Donald Cameron

Knight, Stephen Thomas.

The mysteries of the cities : urban crime fiction in the nineteenth century 
Donald Cameron was born in 1844 in New South Wales, the son of an immigrant Scottish teacher. Though working mostly as a Melbourne journalist, as Alfred Deakin later said, “His heart was in his fiction,”6 which he produced from the late 1860s to his death in 1888. He wrote about his experiences at what was then called Sandhurst, the English military-oriented name of what had become a gold-boom center: it later, by vote, re-adopted its orig- inal name, Bendigo, referring to a local man who took the name of a famous English boxer.7 Cameron’s writing was also adaptable to the new context: his novella Scripopolis (1872) is a semi-factual story of life in a rural center: a mean- dering narrative with some crisp writing, it was surpassed in many ways in his well-shaped, highly condensed The Mysteries of Melbourne Life (1873), written when he was slightly younger than Reynolds had been. This was only ever published as a novel; it is in the double-column format of the local magazines, and serialization was still common, but the single Mysteries edition merely lists a printer as publisher, and it seems Cameron produced it himself, like Scripopolis. Busy though publishing was in Melbourne, it was also precipitous: the high-quality Colonial Monthly failed in the late 1860s and Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life nearly ruined The Australian Journal when he edited it in 1868–9; under George Walstab the magazine relied heavily on low-paid contributions—among them the first work of the enduring and often brilliant very early woman crime writer Mary Fortune.8

But though Cameron’s relative brevity at 80,000 words and novel format vary the Mysteries tradition, in both his title and his structure he showed he was familiar with the form and its possibilities, especially what Reynolds and Lippard had achieved. He uses with some skill the interchange of melodramatic present and retrospective narratives to condense emotional drama with retrospective urban documentary, notably in part 9, the longest, which is itself called “Melbourne Mysteries.”


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