Leigh Straw

Author & Academic

The fascinating and unknown story of Australia's first female detective - and a gripping and colourful account of Sydney crime in the 1920s to 1940s

An engaging account of an extraordinary, trailblazing woman - Australia's first female detective - Lillian Armfield is also the vivid and gripping story of the origins of Sydney's organised crime underbelly.

'Special Constable' Lillian Armfield was policing Sydney's mean streets during some of the most dramatic years of crime in the city. By the late 1920s, eastern Sydney was the heartland of organised crime and the notorious turf battles known as the Razor Wars, where bloodied bodies were strewn across streets after late-night clashes between rival gangs. At first disapproved of by her male colleagues, and often working solo and undercover, Lillian investigated it all - from runaway girls, opium dens and back-street sly grog shops to drug trafficking, rape and murder. She dealt with the infamous crime figures of the day - Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh, 'Botany May' Smith and their associates - who eventually accorded Lillian a grudging respect.

Lillian Armfield's life and achievements were extraordinary. She paved the way for the women of today's police force and her amazing story is also a compelling chapter in Australian true crime history.

In Collie in 1929, a murder-suicide took place. The killer was identified as Andrew Straw. Dressed in war uniform and a slouch hat, a hauntingly familiar face stared out at me from the front page of Truth. Andrew Straw bore a striking resemblance to my husband. I had unearthed an unexpected family story.

Of the 330,000 Australian men who enlisted and served in World War I, close to 60,000 never returned home. As much as it is important to commemorate the war dead, it is also imperative that we remember the survivors as they moved into peacetime. Of the 32,000 West Australian men who enlisted, 23,700 returned from the war. These men tried to create a semblance of a civilian life following on from the traumas of war.

War receded from immediate view as these men readjusted to civilian life, but its impacts endured. Many returned with disabilities, mental health problems and a lowered sense of self-worth that led some to take their own lives.

In this deeply personal account, historian and writer Leigh Straw seeks a better understanding of what soldiers experienced once the fighting stopped. After the War uses the personal struggles of soldiers and their families to increase public understanding of the legacies of World War I in Western Australia and across the nation. The scars of war – mental and physical – can be lifelong for soldiers who serve their country.

This is a story of surviving life after war.

The legend of Kate Leigh, Sydney’s famed brothel madam, sly grog seller and drug dealer, has loomed large in TV’s Underbelly and every other account of Sydney’s criminal history from the 1920s to the 1960s. But she has never had a biography of her own.

Despite having more than 100 criminal convictions to her name, Kate Leigh is also remembered as a local hero, giving money to needy families and supporting her local community through the hard times of Depression and war. Here, novelist and historian Leigh Straw teases out the full story of how this wayward Reformatory girl from Dubbo made a fortune in eastern Sydney and defied the gender stereotyping of the time to become a leading underworld figure.

Esther Warden was the ‘terror’ of West End Fremantle and the most dangerous woman in Western Australia. Lilly Doyle kept company with thieves and rogues and was listed an an ‘undesirable’. May Ahern was a ‘fallen’ woman who lured men into dark street corners, tempting them away from the path of virtue.

Esther, Lilly and May were notorious female criminals in early twentieth-century Perth and Fremantle. Criminalised as drunks, prostitutes and vagrants, women committing offences against good order faced a double punishment for their social and gender transgressions.

'Drunks, Pests and Harlots' takes a trip through the underworld streets of Perth and Fremantle from 1900-1939. It offers a glimpse into the lives of criminal women facing close police surveillance, negative media coverage, strict incarceration and institutionalisation.

These lives present historical perspectives on female offenders and the development of public critiques of women who fail to meet the expectations of society.


DS Claire Patterson is back.

It's a year since the Limestone case and rival organised crime leaders seek to turn the city into a battleground for their ruthless ambitions. When a body washes up in the river and a man is found dead near the Round House, the Fremantle team know the underworld feud just got a whole lot deadlier.

Claire's former partner, Michael Halliday, is refusing to come back to work. Facing retribution for the Limestone case, Halliday is keeping a low profile managing his pub. DS Luke Groves is brought in from the Organised Crime Squad in Perth to fill Halliday's position and he's looking to make his mark at Fremantle Station.

