Mysteries unravelled in Carnley hut

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A Selection of books from Carnley Harbour. Collection of the Southland Museum and Art Gallery Niho o te Taniwha. Gift of the Department of Conservation, Southland Conservancy, 1993. 95.66

CRIME, adventure and dangerous liaisons.

Imagine what it would be like if your job was to keep watch of a rugged and isolated coastline every day from dawn until dusk.

This was the reality for a small group of men during World War 2.

Fearing invasion from the south, the New Zealand Government set up three observation camps in the Subantarctic region including one at Carnley Harbour in the Auckland Islands.

The extreme isolation of the island meant the men had to be entirely self-sufficient in terms of both supplies and entertainment for up to a year at a time.

Among the materials, which were provided to keep them occupied in their downtime, was a library of fiction books their way into the collection of the Southland Museum in the mid-1990s.

Courtesy of the cataloguing process, we now know the collection contains works by 82 different authors, of which 72 were male and 10 were female.

These writers were predominantly based in England and the United States, with no local authors appearing among them.

Two genres which frequently appear among the collection are crime and adventure stories.

In fact, the history of the crime genre can be traced through the collection, beginning with an English translation of one of the first detective novels, The Blackmailers by Emile Gaboriau, whose central protagonist is widely credited as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.

The collection also contains seven works from the Dr Thorndyke series written by Richard Austin Freeman, and The Ellerby Case by Cecil Street (writing under the pseudonym John Rhode), who were among the first authors after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create characters who solved crime through close observation and scientific methods.

Given the all-male nature of the coastwatching team, it was also interesting to discover the collection contained quite a few romance novels.

From dangerous liaisons in the Wild West, to parlour intrigues, and unrequited love in the African jungle, a strong female presence made its way to the island within the pages of these books.

Proof the incidental details within interiors like that of the Carnley Harbour Coastwatchers’ hut often have interesting insights to offer within the wider narratives they tell.

  • Kimberley Stephenson is collections manager at the Southland Museum & Art Gallery Niho o te Taniwha

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