Five years ago, Peter Doyle, novelist, academic, musician and museum curator, left Sydney, where he’d lived for most of his life, and settled in the Blue Mountains.
The contrast between the breathtaking views of the rugged World Heritage wilderness area and the shadowy criminal underworld of the inner city, which the award-winning writer has brought to life so vividly in much of his writing, could not have be much sharper.
But Peter says he revisits his old haunts in the city regularly. “I still go back to the barber in Newtown.”
And, of course, there are his many trips back to the Justice and Police Museum in Circular Quay where he continues his dogged trawl through a vast collection of crime scene photographs taken between 1912 and 1964. The forensic hoard, created by the NSW Police, was rescued by the Historic Houses Trust (now Living Sydney Museums) from a flooded government warehouse in the late 1980s.
The 130,000 images, many of them glass plate negatives, consist of mug shots, accident scenes and the aftermath of often violent crimes. They include grisly shots of murder victims lying in pools of blood.
From this trove, Peter, with the assistance of Museum researchers, has so far assembled three acclaimed exhibitions, and two books based on them: City of Shadows (2005), and Crooks Like Us (2009), with a third publication, Suburban Noir, due out next year.
Peter discussed the importance of the photographs and the stories behind them with Nerida Campbell, a curator with Sydney Living Museums, at a session at the Festival entitled City of Shadows Revisited.
He says that unfortunately none of the detectives’ notes or investigation files identifying the photographs have survived, thus compilation of the exhibitions and books has been challenging. He has had to become a bit of a detective himself.
When Peter was first approached to work for the Museum as a guest curator in 2001, he was writing The Devil’s Jump, the third volume of his crime fiction series. His previous two novels, 1998’s Amaze Your Friends and 1997’s Get Rich Quick, had both won Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction. A fourth in the series, The Big Whatever, will be published later this year.
The novels explore the criminal underworld and the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll milieu of Sydney’s postwar 1950s.
Peter presumes it was the fact that his fiction is set against a background of Sydney’s social history that attracted the Museum’s interest.
He said the Museum had an idea for an exhibition and a title – Crimes of Passion. He was promised a researcher if he could generate content for an exhibition around that theme.
“So that’s how that started,” he says. “That exhibition was primarily objects: weapons, bits of paper, texts, all sorts of things and just a couple of photos. But it went okay.”
When he was subsequently asked if he had any other ideas, by then he was aware the Museum had a huge holding of negatives. “And that’s when I started looking at the negatives in a systematic way.”
The resulting exhibition and book took nearly three years of perseverance, and a very disciplined, systematic approach to the selection of the photographs.
“I had no idea how big and diverse the collection is,” Peter says. “It’s quite a strange collection. It’s not the sort of archive where you can go, ‘well, I’m interested in this event or this crime that happened in Sydney in 1942’, and expect to find anything; it’s completely haphazard and random.”
Peter had to continually negotiate with himself to get the work done.
“I’d say, I’ll get through this many boxes before I break for a cup of tea. I’ll get through this many envelopes before I go and get a sandwich. I just had to keep at it and be systematic and look at every single negative that I got down off the shelf, every box, every envelope.”
The result of all his painstaking work was the 2005 exhibition, City of Shadows, which broke attendance records at the Museum. It even inspired an award-winning stage production, City of Shadows – A Song Cycle of Murder, Misfortune and Forensics, that was performed in Melbourne last year.
The book based on the exhibition, City of Shadows – Sydney Police Photographs 1912 -1948, by Peter Doyle with curator Caleb Williams, also attracted praise, albeit not all of it from the usual literary sources. Current Issues in Criminal Justice (No. 36), called it a ‘quite beautiful book’. History Australia (Vol. 3, No. 2, 2006) out of Monash University, says that it is ‘beautifully edited … and captures precisely the tone of Doyle’s curatorial voice, which looms like a spectre over this compelling and important archive’.
The book contains many more photos than were able to be included in the exhibition as well as essays about the nature of forensic photography and some of the stories behind the images. Peter says he spent a lot of time in the lead up to the exhibition finding out what he could about the photos.
“I’m of the belief that it’s not just about sticking the photos up. One should do as much as possible to find out about them. Still, when we did the first exhibition in 2005, and when we went to print, there was a lot we didn’t know.”
Since then, he says, a lot more information has come to light, quite a bit of it from the general public. “People just write to the museum with information, very generously. They recognise a person, they recognise a place.”
And, along with the museum staff, Peter continues his own detective work. “I keep reading newspapers from Sydney at that time and I find out stuff I didn’t know about back then,” he says.
City of Shadows: inner-city crime & mayhem 1912-1948 reopened in July last year and is still running at the Justice and Police Museum. With most of the content from the original exhibition on show, this revisited season also gives space to many more new stories based on the growing amount of information uncovered since the original exhibition, giving names and narratives to previously anonymous faces and unidentified places.