The Half-Child

We love a good guest review here at Pulp Curry and today’s is about a book very dear to me, Angela Savage’s The Half-Child. For readers who don’t follow Pulp Curry on a regular basis, in the interests of full disclosure I need to declare that Angela has been my partner in life (and crime) for the last 20 years. Her book, The Half-Child, is also a great read. Many thanks to Sulari Gentill, whose own crime novel, A Few Right Thinking Men, was published in 2010 by Pantera Press.

I am a greedy reader.

When I opened The Half-Child, Angela Savage’s second Jane Keeney crime novel, I looked forward to reacquainting myself with the streets of Thailand, about which Savage writes with an intimate knowledge and affection.

I wanted once again to be shown the colour, the contrast, the cultural crater of a place where West has hurtled into East.  I wanted to see past cliché: the neon, the sleaze, the confronting corruption, to the beauty of an ancient culture and a tenacious and adaptive people. On top of all this I wanted intrigue, excitement, perhaps a little romance, and definitely some humour.  I did start out by saying I was greedy.

The Half-Child completely satiated my literary gluttony and then offered me dessert!

What Savage served up was a story set primarily in the resort town of Pattaya, Thailand, where Jane Keeney investigates the death of a young aid worker.  The novel, particularly for those who have had children, presents the heart-wrenching issues around overseas adoption.

Savage handles it all with non-judgmental compassion.  Rather than give the reader a trite outcome of good and bad, Savage shows us the sadness and uneasiness on both sides of the coin.  She makes us realise that we accept things from the developing world that we would not tolerate in our own country, that the term “better off” is unfairly weighted against the poor, but that sometimes Western concepts of social justice have no place in the harsh reality of the developing world.

Savage also subtly draws upon those common motivations in the hearts of mothers from both East and West.  Mayuree, the unwed mother of a half-child is determined to “…hold her head up high enough to protect [her child] with her shadow”.  I think of this line every time I leave my sons for some work commitment.  Motherhood, and perhaps life in general, is about making choices.  Savage’s book brings home how much harder those choices are for some.

Despite the tragic issue at the centre of this novel, the story is far from grim.  Jayne Keeney is comfortable and natural in this world.  Through her eyes we see it without cultural judgment and as a result we also see humour in the darkness.  Savage has a keen eye for the absurd and not only was I often giggling aloud whilst reading, I found myself thinking of scenes from The Half-Child and grinning insanely at later (often inappropriate) moments.

Jane’s penchant for slipping into the guise of religious zealot simply by responding to everything with “praise the Lord” makes me laugh every time I think of it.  I liked Jayne Keeney in Behind the Night Bazaar (Savage’s first novel), I felt really connected with her in The Half-Child.

This latest novel also introduces us to Rajiv Patel, who becomes a “Watson” to Jayne’s “Holmes”.  He is to say the least, endearing.  He softens, challenges and supports Jayne.  The dynamic between them is beautifully written…a friendship, a partnership and something more.  Again Savage flouts gender conventions without it being a simple and self-conscious reversal of social roles.

In the end, as I closed The Half-Child, I felt well nourished.  I am already hungry for another taste of Jayne’s world and am heartened to hear that Angela Savage is hard at work on the third Jayne Keeney novel.

The Half-Child and its predecessor Behind the Night Bazaar are both so much more than detective stories.  My philosophy on books is admittedly simple.  Make me think and you’ll have my respect, make me laugh and I’ll be you’ll have my friendship.

The Half-Child has both.

Parker and the art of hard-boiled crime writing

December 31 2010 marks the second anniversary of the death at age 75 of one of the masters of hard-boiled crime writing, Donald Westlake.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Westlake lately and his best known creation, the professional criminal Parker.

Westlake was a prolific writer. While he specialised in crime fiction, he also did science fiction, erotic stories and westerns under a myriad of pseudonyms of which Richard Stark, the name he used for the Parker books, remains the best known. He also worked on a number of screenplays, including the adaption of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.

Sixteen Parker novels appeared between 1962 and 1974. For reasons I’m not clear about, Westlake took a rest from the character until 1997, then wrote another eight Parker books.

Several of the books were filmed, the best known of which is Point Blank starring Lee Marvin (later remade as Payback with Mel Gibson as the lead, but the less said about it the better).

