Detective writing: mapping the Sydney pre-war underworld

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In the 130,000-strong Forensic Photography Archive, held at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney, there are slightly over two thousand mysterious mug shots, taken between 1919 and 1930. Although the photographs (in the form of glass plate negatives) were found without any accompanying documentation, research has shown that most of the subjects were full-time, professional criminals: repeat offender pickpockets, breakers, conmen and conwomen, gunmen, drug dealers, shoplifters and so on.1 The collection, it turned out, presents a snap - shot, imperfect and partial, of Sydney's professional underworld of the 1920s. A continuing research priority has been simply to find out who the subjects were, and what they did, not only as criminals but also as everyday urban citizens. Research into the lives of criminals and outlaws, however, can produce strangely lopsided results. The points of high drama - the criminal act itself, the flight, the arrest, the trial, sometimes an escape, and so on - may be quite retrievable, recorded by officialdom and sometimes by the press. But the remaining bulk of the person's daily life, the hours of the day when he or she was not actively engaged in illicit acts, often remains stubbornly obscure. The purely crime-related facts, on their own, may produce an oddly unfinished, atomised picture, giving little sense of how any individual person actually inhabited their own life, and how that life was woven into the lives of those around them.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-47
Number of pages17
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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