The initial spark for Razorhurst was Larry Writer’s Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs, a non-fiction account of inner-city Sydney’s razor gangs in the twenties and thirties. If you’d like to know more I highly recommend it.
Around the same time I came across Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle and City of Shadows by Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams. These are two books of Sydney Police photographs from 1912-1960. The photos of crime scenes, criminals, victims, missing persons and suspects are extraordinarily vivid black and white pictures which evoke the dark side of Sydney more richly than any other resource I have come across. Some of the faces in those two books I will never forget. Click to enlarge the images below:
Razorhurst was also inspired by my move to the venerable Sydney suburb of Surry Hills. Although I grew up in inner-city Sydney I had never lived in any of the suburbs that were once part of Razorhurst.
My Surry Hills home is around the corner from what was once Frog Hollow. Several signs there commemorate the fact. Although now it’s thoroughly gentrified, I’d known that Surry Hills used to be a dangerous area. When I was a kid Surry Hills was not considered a safe place to go. It was where criminals and poor people and weirdo Bohemians lived. It was not a neighbourhood full of million-dollar-plus flats, fancy restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, furniture shops, and hair salons. (Seriously what is it with all the hairdressers in Surry Hills? I swear there’s one per block.) Most of the poor have been driven out, and the remaining criminals are decidedly white-collar, and own some of those million-dollar-plus properties.
Although Razorhurst was inspired by an actual time and place that’s the beginning and end of the resemblance. None of the events in the book are based on real events. I have taken liberties with some of the geography, ghosts aren’t real, and my characters are wholly their own selves.
Though a few had starting points with real people:
Dymphna Campbell started with Dulcie Markham and Nellie Cameron. Two young, beautiful prostitutes who were Razorhurst’s best girls during their time. Dulcie Markham was dubbed the “Angel of Death” because, according to Larry Writer in Razor, at least eight (!) of her lovers were murdered. Markham was able to get out; Cameron was not so lucky.
Gloriana Nelson was inspired by crime bosses Tilly Devine (the Queen of Darlinghurst) and Kate Leigh (the Queen of Surry Hills), who were rivals, and controlled various parts of the cocaine, sly grog, and prostitution trade, making what would be millions of dollars in today’s terms. I decided to combine them in homage to Ruth Park, who invented Delie Stock as her Tilly Devine/Kate Leigh character in her wonderful novel, The Harp in the South. Miraculously both Devine and Leigh lived into old age. Though neither had much money or influence at the end.
Further homage to Ruth Park comes in the character of Neal Darcy, whose attitude to writing was inspired by that of Park herself, and whose life was very loosely based on that of her writer husband, D’arcy Niland. Ruth Park’s wonderful autobiographies, especially Fishing in the Styx, were particularly evocative and moving.
I use the term Razorhurst with great frequency, but it was not generally used. It was a beat-up term coined, and mostly deployed, by the newspaper, The Truth. But I love the term, and the fact that Razorhurst was in many ways an imaginary place, fits well with my wholly imaginary book. The Truth has also been inspiring. What a wonderfully overwritten, sensationalist tabloid it was. Sydney is the poorer since its passing.
Razorhurst is dedicated to Ruth Park and Kylie Tennant, who were a huge influence on this book. They are two of Australia’s finest writers and should be much more widely read and loved than they are. I read and reread their books published in the 1930s and 1940s throughout the writing of Razorhurst.
I used the Oxford English Dictionary online, the Macquarie Dictionary online, Google’s Ngrams, the National Library of Australia’s Trove online repository of digitised Australian newspapers, G. A. Wilkes’ A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, and Hugh Lunn’s Lost for Words: Australia’s Lost Language in Words and Stories to make sure the words and phrases I used in this book were in use in Sydney in 1932. Any remaining anachronisms are entirely my own lookout. Please don’t chiack me over my mistakes. But I’d love to hear about them.
Other inspirations for this book are the film noirs I obsessively watched and re-watched as a teen and, well, as an adult too. Out of the Past and Gilda remain two of my favourite movies. I was especially fascinated by those glorious femme fatales/sirens and have always wanted to write a book from their point of view. Dymphna Campbell is my homage to all of them.