By Craig Sisterson, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards
I was stunned and deeply saddened to hear of the sudden death of Bernadette Bean, one of the best crime reviewers in the global blogging community, and a passionate advocate of Australian storytelling. Her passing on 17 February has shaken authors and reviewers throughout the world.
I’ve since had many discussions with people who’d connected with Bernadette through our shared passion for great crime writing. As we’ve shared memories and struggled to come to grips with Bernadette’s passing, several things keep being repeated. Bernadette was a formidable, prolific, and hugely respected reviewer. Her incisive and insightful reviewing style had a real impact on other bloggers around the world, and crime novelists who would nervously await her verdict on their tales.
Bernadette, known online as ‘Bernadette from Oz’ or ‘Bernadette Squared’, made a lasting contribution to the Australian books world and beyond through her intelligence, her passion, and her advocacy. She was a lifelong booklover who gave back so much.
In 2008, Bernadette established her books blog, Reactions to Reading, which quickly became a go-to resource for not just Australian booklovers, but crime fiction aficionados around the world. When she set up her website, she shared childhood memories of weekend trips with her mother to the Prospect Institute (a forerunner to public libraries in South Australia), and eagerly scanning the shelves for the mystery series she loved: Nancy Drew, the Famous Five, the Bobbsey Twins.
“I love the escape that books offer,” she said. “I love the infinite way words can be put together within them. I love the worlds that books show me. I love the anticipation I feel when I’m about to start a new book. I love the way great books and fabulous characters make me feel.”
Bernadette shared that love for books, particularly crime fiction, with readers around the world. She introduced overseas fans to Australian crime writers that were receiving little coverage elsewhere, and inspired overseas bloggers and reviewers to cover Australian writers too. She was a vital part of the online mystery reviewing community over the past decade, as it went through various iterations including Yahoo Groups, Friendfeed groups, blogs, Reading Challenges, Facebook groups, and more.
An example of Bernadette’s passion for discussing and supporting crime storytelling: a few years ago when the Friendfeed web service closed, a place where a diverse array of crime reviewers from around the world had cross-pollinated about good crime writing, Bernadette helped establish a replacement group on Facebook. Even though she loathed Facebook and was a very private person.
“Like many of the FriendFeed gang … we corresponded periodically and I loved reading her reviews - no flim flam with Bernadette, you knew her opinion of a book,” says British librarian and CWA International Dagger consultant Karen Meek. “She was a champion of women writers, Australian writers and especially Australian women crime writers, and bricks and mortar bookshops.”
Bernadette covered the entire genre on Reactions to Reading, with a healthy dose of Australian authors, but on her next website, Fair Dinkum Crime, established in 2009, the light was shined exclusively on homegrown crime writing talent. She encouraged other reviewers to read Australian crime novels and share their reviews, and since its inception, that website has seen more than 180 different Australian crime writers and 430 novels exposed to a global audience.
She was also a former judge of the Ned Kelly Awards. Along with championing Australian crime fiction, Bernadette was a champion for local libraries, says fellow Adelaide-based reviewer Kerrie Smith, an editing contributor on Fair Dinkum Crime. In some ways, it’s typical of Bernadette that she was part of a group protesting the potential closure of Norwood library, just prior to her death.
The day after she passed away, there was a piece in the Adelaide Advertiser about the protests, Bernadette standing with concerned booklovers, holding a sign saying “We Will Not Be Shushed”.
Bernadette loved books. She loved good storytelling. And she believed it was vital that everyone had access to books, and a chance to learn about the array of good writing, particularly Australian crime writing, that was out there. She was a book critic who could cast a scathing eye over stories, when required, but was always supportive of authors and those in the books world. “Bernadette pulled no punches in her reviews,” says Smith. “She was very thorough in identifying where she thought the author had got it wrong, and fulsome in her praise of those she thought had written a great book.”
Two mystery writers I’ve spoken to since Bernadette’s death, British and American, both shared how nervous they were when Bernadette was going to review their debuts, because of her ‘fearsome’, pull-no-punches style which left no doubt about what she liked or felt didn’t meet muster. “I knew how skilled she was at reviewing, and thought, 'Oh, here it goes!',” said the American. “But she liked it. That feeling that someone whose opinion I respected so much liked my work was so special.”
The British author said she relied on Bernadette’s judgement so much, and will miss her critical eye.
So many of us in the crime writing community are going to miss Bernadette.
She was a true booklover who spent many years giving back to the books world, supporting and advocating for Australian authors, eschewing colonial cringe and demanding local books received criticism and praise akin to overseas books. I feel grateful to have known her, a little, and my heart goes out to her parents, brother, nieces, and close friends as they deal with her passing.
There’s a celebration of Bernadette’s life at her home in Adelaide on Sunday, 11 March. In lieu of flowers, Bernadette would appreciate that you give support to the Norwood Public Library.