I recently discovered via The Violent World of Parker website, The Outfit, an excellent 1973 adaption of Westlake’s novel of the same name, is finally getting an outing on DVD. (The details are here).

Robert Duvall does the honours as Parker or Macklin, as the central character in the film is called, alongside Joe Don Baker, Robert Ryan and the siren of seventies American B-movies, Karen Black. Those of us who have loving held onto our VHS cassettes of the movie can finally trade up.

There’s even a vaguely Blaxsploitation version of Parker, The Split, featuring one of my favourite sixties/seventies actors Jim Brown. In what must have been one hell of a wrap party, it also starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland.

Richard Stark aka Donald Westlake

But Parker is at his best in the written word. The character’s influence on crime writers and aspiring crime writers everywhere has been enormous, present company included.

Parker is a career criminal who steals things for a living. Get in his way on a job or try to double cross him afterwards and he’ll hurt you. Yet he’s not a psychopath in the vein of so many contemporary literary and film criminals. His only morals are what it takes to survive, no more, no less. He’s almost an anti-character, emotionless, with few social connections and hardly any past that Westlake ever let the reader know about.

The most recent Parker I’ve read was The Sour Lemon Score (1969). It’s not the best of the series but it’s pretty good and it made me fell a bit like I was saying goodbye to an old friend (not that Parker had friends). Now there’s only the very hard to find Butcher’s Moon and I’ll have completed all of the first wave of Parker books.

I’ve still got a few of the post-1997 Parker books to get through but they lack of hard-boiled feel of the first 16. Parker had mellowed and didn’t come across as nearly so immoral and cynical as his earlier incarnation.

The Parker books are meticulously constructed, using multiple points of view, Parker’s and others. Westlake’s writing style is lean and disciplined. He’s also a master of less is more.

I can’t help but wonder whether part of the reason for this is because Westlake did all his work on manual typewriter. When I first worked as a journalist in Asia I wrote on a small portable type writer I’d bought in a pawn shop in Brisbane. It was a pain in the arse to carry around and getting spare parts and ribbons was a nightmare but it gave my writing real discipline.

At their core all the Parker novels are about the same thing, a heist gone wrong and the consequences –  that and the mechanics of planning and conducting the crime. Parker is a craftsman. It just so happens his chosen trade is illegal, and Westlake was expert at portraying him at work.

Veteran Australian crime writer Garry Disher, whose character Wyatt is based on Parker, nailed it when I asked him in a recent interview what it is about the heist gone wrong genre of crime fiction and film that never seems to go stale.

“Well, there is always the promise that it might go right for a Wyatt or a Parker. There’s also the tension of the actual crime, and when it falls apart when he robs a bank or whatever and things go wrong. Can Wyatt retrieve the situation? Can he get the money back? Can he find out who betrayed him? That’s where the tension lies. Wyatt finding out where it has gone wrong and how he is going to get his revenge or get the money back or both.”

The Sour Lemon Score is about a heist gone sour. One of the gang, George Uhl steals the gang’s haul of $33,000 (not much by today’s standards but its real money, not numbers on a computer screen) and kills all his partners except Parker, which is a big mistake.

Parker spends the rest of the novel travelling up and down the eastern US seaboard searching for Uhl and the money. As is usually the case, things get complex when a couple of hoods pick up on the scent of the money and try to muscle in.

Two things stand out about the book. The first is how good Westlake was at depicting the criminal underworld. A phone call is made, a contact visited, someone talks to a friend of a friend. Each transaction in The Sour Lemon Score leaves Parker with just enough information to move onto the next. There is a constant feel of tension and disorientation.

The second was Westlake’s skill at depicting apparently normal people and places, then transforming them with the slightest twist into something much darker. A second-hand furniture shop run by an old lady is a front for an illegal firearms seller, a down at heel motel is owned by an ex-hooker who let’s people from the life stay when they need a place to lie low.

The best example of this from The Sour Lemon Score is when Parker visits the widow of Benny, a long-term criminal associate and one of the men killed by Uhl.

“Parker had been here a couple of times before, and he remembered how Benny too had built himself a completely different at-home image. He was a semi-retired putterer, the Little League umpire, the maker of model planes and pup tents with the neighbourhood boys, the constructor of bird houses and clipper of hedges, a vague and amiable little man in baggy pants, with his glasses slipping down his nose. The difference was so complete that the first time Parker had come here he hadn’t recognised Weiss and had then thought Weiss had changed so much, grown too old, and couldn’t be used anymore. But Weiss has let himself know he was still his old self on the job, and he was.”

