2019, 251 p. & notes
Historian Leigh Straw has been working on the underworld in Sydney between the 1920s and 1950s for some time. This book forms the third part of a trilogy. In The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh (2016) looked at underworld figure, sly grogger and cocaine dealer Kate Leigh, while in Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force (2018) she looked at Lillian Armfield, the policewoman who, excluded from other types of crime fighting, was charged with chasing down young girls and diverting them from the vices of prostitution and addiction. Working on these two opposing forces – the criminal and the police officer- she kept coming across Dulcie Markham, who was well known to both Kate Leigh and Lillian Armfield. Obviously fond of the long book-title, in Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman, Straw traces the life of this beautiful and notorious woman, who traversed Australia and was completely embedded within the underworlds of the cities in which she lived.
And Dulcie Markham was beautiful: stunningly so. She was known as “Pretty Dulcie”, but she was also known as the “Angel of Death” and “The Hoodoo Girl” as the men with whom she associated were shot and stabbed in a mounting rollcall of violence and death. Born in 1914 in Surry Hills (in Sydney) she ran away from home at the age of fifteen and took up prostitution as one of Tilly Devine’s girls, at a time of rivalry between the two Sydney crime-madams, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, and at a time when sly grog, gambling, larrikins and the Razor Gangs made Sydney a dangerous place to be. She first appeared in court as a member of Sydney’s underworld in 1931, when she gave evidence – or more correctly, stalled in giving evidence- at the inquest into the death of her erstwhile lover by her more recent paramour. This was the first of a number of deaths of five lovers and husbands where she was not physically present, but could well have been involved.
It is interesting to see how the sources available have shaped this story. Dulcie Markham was certainly talked and written about, and her police file was bulky, but she herself rarely spoke to reporters and there is virtually nothing written by Markham herself. As a result, Dulcie’s story was completely embedded within the stories of other people. At times I felt as if the author let herself be caught up too much with these other minor personalities, who had crime histories just as sordid as Dulcie’s. Sometimes the excursions were triggered by some association, for example a sudden jump forward to the murder of a prostitute in the 1980s when discussing whether Dulcie was intimidated – a fairly tangential connection. Perhaps it’s part of the crime writing genre itself (I’m thinking of John Silvester’s columns in The Age) but there’s a chatty, familiar chumminess and a bit of a chortle that comes through when the excesses of the underworld are being written. It makes me a little uncomfortable.
Yet this intimacy with the underworld is written within the academic framework of sources, academic books and theses, endnotes and bibliographies. The book wears its research lightly.
What these interwoven anecdotes and networks do demonstrate, again and again, is the violence which seemed almost casual, and the narrow line between being a perpetrator and being a victim. Dulcie was herself shot and bashed, but bound by the code of silence as part of milieu in which she moved. Surprisingly, although charged and convicted many times, she spent remarkably little time in jail herself. Clear, too, is Dulcie’s mobility as she shifts between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, each time bobbing up in the middle of that city’s underworld, and switching her name frequently. Once in, it was hard to escape.
Straw contextualizes Dulcie’s life well, giving insights into the nature of criminal empires, the specific crime scene in a particular city, the nature of prostitution, and more general social life in Australia across these decades. Her final chapter, when she weighs up Dulcie Markham’s life is strong, where she discusses the trope of the ‘femme fatale’ and assesses her against Anne Summer’s dichotomy of ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police’. As against all the things that we don’t know about Dulcie Markham, Straw concludes:
What we do know is Dulcie May Markham was one of the toughest crime figures in Australia from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the violent neighbourhoods of crime across three cities, she proved herself by utilising the avenues then open to women involved in crime- prostitution, sly-grogging and gambling houses. Dulcie showed great intelligence, resilience and a staggering ability to live through intimidation and violence. She was a survivor in a world that saw few live to retire as she did to a quieter life. (p. 243)
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
My rating: 7/10
I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.