared from Glenelg beach, near Adelaide in January 1966. The three siblings had left their Adelaide home on Australia Day and set off for the beach. By the end of the day, none of the children had returned home and the case remains unsolved. Suspects, physics, baffled cops, and obviously distraught parents ensued. But all to no avail. There are a number of books on the case, the most famous and well-known probably being Alan Whiticker’s Searching for the Beaumont Children: Australia’s Most Famous Unsolved Mystery (2011). And even now, nearly 60 years after the children’s disappearance, new evidence, ideas and books keep appearing, most recently author Stuart Mullins and former South Australian police detective Bill Hayes’s Unmasking the Killer of the Missing Beaumont Children (2023). There’s also a good novel loosely based on the case by Stephen Orr, Time’s Long Ruin (2011). 

And a final true crime linked to Adelaide – the infamous Snowtown murders. In 1999, several bodies were discovered in barrels inside at bank vault in the South Australian town of Snowtown, up the coast from Adelaide. The Snowtown murders were Australia’s most horrific and sustained serial killing. Again the case has led to a number of books (and a very good 2012 movie by Justin Kurzel). Former police reporter, Jeremy Pudney, covered the case and wrote The Bodies in Barrels Murders (2005). Pudney investigates those who were caught and jailed (after a prolonged investigation), but asks why they committed the horrific crimes they did and just why South Australia has a reputation for producing the country’s highest number of serial killers? A question, incidentally, also posed by Stephen Orr (see above) in his book, The Cruel City: Is Adelaide the murder capital of Australia? (2011) that looks at some of the city’s most infamous crimes and asks why Adelaide?

Enough true crime. Let’s look at some crime fiction set in Adelaide and South Australia. Best selling Australian author Jane Harper found success with The Dry (2016) featuring her character Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk. He reappeared in Force of Nature (2017) and then, though perhaps Harper is better known for setting her novels in the remote Australian Outback, heads into South Australian wine country in book three of the Aaron Falk series, Exiles (2023). A mother disappears from a busy festival on a warm spring night. Her baby lies alone in the pram, her mother’s possessions surrounding her, waiting for a return which never comes. A year later Aaron Falk begins his investigation of the disappearance. 

Garry (yes with two ‘r’s) Dicher is a household name to Australian crime writing fans and a South Australian. Among his many books and various series are the Constable Paul Hirschhausen novels. The series starts with Bitter Wash Road (2013) – published as Hell to Pay in the USA – featuring Hirschhausen, a whistleblowing cop forced out of the Adelaide force and posted to a remote one-cop station in the Flinders Ranges, the South Australian wheatbelt. Thrill killers on the loose prove quite a challenge, but it’s not as simple as that. Meanwhile Hirschhausen has his own problems – he’s called a “dog” (serious Australian insult) by his fellow officers as he receives pistol cartridges in his mailbox.

Paul Hirschhausen returns in Peace (2019). It’s Christmas and he walks in on a a strange and vicious attack that sickens the community while Sydney Police are asking his help looking into a family living. on a long forgotten back road. There’s more Hirschhausen in Consolation (2021) and Day’s End (2023), both set in rural South Australia.  

Gill D Anderson was born in Edinburgh and immigrated to Adelaide where she set her novel Hidden From View (2019) featuring Police Sergeant Lynn Gough investigating domestic abuse cases. Something Anderson knows about given her background in social work background and the field of Child Protection.

And finally, as ever something a bit different and highly recommended. This time a Young Adult novel – Adelaide foothills resident Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted, which won the 2012 Adelaide Festival Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction. Mim knows what she wants, and where she wants to go. Anywhere but home-in a dead suburb and with a mother who won’t get off the couch. Her two older brothers are in prison, so now Mim has to retrieve a lost package for her mother. Does this make her a drug runner? She’s set herself rules to live by, but she’s starting to break them. All I Ever Wanted is both a thriller and a gritty romance and though it’s a grim world Mim inhabits her character is uplifting. A great Young Adult find from South Australia.

Despite the true crimes we’ve noted above, Adelaide is a great city – the sun shines bright, and the wines are great. But like everywhere this slice of South Australian paradise also has its dark side and that’s where Crime and the City inevitably goes!