Home > English > Standard > Module A: Experience Through Language > Elective 1: Distinctive Voices > The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender

The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender

By Marele Day

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukeredmond/ (external website)

This material was written by Lynne Marsh

Background Knowledge
The Detective genre
Linking the text to the Elective
Other texts
Assessment practice

“In responding and composing students consider various types and functions of voices in texts. They explore the ways language is used to create voices in texts, how the use of this language affects interpretation and shapes meaning. Students examine one prescribed text, in addition to other texts providing examples of distinctive voices.”

English Stage 6 Prescriptions 2009-2012 page 12

Syllabus Outcomes:

1.1, 1.3, 2.2, 3, 6.1, 7.1, 11.4, 12, 13.4

Background Knowledge

Consider what the term “detective” means to you. What do you associate the different types of detective: private detectives, ones who work for police agencies. Identify synonyms e.g. inspector and investigator.

Make a list of all the detectives you can think of from literature, television, and motion pictures.

There are five basic elements in a detective story: the milieu, the victim, the criminal, the suspects, and the detective(s).

The conventions of detective stories usually involve contact, communication and interaction with police as this provides access to resources that the private eye cannot access.

Witnesses are crucial to the investigation and crime solving process.

Complete the table below as you read the novel Harry Lavender.

The Crime
What is the crime?  
Who is the victim?  
Who discovered the crime?  
What is this person’s relationship to the victim?  
The Milieu
What is the location of the story?  
Where and when was the crime committed?  
Unusual details about the crime scene  
The Detective or Private Eye
Background Information  
The Witnesses
At least three characters who saw or heard something suspicious but did not see the crime being committed. Begin with the one who discovered the crime.
Witness 1
Relationship to victim  
Location of witness at the time of the crime  
What does the witness know about the crime?  
Witness 2
Relationship to victim  
Location of witness at the time of the crime  
What does the witness know about the crime?  
Witness 3
Relationship to victim  
Location of witness at the time of the crime  
What does the witness know about the crime?  
The Clues
List at least three important clues and one ‘red herring’
Clue 1
Clue 2
Clue 3
Red Herring

The Detective genre:

“The Detective novel has always been related to public interest in the problems of modern, urban life, particularly in crime.

But crime as a feature of Western social life was not generally recognized until the rise of large cities in the early 1800s, a period that corresponds to the creation of a mass reading public.

Fascinated by and afraid of crime, new city-dwellers vilified and romanticized criminals, as well as those who fought them.”

Source: Detective novels: An Overview (external website)

Detective fiction is usually told from the point of view of the sleuth or private eye providing insights into clues, red herrings, and witnesses eventually reaching the dénouement.

To understand the traditional detective genre, visit the Classic Crime Fiction website. (external website)Read the history of detective fiction, the hardboiled detective (external website) and the golden age of detective fiction (external website).

The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender both supports and subverts the traditionally male hard boiled detective through inferential choices of language and a feminist, first person point of view presented by the female detective, Claudia Valentine.

Note the gender of all the pronouns and consider how they affect and influence the reader. How does Day subvert our expectations? Why?

“A lot of the book is engendered by the first page,” says Day. “The reader settles down and relaxes and thinks this is hard-boiled; then there’s that one pronoun that turns everything around…

She could have been a man dressed up in a woman’s clothing but I concentrated on creating her femaleness and making her a competent detective.”

Source: Weekend Australian 25-26th March 1989 p6

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Linking the Text to the Elective:

Read the Elective overview.

Day says “I love the play of language and the sense of language as a system. I want people to be aware, when they’re reading a book that they are looking at language as a system and how it builds up signification. There are parallels between reading the book and ‘reading’ the city.”

Source: Weekend Australian 25-26th March 1989 p6

Day’s novel, at times, is a glowing travel brochure of Sydney juxtaposed with the seamy underworld and crime.

Day’s stylistic devices are the primary and expected narrative, which focuses on the death and subsequent investigation of Mark Bannister, by the detective. The other stylistic device and secondary narrative is a segmented view of the biography – The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender – written by Mark Bannister.

Consider how Day develops the crime fiction genre through her use of:

How do these developments help the reader to understand and develop some feeling of sympathy for Harry’s life?

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http://www.flickr.com/photos/sacharules/ (external website)

Day follows traditional or golden age detective fiction of using personal experience for the background and setting.

In an interview with Stuart Coupe in Mean Streets No. 1 October 1990 pp56-58

Day responded to the question of whether Harry Lavender was intended as a crime novel.

