B: June 29, 1919 Melbourne, Australia
D: February 4, 2012 Australia
Life & Writing
I find Wright’s career fascinating! After the birth of her first child in 1943, she worked her way through her favorite authors at the local library; Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Eberhart. When she’d run through them, she decided to take a crack at writing her own novel. The other impetus for her writing was the fact Wright felt a bit stifled in her role as a stay-at-home mother and wife, and found writing was a good way to keep her mind active and frustration in check. So six short weeks after her decision, Death At The Telephone Exchange was completed (she wrote it in short bursts while her first of six children was napping).
Then five-ish years later while wrapping vegetable scraps up in newspaper she saw an advert for a writing competition and submitted her book for consideration. While she didn’t win the grand prize - btw, no one did, as the judges decided no one’s entry was good enough to earn the thousand pound prize - the panel did recommend her book for publication. That is how Wright landed a three book deal! When Death At The Telephone Exchange was released in 1948, it outsold Christie’s thriller, Taken At The Flood in Australia, which is impressive! Using the royalties she earned, she remodeled her kitchen and bought herself a fur coat (a lady after my own heart, kitchens & clothes)!
While Wright found success in the UK and Australian, she never got a chance to break through in the US markets (which is difficult). A confluence of events in her personal life prevented her from continuing her career in writing. One of her children was born with a severe mental handicap, which took up much of her time and emotional energy. Then her husband fell ill and was unable to work for a significant period and Wright was forced to take a job which provided a much steadier income than writing (it has also been hinted that her husband wasn’t fond of her writing and it was a bone of contention within the family and part of the reason she gave it up was to keep the peace). Later after her husband recovered, he and Wright ran a successful business together and while she wrote the occasional article for a Catholic magazine (she was pretty devout as I understand) she never penned another novel.
“I often think people who use the phrase ‘I fail to understand’, understand only too well...”
Detective: Maggie Byrnes
1st Book: Murder In The Telephone Exchange (1948) Sequel: So Bad A Death (1949)
Detective: Mother Mary St. Paul of the Cross (aka Mother Paul)
1st in Series: Reservation For Murder (1958) Last: Make-Up For Murder (1966)
No. of Books In Series: 3
Stand Alone Mysteries: 3 (ish)
I often wonder what Christie’s career would have looked like had she stopped writing after the rather emotionally draining events in 1926, the year where her philandering husband left her for another woman (leaving Christie a single mother before this was socially acceptable) on top of the death of her mother. The year she pulled a walk-about and took a mini-break from her life (alright, a rather unconventional break, but people don’t always think straight when seriously stressful events occur!)
By December of 1926 Christie had only written six books, the pinnacle of her career at this point was The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, a book which I freely admit is one of her best! But would the book have stayed in the public consciousness for 87 years - until 2013 when it was awarded the title “The Best Mystery of All Time” (according to the Crime Writer’s Association)? Now remember at this point, the world the world would have to wait four more years for Miss Marple and Mr. Harley Quin to step off the page, another eight for Murder On The Orient Express, thirteen for And Then There Were None and forty-one for Endless Night. Not to mention the countless other books she would write in-between her greatest hits! Books go out of print so fast, even back then, and I am not sure this single great title and five other books would have secured Christie the reputation that she still commands today.
When I look at June Wright’s career, I think we catch a glimpse of what might have been if Christie had chosen to become a nurse instead of a novelist in 1926. I think had Wright’s life afforded her the time and space, she could have broken through in the US market, allowing her to support her family through her writing (becoming another Ngaio Marsh, only Australian). Instead Wright opted for the security of a steady pay check and went back to work at the phone company to support an ailing husband and six children. Without a steady steam of new content, Wright and her books were allowed to slip into obscurity with only a few faithful devotees keeping readers aware of her work (I am happy to say they are being reissued!). I strongly suspect that would have been Christie’s fate if things had gone just a little bit different in that crucial year.
(But can you imagine what kind of world it would be without Miss Marple or Mr. Quin in it? I shudder at the thought!)
The Lost Manuscript
If you’ve watched the news the last few months you’ve seen the huge brouhaha over Harper Lee’s rediscovered manuscript, Go Set A Watchman. The manuscript, which Lee though lost or destroyed, lingered in her personal archive for several decades until it resurfaced a few months back. Similarly (though with a bit less pomp and circumstance, which I think it warrants) a new Dr. Seuss book - complete with illustrations called What Pet Should I Get? was found. This new book (as well as unfinished text & art for two more) was found in some boxes his widow discovered when remodeling their home right after he passed away in 1991. Unfortunately they were shuffled aside until 2013 when they were unearthed again. Christie, Doyle, Hammett, and a whole slew of others have had new works rediscovered in the back of filing cabinets, dusty cupboards or in an attic in recent years, much to the delight of their fans!
Why is this relevant? During Wright’s lifetime, six of her books were published - but the thing is she actually wrote eight books altogether. One of her two unpublished books, Duck Season Death, was rejected by her publisher* based on just three reader’s critiques (seriously three, you’d think they would have at least had a few more!). The publisher might also have been a bit hesitant to publish it since it didn’t feature either of her previous established detectives. Evidently Duck Season Death languished in the bottom of a desk drawer until her family found it and it was finally published (for the first time) in 2015.
Now here is the interesting wrinkle to the story and if you are doing your arithmetic you will have noticed Wright has one unaccounted-for manuscript. The Law Courts Mystery was written in 1952 and was rejected by the publisher, due once again to those pesky critical readers who enjoyed the book but thought her plot spoiled it (which seems a bit contradictory to me). After this unceremonious dismissal, the manuscript was stashed away somewhere and forgotten, and her family has been unable to locate it since.... So if you read Wright’s books and become a bit of a fan (like me) you can hold out hope that one of her numerous children, grand-children or great-grand children may one day rediscover The Law Court Mystery and if we are lucky - very, very lucky! - one day we will have one last June Wright book to read!
*Now I feel like I must defend my girl here! Publishers reject manuscripts all the time, even from established authors. Michael Gruber recently had his magnum opus rejected by his agent and editor (he’s trying for a rewrite, but I am not sure shaving 100 pages from a 900 page draft will cut it). Early on in Agatha Christie’s career she had several rejected (albeit she really hated the publisher and may have tried to nudge them into dropping her). Dune, Catch-22, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Carrie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, A Wrinkle In Time were all rejected by at least one publishing house or another before they found a home. So no judging because two of Wright’s works got refused! She is fantastic!
My 52 Weeks With Christie: A.Miner©2015