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Crime thriller opens door to a forgotten story


Brigid Veale
1 September 2008
‘A journey through a keyhole into politics, medicine and morals’ is how the award-winning novel The Dead House, by former Southern Cross University lecturer Dr Maria Simms, has been described.

The book, which won the inaugural Genre Fiction Award from New Holland Publishers, run in conjunction with the NSW Writers’ Centre, will be formally launched by Southern Cross University Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Clark at the Lismore campus on September 10.

The crime thriller novel is set in the corridors of a vermin-infested Sydney infirmary in the 19th century. Henry Parkes has asked Florence Nightingale for trained nurses to reform the chaotic and often filthy hospital conditions in the fledgling colony.

The nurses are led by Libby Carlisle, whose character was inspired by the factual story of Lucy Osburn - Nightingale’s envoy to Australia. The heroine of the novel is probationer nurse Electra Flynn, who takes on the challenging and dangerous task of discovering the truth behind the disappearance of nurses.

Dr Simms, who completed the novel as part of her PhD thesis at Southern Cross University, said Lucy’s story had been largely forgotten.

“A love of history and a regret that far more Australian stories are being forgotten than remembered created my novel, The Dead House. I also wanted to write a strong female character so my young nurse, Electra Flynn, was born,” Dr Simms said.

The Dead House was originally written for a PhD in the writing program at Southern Cross University and supervisors, Dr Janie Conway Herron and crime writer, Marele Day, provided terrific suggestions and support along the way.

“I’d found writing the novel a pleasure but after handing it over to the publisher I finally had time to wonder what kind of response readers would have. One comment I cherish hearing is that The Dead House is ‘a good read, a page turner’. I set out to write about a period of Australian history into a story that I hoped would be widely read so when I hear someone say they enjoyed reading the novel I think I’m in with a chance.”

Dr Simms’ novel has received excellent reviews. Sydney writer Joanne Burns said the novel ‘pulsates with intrigue, conflict suspicion; it bristles with an array of characters and perspectives within the diseased world of Victorian Sydney’s Infirmary and mortuary’.

The novel was selected for the Genre Fiction Award out of 246 entries from published and unpublished authors across Australia and the prize included a publishing contract with New Holland.

The Dead House will be launched by Southern Cross University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Paul Clark. Speakers will include Dr Jean Griffiths, Head of School of Arts and Social Sciences, crime writer Marele Day and Dr Janie Conway Herron. The launch, which is open to the public, will be held at the Lismore campus library (Manning Clark Room), at 3pm on Wednesday, September 10. Anyone who would like to attend should RSVP to [email protected]

The book is available at the University Co-op Bookshop and other selected book stores.

Photo: Dr Maria Simms' first novel The Dead House will be launched at the Lismore campus on Wednesday, September 10.