Benny’s widow, who is baking a cake when Parker arrives, is also more than she seems. In a magnificently understated scene, she bargains hard with Parker for money in return for the few grains of information she holds that is useful to him.

‘Thanks, Grace,” says Parker once their trade has been completed.

“I did it for the money,” is all she says back.

Animal Kingdom

There’ll come a day when the Australian film and television industry will have to create a special award for Melbourne’s crime families in recognition of their services in providing so much rich material for screenwriters. Present to accept the award will be whatever members of the Pettingill family who are not dead or incarcerated.

For those readers not familiar with the name, the Pettingill family were Melbourne’s most notorious crime family. They were involved in drug dealing, murder and armed robbery. Two of the sons stood trial in 1998 for the shooting of a couple of Victorian police officers. They were acquitted but are still widely suspected of committing the killings.

Their exploits have also formed the basis for some of the country’s best crime television, including the ABC series Janus and Phoenix, and more recently the film, Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom is the best known of the three Australian crime films released in 2010. Unusually for an Australian film, not only has it received international critical acclaim (including a Golden Globes nomination for actress Jacki Weaver),  it was a success locally.

Most interestingly, Animal Kingdom, along with Red Hill and The Horseman, the two other local crime releases in 2010, were all made by first time film directors, a big improvement on the lackluster Australian crime cinema scene in 2009.

After his mother’s heroin overdose, 17 year-old Josh (James Fresheville) has no choice but to live with his grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Weaver) and her family who he has not had contact with for years.

Doubts about the wisdom of this arrangement are apparent from the first morning Josh wakes up in his new surroundings to find Uncle Baz (Joel  Edgerton) counting out the proceeds of the latest armed robbery on the kitchen table as Janine makes orange juice.

Gradually, we meet the other uncles. Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a tattooed, twitchy drug dealer. The youngest uncle, Darren, is like a beaten dog struggling to keep the last vestiges of his decency (and sanity) from being sucked dry by his siblings.

But they are wall flowers compared  Uncle ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendlesohn). On the run from the armed robbery squad who have the entire family under 24-7 surveillance, Pope is an old-school heist guy and sociopath completely unable to deal with normal society.

As the film’s title suggests, Josh and his pretty and naive girlfriend Nicole (Laura Wheelright) are like slow-moving animals amid the snarling pack of carnivores that is the Cody crime family

The only one with any brains or common sense is Baz. He can see the family’s power is on the wane and wants to go legit. His subsequent murder by rogue cops is the signal for all hell to break loose.

In revenge, Pope, Craig and Darren kill two police, escaping in a car stolen by Josh. Police quickly finger the younger member of the Cody family as the weak link. Even though Josh can tell he’s in deep shit, he totally underestimates the lengths his uncles will go to cover their backs.

I have to admit to not being all that taken by Animal Kingdom when I saw it soon after its release. In particular, I thought that the bumbling efforts by the police to protect Josh lessoned the film’s dramatic pace. As did the fact that the uncles get off the wrap for murdering the cops with such apparent ease.

These things still bugged me a little second time around but they’re small beer compared to the film’s strengths. The look of Animal Kingdom is great. I can’t remember a film where Melbourne looked so downbeat and gritty.

While aficionados of Pettingill’s clan’s previous cinematic outings will recognise many of the characters, writer and director David Michod seems to breath new life into them.

The stand out performance is Weaver’s turn as the scheming matriarch,  looking after her boys with barely contained Incestuous lust. She is the glue that holds the film together. The brothers all put in solid performances, particularly Mendlesohn’s ticking time bomb portrayal of Pope. Guy Pearse is good as Leckie,the kind-hearted but ineffectual cop trying to close the Cody family down.

As Josh’s girlfriend Laura Wheelright managers too pull off being both vulnerable and jaded. She’s the perfect foil for Fresheville. His character has shut so much of himself down, to the point where he almost appears to be sleep walking through the film. It’s a logical reaction to his day-to-day existence, first with his heroin addicted mother, then with his adopted family.