As war looks set to boil over in Fremantle's underside, Patterson and Groves know they need to end the feud before it claims another victim. Next time it could be one of their own.

‘It’s all over now, Maggie. I will release you.’

Afraid, alone, and forsaken. A killer is stalking the historic West End streets of Fremantle preying upon the women of the port city. When a third lifeless body is found discarded in a dank alleyway with her throat ripped open, Detective Sergeant Claire Patterson is convinced she is dealing with a serial killer.

For DS Patterson, this is her first time leading a major investigation, and she's intent on proving she has what it takes, even if it means working with the antagonising DS Michael Halliday.

As the murders grip the city with fear, Claire Patterson must learn to trust Halliday if she is to catch a killer before he strikes again.

Eastern Sydney in the 1920s. Slumland streets controlled by two women - crime bosses Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. Lyndsey Collier, an ambitious country girl, joins the Women's Police.

As her work draws her into Sydney's underworld, Lyndsey discovers a greater threat than the criminals she is investigating. Betrayed by a corrupt police officer, Lyndsey escapes into the shadows of underworld Sydney to protect the man she loves.

A lifetime away and nearing death, Lyndsey begins to tell her story to Abigail Hollingsworth, a nurse at Kirkland Home for the Elderly. As she is caught up in the tale, Abby must also confront her own troubled marriage.

A gritty, haunting story of loss and regret and of a love that brings together two women generations apart.

In the months following the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy struggled to find meaning in a world that no longer made sense.

For the first time in his life, he had to make a choice about what he wanted to do and what kind of public figure he would be. In the midst of his grief, he discovered the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and French-Algerian philosopher, Albert Camus.

At poignant moments in his major speeches from 1964-1968 Robert Kennedy used passages from the Greeks and Camus to express himself and inspire his audiences. This passion for reading allowed Kennedy to intellectualise his public identity and communicate in a raw, honest way. Influenced by the Greeks and Camus, RFK's last years represent a new consciousness about the world around him.

This book details the words of wisdom that inspired Robert Kennedy and allowed him to leave his own legacy in words.

A brutal killing and a secret hidden for fifty years. Kathryn Kelly, historian and archivist, is planning a WWII exhibition at Verity Library. Her latest acquisition contains private journals from a recently deceased veteran. It should be a day like any other.

What Kathryn discovers in the journals will change her life and threaten everyone close to her. Kathryn has uncovered the truth behind the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. She knows the identity of the second shooter on the grassy knoll. Was it the CIA, the Mafia, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the Cubans, the Russians or others?

Legacy is a powerful thriller that reveals a shocking twist in the assassination of President Kennedy. It will make you question everything you thought you knew about JFK's assassination.

Scots migrating to colonial Western Australia were part of a nineteenth century trend taking Scots to various corners of the world. By the mid-nineteenth century Scots were scattered across the globe, most noticeably in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, continuing a tradition existing since the seventeenth century. But while the large groups of Scottish migrants are well known, smaller groups of Scots such as existed in Western Australia are the least recognised in settler historiography.

Focussing on the lives of the first Scots arriving in the Swan River colony from 1829 to 1850, A Semblance of Scotland shows how not all Scots went out to areas with large groups of compatriots. Westralian Scots can be seen as an example of small migrant groups that, rather than be absorbed, can and do retain a strong sense of identity.

Dr Leigh Straw is an academic, historian, and writer. She is a Senior Lecturer in Australian and Aboriginal Studies at the University of Notre Dame Fremantle.

Leigh's most recent publications, 'Lillian Armfield' - exploring the life of Australia's first female detective in early twentieth century Sydney, and 'After the War: Returned Soldiers and the Mental and Physical Scars of World War 1' are out now. ‘After the War’ was the joint winner of the 2018 Margaret Medcalf Award.

Leigh’s next book, a true crime biography of femme fatale underworld figure, Dulcie Markham, will be published in June 2019. She is currently writing a book on her journey to understand more about her Scottish ancestry and the ongoing impacts of intergenerational trauma.

Leigh is also the author of the award-winning local history 'Drunks, Pests and Harlots: Criminal Women in Perth and Fremantle, 1900-1939' and the Fremantle based Claire Patterson crime fiction series.