“I wanted to write a novel about Sydney and it seemed to me that a detective character could present lots of different aspects of the city because of their mobility and the fact they get to talk to lots of people. As an afterthought I decided to make my private eye a female to make it different.”

As you read…

  1. Compare and contrast the view of the city experienced by Claudia Valentine and Harry Lavender respectively. Why is this significant?
  2. Day personifies the city. Discuss whether this adds to or detracts from the structure of the typical crime genre.
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“I woke up feeling like death. Ironically appropriate, given what the day held in store. White light poured in, even before I opened my eyes and a variety of sounds, all too loud. Someone was pounding my brain like a two year old who’s just discovered a hammer. In between blows I managed to prise open the eyes. Close by the bed was a bottle of Jack Daniels: empty. And an ashtray: full. Clothes were strewn all over the place and through the French doors roared the sights and sounds of Sydney. As I got out of the bed I realised I wasn’t the only one in it. There was a good looking blond in there as well. I didn’t recall issuing the invitation but I must have. No-one gets into my room, let alone in my bed, without one…

…The coffee revived me a little, a hot then cold shower even more. The blond slept on, unperturbed by my rummaging through the clothes on the floor looking for something suitable to wear. Thank God the black suit was hanging in the wardrobe neatly pressed. The black shoes were where I’d apparently left them the night before --- one in the waste paper bin and the other on the mantle piece. I dressed and took a long hard look at myself in the mirror. As long as I didn’t start haemorrhaging from the eyes things would be all right. I grabbed the dark glasses. Just in case.

“Time to go sweetheart.” I whispered into the blonde’s aural orifice. Not a flicker of an eyelid or a murmur…”

The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender pp1-2

As you read…

character map

  1. Create a character map for each of the main characters.
  2. Create character maps for some or all of the minor characters.

Note: Each character is defined through their voice. This can include non-verbal communication.
An audience surrogate is a minor character who asks a central character how he or she accomplished certain deeds. This enables the composer to explain background information, including the central character’s methods, to the responder.

As you read…

  1. Consider which of the minor characters can be considered as an audience surrogate. Explain how their voice conveys the questions for the reader.

Influence on characterisation:

As you read…

  1. Explain how Day develops characters through their voice:
    1. dialogue
    2. distinguishing non-verbal communication
    3. gender
    4. stereotyping
    5. language forms and features such as colloquial
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As you read…

  1. List other examples of the techniques above. Write a short explanation of how each example may represent a distinctive voice.

First person narration

As you read… Claudia’s narration includes:

  1. Identify similar techniques from Mark Bannister’s narration.
  2. Explain how these elements enable us to understand Lavender’s character, through a distinctive voice and language choices.

Colloquial language

As you read…

  1. Find examples of colloquial language and explain how these examples add authenticity to plot and setting.
  2. Which character/s use of language is colloquial? Why?
  3. Does the choice of language differ between Claudia and Harry? What is the effect?

Extended Metaphors, Metaphors and Similes

As you read…

  1. How does Day use language to challenge the conventions of the genre? Provide examples.

  2. Cancer is used as an extended metaphor symbolically eating away at everything that is good and pure.

  3. Lavender coloured crabs, the zodiac sign for Cancer brings together the role of Bannister’s narration, death, Harry’s demise and the dénouement.

    “The screen filled with red light, red light that finally settled into the shape of a heart. A blood red heart.

    Then my heart stopped.

    Lavender-coloured crabs crawled down the screen, and where they went nothing was left” p143

  4. What does Day’s use of extended metaphors say about the corruption of the city?

  5. Identify other examples of imagery. Explain their function.

Motifs are a recurring theme or basic idea

Motifs are a recurring theme or basic idea
http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukeredmond/ (external website)

As you read…

  1. Lavender – a sweet smelling flower, which is unable to hide the stench of the criminal underworld in Sydney. Find at least three references to ‘lavender’ in the novel and explain why it is a recurring theme.

  2. Valentine – associated with Valentine’s Day; sweetness, femininity, love. This is in direct contrast to ‘hard boiled’ private detective and feminism. Why?

  3. Guns – Claudia does not carry a gun and is able to follow the conventions of the private detective unarmed. It provides us with an insight into a softer side of her character, which she disguises as a feminist.

  4. City of Sydney “her far horizons, her jewelled sea, her beauty and her terror…” taken from the poem My Country by Dorothea McKellar (external website). Read the Wikipedia summary of the poem. How does Day transform the meaning of McKellar’s poem and how does this represent the changing face of Australia?