Fresheville’s performance mirrors one of the most unsettling aspects of Animal Kingdom, the way that so much of the film’s plot unfolds with little context or for the most part explanation about what’s going on.

One day Josh is living with his junkie mother, the next he shared digs with a notorious crime family. The death of his mother, the exploits of the Cody family, police corruption, the legal system,  nothing is reasoned or analysed. They just happen.

The effect is deeply unsettling.

Hardcore Horseman

The Horseman is about the transformation of a balding 44-year old small businessman into a killing machine as he tracks down the men he holds responsible for the death of his daughter. She died after participating in a hard core porn film, a video cassette of which mysteriously appears in his post one day.

This 2008 film, which only got local release in Australia in 2010, taps into a rich vein of movies about tightly wound white men who’ve played by the rules all their lives but finally snap over one injustice against them (perceived or real) too many.

It immediately reminded me of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, which featured a conservative mid-west businessman (played by George C Scott) who ventures into the sordid LA underworld to look for his run-away daughter now making porn movies. But although both films are about men taking justice into their own hands when the police prove ineffectual, The Horseman is a very different beast to its 1979 counterpart.

The Horseman opens with the central character, Christian, a pest exterminator, beating up a man with a crowbar. After extracting a few answers, Christian douses the man’s house in petrol and sets it on fire, presumably with his victim still inside, changing from his work clothes as it burns in the background.

Christian spends the rest of the film traveling up and down the Queensland coast, his journey interspersed with memories of his daughter as a child, locating the men connected with the movie. Each encounter gives him just enough information to move to the next.

He confronts and for the most part kills the men he comes into contact with, including the distributor, the cameraman, and the actors. There is genuine ambivalence in his first decision to kill but it quickly becomes easier and his methods get more and more extreme. This is fueled by the fact that virtually none of the men are repentant and their taunts that Jessie, the daughter, came to shoot of her own free will. It’s the one thing Christian absolutely does not want to hear.

The only break in the killing occurs when Christian reluctantly picks up Alice, a young runaway, to whom he can be the sort of father figure his biological daughter rejected.

The film, populated by an almost completely Queensland cast, was shot by first time Australian director Steven Kastrissios on a budget of eighty grand. Not too shabby an effort in anyone’s books.

Critics singled out the violence for particular criticism. There’s certainly no shortage of it; knives, pliers and a blow torch are some of the weapons of choice. There are a lot of fight scenes, some of them unnecessarily drawn out.

That said, the film is well shot and Kastrissios gets good performances from his unknowns, particularly Peter Marshall. As Christian, he brings the required everyman quality and look to the role although his rapid transformation into a cold-blooded super killer able to hold his own against hardened criminals undermines this authenticity.

The contrast with Hardcore’s Jake Van Dorn, couldn’t be greater. Van Dorn’s violent side emerges gradually and the results are mild compared to Christian’s killing spree.

Van Dorn hires a cheap private eye, Andy (another fantastic performance by Peter Boyle), to find his daughter after she goes missing on a church retreat in California. Reluctantly, Van Dorn makes the decision to enter the world of pornography by masquerading as a porn producer casting actors in order to get close to his daughter.

At the conclusion of Hardcore, the daughter willingly accompanies her father home. Even if Christian’s daughter were alive you get the feeling there’d be no such happy ending. It soon becomes clear Christian doesn’t really want to understand what his daughter did, he just wants to punish the people he holds responsible.

The DVD extras on The Horseman contain a couple of deleted scenes that would have added a lot to the film. This includes a confrontation between Jessie and Christian in which she taunts him over the affair with his secretary that presumable led to the dissolution of his marriage, and threatens to move out. There a palpable sense the daughter is already involved with the men who will eventually contribute to her death.

The two films have a number of other interesting differences.

It’s been a while since I watched Hardcore, but I vividly remember the scene where Andy, in an attempt to explain to his client what has happened, takes Van Dorn to a sleazy porn theatre screening the film with his daughter in it.

It’s a throw back to the time when you had to physically go into a cinema to watch porn film rather than just click three times on your computer mouse. These days, anyone with a hand-held camera and some willing participants can make it and load it onto the web.

The setting for Schrader’s film is the sleazy world of theatres, sex shops and peep shows that used to inhabit the inner urban sections of many cities. The danger in The Horseman lies in the outer suburbs and the bush along the Queensland coast, home to pockets of entrenched disadvantage and one of the most casualised workforces in the country.

