Elizabeth Backhouse

My ignorance continues to fill these pages.

Sand on a Gumshoe – A Century of Australian crime writing says of her:

Elizabeth Backhouse wrote six mysteries, most of which featured Western Australian police detectives, Detective-Inspector Prentis and Detective Sergeant Landles. Death of a Clown (London, Robert Hale, 1962) is set in a circus troupe visiting Carnarvon while Death Climbs a Hill (London, Robert Hale, 1963) occurs in the Western Australian bush. The Mists Came Down (London, Robert Hale, 1959) takes place on Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth.

This is the one notable Backhouse novel which does not involve Inspector Prentis. The hero, Steve Gillman, is an American private eye who, together with a very stylised portrait of a misty island retreat, creates an interesting mix of old and new world approaches. There is nothing hard-boiled about The Mist Came Down, and neither is Gillman a sap-wielding Sam Spade. Rather, he is a thoughtful, intelligent hero in the English tradition, who solves a murder in a closed community with a measured calm that came to typify later Backhouse efforts.

This was, however, by no means all there is to Backhouse’s writing work. She was born 1917 in Northam, WA, served in WWII with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and then wrote scripts for Korda films before returning to Australia in 1951. Her diverse work included children’s stories, plays, a ballet and a musical. She died in April 2013.

I was curious to find out more about her Korda film experiences, but could find no acknowledgement of her online in this regard. Much later she did the screenplay for The Olive Tree, a 1975 WA movie which has its bare bones recorded on IMDB.

What does exist, and we have the Australian Women’s Register to thank for this, is a long recorded interview, which is available in transcript, but unfortunately not online. This is a real pity, one can only hope that at some point all this wonderful material will be readily accessible. For now, from the summary of contents of the 29 reels, we discover:

Backhouse speaks of her life and achievements as a writer of novels, children’s stories, plays, filmscripts, a ballet and a musical. She describes her family background; attempted rape; early writing; mother’s inability to show affection; secretarial studies; writing poetry; enlisting in WAAAF; writing Against Time and Place; ideas for books; having books published; The Iron Horse; Enone and Quentin; reviews; themes; In Our Hands; C.H. Pitman; living in England in 1940s; encouragement to write detective novels; working at Korda Films with Paul Vincent Carroll, Leslie Arliss; working for American film-maker Slessor; European travels; writing thrillers, methodology, characterisation; book covers; nursing ill father; living with her mother after his death; rejected novels; The Fourth Picture; The Thin Line; Mirage, and its adaption to film; working as a co-producer; Freemasonry; writing for radio; Kal; Rosie Fishman; Dickens’ Magic; A History of Masonry; Windmill in the Sky; writing and clarity; unpublished works; aborted film Cry of the Gulls; Sparrows in the Square; The Fishbowl; Tune on a Samisen; The Young Vagabonds; musical composition; sponsoring children; painting; relationships with men; Muriel Wenborne-Haynes; her clothing shops; writing income. The Australian Women’s Register

I note, further, the forlorn message left on a blog review of one of her books, it must have been just before her death, being dated 24 April 2013:

Nice to see something online. The author is my grandfathers sister my ‘Áunt Elizabeth’. She is in a nursing home now; my mother takes care of her as she never married nor had children and has recently taken a turn for the worse. Her contributions to the literary world and the air force during the war are remarkable.

And yet, even in this age of online, eternally available information – even leaving oneself all those words – one passes from this world all but unnoticed. There is an online obituary available, but only if somebody is willing to pay the price to have it accessible. And apparently nobody is.

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5 thoughts on “Elizabeth Backhouse

  1. It does seem quite wrong that a person who’s had such a rich life should be almost invisible on the Web. I can’t help thinking that it will change.

  2. re your first link, just how a pirated copy of ‘Sand on the Gumshoe appeared on a Russian website is a bit of a mystery, including to the anthologist.

    (Hope my html mark-ups worked as I can’t preview this comment)

    • Cliff, I wonder if that is a piece of Soviet legacy holding strong. I recall back in the mid-late seventies when Pioneer Books was in its infancy we sold Australian literature to Russian library(ies). Paul used to think it rather amusing that the Russians seemed to have more interest in our literature than we did!

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