Alexander Thorpe grew up in the southern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. Both an avid reader and a life-long insomniac, Alexander first began using novels from the Golden Age of crime fiction as a means of self-medication. Far from putting him to sleep, they soon had him concocting plots of his own into the early hours. When not writing, Alexander can be found inflicting his idiosyncratic brand of English on international students, exploring new frontiers in miserable music or reading up on history, linguistics and environmental issues.
What is it about words, books and writing that you love?
There are so many things I love about language and literature – it’s impossible to single one out. Reading a book is the closest you can get to being inside someone else’s head and seeing the world the way they do. I think that literature is the greatest tool that we, as humans, have in understanding each other and making sense of the strange universe we wake up in every day. I also love writing because I have no hand-eye coordination, so I can’t draw or build anything that isn’t entirely useless and unrecognisable. Prose is the only avenue I have for bringing my ideas to life.
A runaway friar, a teenage girl and a missing corpse. Tell us more about Death Leaves The Station.
A man’s body is discovered in the middle of the night, miles from anywhere. By the time the police arrive to investigate, though, it’s vanished. No-one knows who he was or how he died. The only witness is a young woman who appears to be lying about her movements, and the only person she’ll speak to is a former priest without a name. As the investigators move closer to the truth, it seems that everyone involved has a secret to protect.
Your book is inspired by the Golden Age of crime and writers like Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey. What made you decide to look at Australia through the lens of this genre?
I’ve always loved Golden Age crime fiction, but it’s definitely not the only thing I read. I think I chose to write in this genre because it has such an established structure. When you pick up one of these novels, you know more or less what to expect, what the rules are. The gradual unveiling of clues, the red herrings, the eccentric amateur detective; to me, those expectations make the genre all the more fun to play around with. It’s like those cooking challenges where the ingredients are chosen for you. It forces you to be more creative.
The idea of setting a book in the north-west of Western Australia, though, came from my grandpa. He grew up in that area and he had all these amazing (probably embellished) stories. There were a couple of pretty brutal real-life killings in the region, too, like the so-called ‘Murchison murders’ committed by Snowy Rowles, who actually stole his modus operandi from a crime writer (Arthur Upfield).
In Death Leaves The Station, the violence is only perpetrated against men. Did you purposely avoid any violence against women and if so why?
When I started writing this book, I did try to steer clear of some of the common mistakes men make when writing women. I love those Twitter threads that reappear every now and then with all the cringeworthy descriptions of women from male novelists. The characters are always thinking about their breasts bouncing as they walk and appraising their reflections in spoons, windows and polished floors – it’s bizarre.
I’m also very aware that I’m writing in a genre that was largely originated and perfected by women. Anna Katharine Green was writing murder mysteries a decade before Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh are the first names that come up when you think of Golden Age crime. I think the trope of the helpless, violated woman only really came to the forefront later, with hardboiled detective novels and noir films; in Agatha Christie’s stories, the victim is often an old colonel or male industrialist, and women like Mrs Marple are frequently the driving forces behind bringing the killer to justice. I tried to channel that a bit in my story.
Is there an average day in your life, and if so, what is it?
I’m not good at developing routines, unfortunately. Every time I go somewhere, I try to take a different route, which drives my partner crazy. I also have a horrible sense of direction, so I get lost a lot. If there’s one thing I do every day, it’s take the dog for a walk, which is a start, I suppose. I also usually manage to find the time to worry about something that has little to no actual chance of transpiring, like being mistaken for my long-lost twin outside a courthouse or being sent back in time and asked to explain how internal combustion engines work.
Tell us something about Alexander Thorpe the writer that might surprise people.
I was once deported from Russia. My partner and I had teaching jobs lined up in Moscow, but our employer gave us the wrong paperwork and border security forced us on to the next plane home. As we left, they told us we ‘might be’ banned from coming back. I’m still not sure if I’m allowed in, but I won’t push my luck any time soon!
Where are your favourite places in Australia to travel to, eat at and enjoy?
The place I love most in Australia is Point Peron, near Rockingham. I spent a lot of time there growing up, and the islands in Shoalwater Bay have always seemed magical to me. It’s only about half an hour away from Perth, but it’s a completely different world, filled with penguins and sea lions and all sorts of unexpected things. If we’re talking about the city, though, I don’t think you can go past Freo. It’s packed with history, but always feels heady and full of promise, and there’s always something new to discover, be it a gig, a hidden café or a gallery opening.
What does being Australian mean to you?
I honestly don’t know what it means to be Australian, other than perhaps a tradition of stealing celebrities from New Zealand. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents were all born here, but I’ve never been able to see anything of myself in the archetypal Aussie – possibly because I’m no good at sports. I think we have a long way to go before the national identity we present to the world through our cultural institutions provides an accurate reflection of the incredibly diverse people who live here. As I conduct more and more research into the 1920s for my next book, I see both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to shed the damaging effects of the narrow colonial worldview, which is so heavily defined by racism, strict gender roles and rugged dominance of the land.
Death Leaves The Station (Fremantle Press) is out now.