Indeed, it’s easy to see Christian as one of the army of independent contractors who flourished over the decade of conservative rule in Australia before being hit hard by the financial crisis in 2007. His wife has left him, business probably sucks, he’s got mortgage stress up to the back teeth and his daughter hates him.

Perhaps this was part of the point Kastrissios was trying to make. If so, he doesn’t quite get there.

This review is the second in a series looking at Australian crime films of 2010. The first, Red Hill, can be viewed here. The third, Animal Kingdom, will appear before the New Year.

Red Hill

It’s not clear exactly how to label Australian director Patrick Hughes’ début film, Red Hill. It is part spaghetti Western, part noir-infused revenge flick, part Blacksploitation, and part Australian mariachi shoot ’em up.

It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is it works, more than any other Australian crime film I have seen for a while (and, yes, that includes Animal Kingdom).

Young police officer Shane Cooper (True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten) and his pregnant wife (Claire van der Boom) have moved to the dying country town of Red Hill.

It’s only Cooper’s first day on the job, but already his boss, Sheriff Old Bill (Steve Bisely) is being an asshole, everyone is taking the piss out of him for being from the city and a mighty storm is blowing Red Hill’s way.

But the weather’s not the only thing about to turn nasty.

As Cooper walks into the police station to report for duty, a TV in the background is reporting that accused wife murderer and attempted cop killer Jimmy Conway (Tom E Lewis from The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) has broken out of a nearby prison.

Soon the town is buzzing with speculation that Conway is heading to Red Hill to exact his revenge on the man who put him away, Old Bill. The Sheriff puts together a posse of red necks and local businessmen to defend the town.

“We all know what we’re dealing with,” Old Bill intones as he passes out the guns. “Jimmy Conway rides into town, he’ll bring hell with him.”

The new boy in town, Cooper is assigned to protect the route into town judged least likely to be used by Conway. There’s no prize for guessing what happens. and soon Conway is rampaging through the town dispatching Old Bill’s men and unearthing secrets.

Hughes makes the most of the breath-taking location (the Victorian town of Omeo and its environs). The action is well-directed and fast paced. The soundtrack, part-Morricone, part Australian cock rock also works well with the material.

Casting Lewis as Conroy gives the role a certain gravitas, even if his role is a little too Terminator-like, and allows the film to cover some interesting plot territory. Bisely is great as Old Bill. Kwanten holds also his own.

The only disappointment is the complete under utilisation of van der Boom. She was great in the 2008 Australian film noir, The Square, but in Red Hill she gets absolutely nothing to work with.

It’s the one failure in an otherwise spectacular first film.

Garry Disher interview

Garry Disher is a veteran of the Australian crime-writing scene. He is the author a series of books featuring the professional hold-up man known as Wyatt. Disher wrote six Wyatt novels in the nineties and a seventh was recently released by Text and took out the top prize in the 2010 Ned Kelly awards. Disher has also authored a number of books featuring Hal Challis and Ellen Destry, two police working on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsular, about an hour’s drive southeast of Melbourne, where Disher also lives. I talked to him for the issue 5 of Crime Factory about the difference between writing hard-boiled characters and police procedurals, why after over a ten-year break he decided to write another Wyatt book and the state of crime fiction in Australia.

It’s been over 10 years since the last Wyatt book, Fallout in 1997. Why the break and what inspired you to give Wyatt another outing after such a long time?

The break was to try and get established with the new series of police procedurals, the Challis and Destry books, which for me was a completely different way of looking at plot and structure. I wanted a break from Wyatt because there was basically one book a year and I thought I might get stale on them.

There are a number of reasons why I came back to Wyatt. I’d often go to festivals or give talks in libraries and people would come up to me and say ‘when are you going to bring back Wyatt,’ so I have a sense of a readership for him out there. At the same time I was getting tired of the police procedurals I was writing, so when my German publisher said we are about to publish number six have you got a seventh in the wing for us, I thought, well, yeah, it was a good time to write another Wyatt.

Are you surprised by the positive reaction to the latest Wyatt book?

I’m always surprised by positive reactions. When I read reviews that are positive I always think it’s not me, it’s another guy that I am reading about.

