June Wright Murder in the Telephone Exchange ('First Novel Library No. 122'; London: Hutchinson & Co. n.d. ).
This is probably the best 20 cents I've ever spent on a secondhand book (esp. as I just saw it here on amazon for US$62). Murder in the Telephone Exchange is set during a long, hot Australian summer in the Melbourne Telephone Exchange in the late 1940s. The heroine is a telephonist on the 'boards' in the 'trunkroom' (long distance call switchboard) of the Exchange and the narrative is from her point of view and possesses the innocent unreliability of the narrator who cannot, yet, see everything.
I have seen girls, beaded with perspiration from hot apparatus, putting calls through every minute for hours on end during bad bush-fires and crises in Europe and the Pacific, until they collapsed from sheer nervous exhaustion. I know that strained concentration which is needed to complete connections, with half a dozen lines under your tense fingers, that must not make mistakes.
But is the narrator really so innocent? And what is going on in the telephone exchange? Who is listening in? Who is rifling the lockers? Who whacked the prying busybody supervisor over the head with a 'buttinsky'? Who is picking off the telephonists one by one? What's the connection with national security? Will the heroine find love with the freckled basketball-loving Sergeant? Why is everyone called John?
The author worked in an exchange (the book is dedicated to its employees) and the details lend an authentic air to this tale of the 'inside job'. The atmosphere of growing, claustrophobic fear is spot on, especially as the body count grows. It's a first novel (it won a competition with the prize being publication) and suffers from being a bit over-complicated. The dialogue is a tad hysterical:
"You fool, you hopeless little fool," he continued, gripping my arm. "Don't you realize that you may be holding in that silly brain of yours some half-forgotten fact that may make your life a danger to this inhuman creature?"
This isn't a great book, but it does grip the reader and, in its way, it's a lovely piece of Melbourne social history. There's more here on crime fiction in Melbourne and more on June Wright here.
If you liked this... maybe some less innocent portraits of Australia:
- 1920s Sydney/N.S.W.: D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo (1923);
- 1930s Sydney: Sulari Gentill, A Few Right Thinking Men (2010) - review here;
- 1940s wartime Sydney: Dymphna Cusack and Florence James Come in Spinner (1951);
- 1950s Sydney: Madeleine St John's The Women in Black (1993);
- and Kerry Greenwood does a nice recreation of Melbourne in the 1920s in the Phryne Fisher mysteries.