Reviewer Janet Walker: Janet is the author of Colour To Die For, first of the Fee Weston Mystery Series. Janet lives in Australia and when she is not writing about P.I. Fee Weston's fight for truth, justice and a livable cash flow, she writes articles for magazines and fund raises for Australia's wildlife carers - heroes of the bush. For more about Janet and Fee visit Janet's WEBSITE
Author: June Wright
Publisher: Dark Passage / Verse Chorus Press
Crime novels, like everything else, go in and out of fashion – what was hip yesterday can be decidedly unhip today. In the book trade, publishers decide which writers hipness (for hipness read sales) guarantee they are constantly in print. A paucity of readers, death to a writer, particularly a crime writer, times change and so does the technology used in crime detection. How much easier would it have been for Ms. Marples or Holmes Esq. if they had been able to ide the bad guy with a soupcon of DNA or pop an electronic tracking device in a person of interest’s SUV? The answer is: a whole lot easier. A lack of modern crime fighting equipment though doesn’t mean there aren’t some out of print mysteries by good writers that are begging to be re-discovered and re-published.
Murder In The Telephone Exchange by Australian writer, June Wright was first published in 1948. It was June’s debut novel and was well received – the best selling mystery in Australia that year, it outsold the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Verse Chorus Press has recently re-published Murder In The Telephone Exchange under their imprint: Dark Passage.
The story stars young tell-it-like-it-is telephonist Maggie Byrnes, a girl who knows a thing or two about the working of a telephone exchange, as did the author, June Wright who after leaving school worked at the Central Telephone Exchange in Melbourne.
Switchboard operators were all powerful in the days before automatic exchanges; they could make or break your day or call with a flick of the wrist; a broken or wrong connection spelling disaster for a company or heartache for a personal caller.
The atmosphere of a working exchange and the characterisation of the mostly women employees who were always ‘putting-someone-through’ is really well done. If you can’t remember the 1940’s or weren’t around (it was 66 years ago) then you will be intrigued by the description of life at the exchange – the staff canteen, the gossip about the unfortunate spinsters who hadn’t achieved every woman’s dream, a husband and oh-my-goodness tea ladies – an endangered species that didn’t survive the 1960’s.
Maggie narrates the story and when with friend, Mac, she discovers fellow worker, Sarah Compton brutally murdered at the exchange, she is horrified. Sarah’s head has been bashed in with a ‘buttinsky’, a piece of equipment used to butt in or listen in on calls.
Maggie is interviewed by the police and can’t help telling the truth – Sarah Compton was a prying busybody, disliked by everybody that made her acquaintance.
After giving her statement, Maggie goes home, taking prescription medicine to ensure that the still vivid memory of Sarah’s face is blotted out by sleep.
Repelled but intrigued by the murder, she notices two of her fellow employees acting oddly and although horrified by the circumstances of Sarah’s death decides to play sleuth.
Maybe this is a good idea but it’s certainly not a great one, and it’s not too long before the police suspect Maggie of being involved in Sarah’s murder. When one of Maggie’s friends is murdered, the cops do a re-think and Maggie, afraid for her life, in an exciting conclusion makes a connection at the exchange that identifies the murderer and solves the mystery.
In a time when young women were called ‘young ladies’ (they had better be or risk being ostracised by society) the plot includes a love affair that defies convention – illicit love affairs were in the 1940’s, as ever, part of society’s rich tapestry but rarely were they spoken or written about - quite daring of author, June Wright.
For a debut novel, Murder In The Exchange is really well done, peppered with psychological suspense and the realistic ambience of young women living in boarding houses, working in jobs of little moment, marking time until a gold band is placed on the second finger of their left hand, it is a fascinating part murder mystery, part social history.
June Wright went on to write other books including three featuring a nun detective, Mother Paul. Dark Passage / Verse Chorus Press are republishing a range of June Wright's books – the next, a previously unpublished book, Duck Season Death.
Thanks to Verse Chorus Press for the re-discovery of Murder In The Telephone Exchange – a bonus for fans of murder and mayhem everywhere.