One of the things I thought you did so well in the latest Wyatt is way you created a sense of an old school heist guy who is out of his time and place in a high tech society. The modern world is really pressing in on him and the atmosphere in the book is very claustrophobic. That was obviously a conscious decision?

It was in the sense that I’d read the Richard Stark novels and I liked the remote and amoral nature of his character Parker. I didn’t want to create some sort of James Bond character who is always charming to women, ready with a quick quip and good with cars. His roots are working class and if he happened to be very good at by-passing electronic security systems, then that would mean that I would have to do a hell of a lot of research on how you do that and then I would have keep up to date with the technology. Then there’s the question of how I make that interesting in a book, so I went with the idea of the old-style heist guy. He relies on experts occasionally, but usually they betray him or something like that.

On one level all the Wyatt books have been about a heist gone wrong, which is essentially what the Parker books were about too. What is it about this genre of crime fiction that works so well?

Well, there is always the promise that it might go right for a Wyatt or a Parker. There’s also the tension of the actual crime, and when it falls apart when he robs a bank or whatever and things go wrong. Can Wyatt retrieve the situation? Can he get the money back? Can he find out who betrayed him? That’s where the tension lies. Wyatt finding out where it has gone wrong and how he is going to get his revenge or get the money back or both.

Donald Westlake, who used the pseudonym of Richard Stark, said that he meant the Parker books to be about “a workman at work”. Process, mechanics, trouble shooting, sometimes of a very technical nature dominate his books, which is why some people say they have so few parallels. Was it hard to write a character that was, in a sense, an homage to Parker without it being a parody?

It required a lot of thinking through. After I had read the Parker books I had to forget him and Wyatt had to be my character. Part of that was deciding not to know too much about him. If we knew who his mum and sister were and that he had favourite teacher in grade five or his old man used to beat him up, suddenly we are learning too much about him, he’s becoming too vulnerable.

At the same time, I give little clues about his past. In his latest book, for example, he is helping Lydia wash her hair and suddenly thinks, did I ever do this? Did a mother or sister ever do it for me? It gives him a feeling of tenderness that he’s not used to and he’s backing away from it but at the same time acknowledging it. But that sort of background is about as much as I am prepared to provide.

That was a fascinating thing about the recent book, you give us absolutely no back-story for what Wyatt has done in the last decade and it works fantastically.

That was a conscious decision. If there’s too much background too early in a book, I think you loose your readers. It was enough to hint that things went wrong and he had to go away for a while.

Do you have a favourite Parker novel?

I think it’s too long since I’ve read them. I bought them all one by one about 10 or 15 years ago and have told myself I should read them again. I do remember the first one in particular and I’ve seen the film that Lee Marvin was in, Point Blank. I also saw the Mel Gibson remake of that film but it was terrible.

Is there going to be another Wyatt book?

Yes, I think I need to follow up with another.

Any clues where you might be going with him, because as I said earlier, you have sort of backed him into a corner?

Yes, well, that is part of cranking up the tension. I don’t know what I will do as a backdrop to the next one. For the last couple of years we have gone to Noosa for school holidays and my first impressions were those big houses clustered along the canals. I took the kids out on a little motorboat and went up and down the canals and I could see Wyatt doing that. Casing these places, figuring out when they are empty. Whether the next book is set there, however, I don’t know.

What crime fiction are you enjoying reading at the moment?

I have just been re-reading the Martin Beck police procedurals by the Swedish husband-and-wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. There are ten of them, first published in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, and recently republished. The authors were both communists and critical of welfare state Sweden, how poverty leads to crime and how Sweden was becoming a police state. They are good stories, good yarns, but there’s a lot of social commentary threaded through them too. I have also been re-reading some novels by the American writer John Sandford, his Davenport novels. He’s a sneaky plotter, I admire him greatly. I have a large stack of books by the bed including the third Stig Larson, which I haven’t read yet.

The books about the two police, Challis and Destry, are the focus of your other crime series. You said they were a different way of looking at plot and structure. Why did you feel the need to change your style of writing from the Wyatt books?

I felt there was a danger of getting repetitive with the Wyatt books because they follow a certain pattern, and I think writers have to keep pushing their boundaries and try new structural forms and approaches.

