A Shoe-in: Women Crime Writers Seize the Scarlet Stiletto

Dinner Meeting Report, 13 February 2014

It's a fabulous icon and prize - a scarlet stiletto standing tall (oh, so tall!) on its own mount. And beyond the sassy image, the Scarlet Stiletto also provides an opportunity for the winners of these generous short story awards to stand tall with pride. Gaining a place in the awards has given those women confidence; winning the award has launched the careers of many.

Sisters in Crime Australia run the awards annually. To enter, all you have to do is be a woman and write a short story (up to 5000 words) with a crime or mystery theme and an active female protagonist. To date, Sisters in Crime have received 2538 entries in 20 years from women previously lurking in all sorts of seedy corners.

The youngest winner was just eight years old. (And you guessed it! The story revolved around the axe-murder of an emergency teacher.)

Our Editors Victoria dinner brushed with Melbourne's crime (writing) elite on Thursday 13 February at (code name) CQ. Co-founder and co-convenor Carmel Shute gave us an overview of Sisters in Crime, the Scarlet Stilettos and Clan Destine Press, then Jacqui Horwood (co-convener since 2008) shared what it's like to win the award, be offered a place on the judging panel, and her approach to judging. (Here's the inside tip: make sure your story has a strong narrative arc and an ending that's worthy of the rest of the story.) That's two tips. They are a generous mob! The awards prize money has increased from a pool of $625 in 1994 to $7000 today.

Sisters in Crime claim to have discovered author Cate Kennedy. She won the very first Scarlet Stiletto in 1994. She won the second in 1995, prompting awards organisers to bring in the CK Rule: No individual can win more than two years in a row! Since then, no less than four other writers have won the award twice (but only Cate has a matching pair of trophy stilettos).

Other published novelists on the Scarlet Stiletto list include Tara Moss, Angela Savage, Josephine Pennicott, Ellie Marney, Sarah Evans, Inga Simpson, Alex Palmer, Liz Filleul, Margaret Bevege, Patricia Bernard, Bronwen Blake, Jo McGahey, Cheryl Jorgensen, Kylie Fox, Simmone Howell and Amanda Wrangles. If you have an appetite for crime, this list of suspects ought to get your blood pumping.

Many of these writers started out ordinarily enough at the 'sandwiches and ginger beer' end of crime, reading The Famous Five, Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, then stalking their way into Agatha Christie and beyond. Jacqui Horwood says that one of her favourite aspects of the awards is that they encourage women of all experiences to write. She was working for Victoria Police when she won in 2003.

Angela Savage (winner 2011) says it gives people confidence to keep writing. Her history of the awards, including a 'Where are they now?' on behalf of the shoes, can be found here.

Over the years the complexity of stories has increased and they now cover a full range of social issues, says Carmel Shute. The expansion of the genre is reflected in the different types of categories now offered for the Scarlet Stiletto, including a new genre called 'crimance' (Crime + Romance), speculative fiction, time travel and plenty of super natural-themed stories, which the judging panel nicknames 'oombie goombie' stories. There are new awards for the best story with an environmental theme, best story with a political theme, and a prize sponsored by the Athenaeum Library for a story containing the words 'body in the library'.

Our speakers reiterated that the Sisters in Crime sorority is inclusive and supportive. As well, writing crime is useful for family relations. Pioneer Australian crime writer June Wright, author of So Bad a Death, believes that her ability to kill off a character at the end of a long day has saved her children's lives!

Think you might want to pursue a life of crime (writing)? You can buy sample collections of deadly stories, The First Cut or The Second Cut, from Sisters in Crime. There's also a range of handcrafted earrings, brooches and pendants ... scarlet stilettos, of course.

And the fun doesn't stop with the short story competition. Sisters in Crime make sure they celebrate regularly and often with events such as the upcoming Wild Women of Crime presentation at Words by the Bay on 4 April. Fellow crime aficionados Clan Destine Press publish genre fiction, including crime.

Of the approximately 35 people who enjoyed learning of the state of women's crime writing in Australia on 13 February, at the very least one of them started to wonder ...

Could she turn a twisted tale? Might she embrace a life of crime? Perhaps crime could pay?

Ann Bolch


Jacqui Horwood and Carmel Shute from Sisters in Crime