  5. Find other examples of motifs from the text and explain their significance in enhancing meaning.

The repetitive nature of motifs throughout a text can be considered as a form of communication, which ‘speaks’ to the reader by continually reminding or reinforcing an essential element or elements of the plot.


As you read… Multiculturalism

  1. All the “good guys” are Aussies, and come from a white backgrounds
  2. All the “bad guys” come from Non-English speaking backgrounds
  3. Is Day correct in stereotyping the multicultural nature of Sydney?
  4. How does Day use language to direct these cultural dissections?
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Day has inferred that the novel is not a feminist text saying: “I knew I didn’t want to get up on a platform and preach about equality.”

Day created a realistic female hero who is not used by nor exploits men. She does not carry a gun and relies on her physical fitness, her fast paced, witty dialogue and shrewd actions to outsmart her adversaries.

“In the crudest tough-guy school of crime fiction women appear as victimised, manipulative or simply distracting. Working with and against these conventions of feminine characterisation is a considerable challenge for those women writers who seek an alternative to generic stereotyping. Marele Day uses gender inversions and parody to combat these conventions…”

Source: D. Bird. Killing Women: Rewriting detective fiction, (Introduction), Angus and Robertson, 1993.

As you read…


Setting and external locations of Sydney portray a facade “of beauty rich and rare” (external website) Valentine’s investigation strips away this outer layer to expose Sydney as a corrupt, contemporary city.

Character facades are represented through Sally Villos who hides a twisted and vengeful mind behind her perfect make-up and social positioning.

As you read…

Technology and modern life

Harry is fascinated by the opportunities technological immorality provides. Consider the dehumanising of individuals as animations in his computer game.

Claudia comes to appreciate the importance of being a computer literate detective as opposed to more traditional detective methodology.

As you read…

  1. What overall comment does the novel make about the power of computers over humans?
  2. Explain why the technical jargon of a computerised society can be considered a distinctive voice.

Conventions of crime Fiction – crime, immorality, violence

As you read…

  1. Discuss how Day’s language choice through “voice” conforms to the conventions of crime fiction writing. Support with examples from the text.
  2. The purpose of crime fiction writing is to promote morality by creating a revelation that criticises the evil and champions the good. How successfully does Day achieve this outcome?

Puzzles and Word games

The resolution or dénouement of all crime fiction relies on the solving of puzzles or clues and distinguishing red-herrings from actual clues. Day’s interplay of crossword puzzles and words games adds another dimension to the narrative. The jargon associated with a computer game adds technology to the crime. There are clues, graphics and keywords to decode.

As you read…

  1. What is the purpose of using puzzles and word games as a thematic device?
  2. How do they contribute to engaging the reader in solving the crime?
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Other texts:

Read the Elective overview.

Note: Choose texts that you understand and can deconstruct, not texts you don’t understand but think will impress the HSC markers.

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Assessment Practice:

Test your knowledge of the text and the module by attempting the essays and extended writing tasks listed below.

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Australian National Anthem http://www.imagesaustralia.com/australiannationalanthem.htm (external website)

Bail, Cathy. There’s no trouble with Harry: behind the book. Weekend Australian 25-26 March 1989 p.6

Bird, Delys. Killing Women, rewriting detective fiction (Introduction) Angus and Robertson, 1993.

Coupe, Stuart The life and crimes of Marele Day in Mean Streets No. 1 October 1990 pp56-58 (available from the NSW State Library)

Crime Culture http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/Crimeculture.html (external website)

Crime Downunder http://www.crimedownunder.com (external website)

Hutchings, Peter. White Dog The Sydney Morning herald, April 18 2003

Imagery in Detective Novels. http://www.detnovel.com/Imagery.html (external website)

Murder on the Internet. Springfield City Library http://www.springfieldlibrary.org/stacks/advis.html (external website)

Ng, Laura. Feminist Hard-boiled detective fiction as political protest in the tradition of women proletarian writers of the 1930’s. http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04112005-105420/unrestricted/Ng_dis.pdf (external website)

Origins of Detective Fiction (The) http://www.classiccrimefiction.com/historydf.htm (external website)

Hough, Lyndall. The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender. Excel studies

Pippin, Paul. The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender. GetSmart study Guide. Science Press, 1997

Rankin, Ian. Bang to writes Times Online June 23 2007

Stabback, Phil. Brodie’s Notes The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender. Macmillan Education, 1997.

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