The Ned Kelly Awards Lifetime Achievement Award is a recognition by the Australian Crime Writers Association of a person’s contribution to the Australian crime scene. It has been awarded to novelists, true crime writers, journalists and publishers. This year, we are honouring a giant not only of crime fiction but of Australian letters.
Garry Disher’s writing career started back in the early 1980s with short stories and a series of historical text books for schools, the first two of these focusing on bushrangers. More short stories and some adult fiction followed before Disher burst onto the crime genre scene in 1991 with Kickback, the first in his Wyatt series.
Much as Peter Corris had brought the hard boiled gumshoe to Australia and made it something uniquely his own, so too Disher with the anti-hero. Wyatt was a master thief, a man who, despite making a living breaking the law, lived by a series of his own rules. Of course, the anti-hero already lived large in the Australian consciousness – Ned Kelly being an obvious example. So in hindsight it might come as no surprise that a writer who had a masters in history and had written textbooks on Australia’s rogues should build an iconic Australian character around a modern version of the idea. Six Wyatt books followed before Disher decided to give the man a well earned break.
And in 1999 he published The Dragon Man, the first of a highly successful crime series based in the Mornington Peninsula area – an area close to Disher’s heart and also one where Wyatt hangs out between jobs. This series of procedurals focuses on Police detectives Hal Challis and Ellen Destry but they are much much more than that. In this series, Disher spends as much time with his protagonists as he does their colleagues, community members and criminals. He creates a complete, lived in world, and then uses this world to explore and reveal Australian society and culture. The Peninsula Series does what all great crime fiction does – it draws readers in with strong characters and a cracking plot but is also able through this lens to drill down into what makes those characters and their society tick.
Disher himself says on his website that this series is as much about a way of life – Peninsula life, with its extremes of rich and poor, pockets of social distress and rapid development – as crime and punishment.
Chain of Evidence, the fourth in the series won the Ned Kelly Award.
Actually, Garry’s crime fiction is possibly more popular in Germany than it is in Australia. Both Kickback and The Dragon Man won the International category of the Deutscher Krimi Preis the oldest and most prestigious German literary prize for crime fiction
But you can’t keep a good crim down and in 2010 Disher brought Wyatt back in an eponymous reboot which also netted him his second Ned Kelly Award for best fiction. Since then Disher has been back and forth between Challis & Destry and Wyatt, also finding time for the Ned Kelly shortlisted and broadly acclaimed rural crime standalone Bitterwash Road and, more recently, the cold case thriller Under the Cold Bright Lights also shortlisted for this year’s Best Crime Ned. While still only a stand alone, this book has potential new series written all over it.
This is just a quick précis of Disher’s crime output. In those years he has also published a slew of children’s and young adult books and a number of historical and contemporary books that don’t meet any genre definition.
And he is still going strong.
This lifetime achievement award is not in any way to suggest that Garry Disher has given all he has to give to the crime genre. We are fairly sure that there are more stories to tell about Challis and Destry and their colleagues, Wyatt and, possibly, Alan Auhl and his group of strays.
But it does recognise almost thirty years of high quality, unique and quintessentially Australian crime fiction. And that is definitely worth celebrating.