Era of sin and crime leaps from the pages

SHADOWY streets haunted by shady characters, brothels and sly grog houses with standover men brandishing razor blades. 

Sydney's dark and violent history is brought to life by Justine Larbalestier in her latest novel Razorhurst. 

Set in 1932 in the midst of a fragile peace between feuding mob bosses Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson, the novel follows young girl Kelpie as she gets pulled into a world of death and danger. 

Bookended by bloody corpses, Razorhurst explores the shadows of Sydney's past. 

Named by the city's tabloid Truth in the 1920s, 'Razorhurst' took in Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Kings Cross, among other inner-city suburbs. 

It became the centre of sin and crime in the city and was home to two of Australia's most notorious women, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. 

"I was amazed to discover that women like Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine had been such big players during the 1920s and 1930s," Justine said.

"I'd had no idea that there were women crime bosses back then, let alone that they ran what would be, in today's money, million dollar businesses."

Justine said researching Sydney's razor gangs and life in Surry Hills, where she now lives, during that time made her feel she was seeing ghosts at every corner. 

"So many of the buildings are still there," she said. 

"I'd squint and almost imagine I could see Kate Leigh driving by in her chauffeured Rolls."

Justine also took inspiration from the Justice and Police Museum's archive of New South Wales police mugshots. 

She said Razorhust's chilling standover man Bluey was based directly on the photo of razor man De Gracy. 

"I know it's a cliche, but he really does have the cold, dead eyes of a killer," Justine said. 

A second museum exhibition of forensic crimescene shots of the time also formed part of Justine's research. 

"The crimescene photos were remarkably useful because they allowed me to see what the interiors of working class inner-city Sydney homes looked like," Justine said. 

Razorhurst was heavily researched, but Justine said her favourite piece of information was the reason Tilly and Kate became the queens of the underworld. 

"It was fascinating learning that Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh had risen to prominence because of a loophole in the law," she said. 

"It was illegal for men to run brothels, but the law didn't say anything about women." 

Justine said she couldn't imagine her life without writing. 

"I've told stories since I was able to talk and started writing them down as soon as I knew how," she said. 

"I love creating stories, bringing people and places to life."  

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