I’d been reading a lot of the police procedurals of the English writer, John Harvey, around a character called Inspector Resnick and what I liked about them are that they are set in a small regional town, not another big anonymous city and they have an ensemble caste and deal with major alongside minor ones, just as you’d expect in a regional setting.

They are set on the Mornington Peninsula. Is there a bit of a dark underbelly there?

I have certainly bumped up the crime rate there, the murder rate in particular.

I didn’t know where I would set these books but when I moved down to the Mornington Peninsula, the serial killer John Paul Denyer had recently abducted and murdered three young women near Frankston. I went into the deli near Hastings one day and heard some mothers of teenage daughters talking about their fears, and how their lives had changed in order to chaperone their daughters everywhere, and I had this strong sense of community anxiety. I knew then that the Peninsula was a good community to write about.

When I read the local newspapers, I do get a sense of a society under strain a bit. There is a shortage of police. The population is growing and services don’t keep up. There are not enough primary schools for the kids that are moving in. All of these things interest me, as does the tension and the gap between rich and poor on the Peninsula. I don’t want to beat the reader over the head with it but it is present as a layer in all the Challis and Destry books.

Can you talk a bit more about the different mindset you have to apply to writing the Challis and Destry books as opposed to the Wyatt series?

The Wyatt novels have a simple structure. Wyatt identifies a target, he gets a robbery crew together if necessary, something goes wrong and he has to put it right. The plotting at that level is quite simple.

With the Challis and Destry police procedurals I needed to stay more consciously a step ahead of the reader and try to trick the reader in the sense of planting clues and having multiple plot threads. At the same time I am weaving in aspects of the characters’ personal lives or workplace tensions or whatever it may be. So there are quite a few more balls in the air.

In terms of writing, are you a planner or do you just start writing?

I’m a planner. An extreme planner. I identify what the main crime might be and what the social milieu might be that it takes place in. Once I have identified the crime and where it might be, then I work out who did it. I might know from the start who did it, in which case I have to work out how they did it, how it unfolds and how the police might investigate it.

So you have pretty much plotted out the entire book by the time you have sat down to start writing?

Yes, chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene, trying to balance the demands of character traits and personality with those of a good plot.  I’m always testing the plan, asking myself things like: ‘Would she do that, given the kind of person she is?’ But I trust my instincts too. If it takes me away from the plan I always follow my instincts. For example in Snap Shot, the third in the series, I changed the identity of the murderer in the final rewrite before it went to print.

The Wyatt books are pretty hardboiled. I was trying to think of other books and characters like them on the Australian market and I couldn’t really think of any. It’s very different to the US market where there’s a much bigger publishing industry just focusing on noir, hard-boiled and pulp crime fiction. Obviously there is the question of size, but is that the only reason why there’s not more of a market for harder boiled crime fiction in Australia?

I think there is a kind of cultural cringe operating against all Australian crime fiction. If you go into one of the chain books stores like Angus and Robertson or Collins, they will have all the big new American and British authors on prominent display but not the Australians, not unless it’s Peter Temple, maybe. So there’s a mindset encouraged by the chain bookshops, where most book-buyers shop, but even some of the independents are culpable of it.

About four or five years ago several of the independent booksellers put out a catalogue of the newest crime titles. There was not a single Australian title in it, even though Peter Temple, Kerry Greenwood and I had just had books out. I got really cranky and wrote to all of them in turn and got a couple of measly answers but it just didn’t occur to them, I think, to put an Australian title there. It’s almost as though local publishers think that the Australian product is not as good as American hard-boiled. I think we have got to battle against that.

You have won prizes for the Challis and Destry books, including a Ned Kelly for Chain of Evidence in 2007. But there hasn’t been much recognition for Wyatt, even though he is one of the stayers on the crime scene. I remember when I first started reading crime fiction 20 years ago, in terms of Australian material, there was Peter Corris and his character Cliff Hardy and there was Wyatt. I know there was other stuff out but they were my first two.

Yes, well hopefully that might change a bit with [his current publisher] Text. I want to acknowledge Allen and Unwin, who published a lot of my early crime titles and were able to sell some to overseas publishers, but they struggled to find a local readership.  Michael Heyward  [the owner of Text] really gets behind all his titles, particularly his crime titles. It helps to have a young, newish and aggressive publisher. It’s possible Allen and Unwin didn’t really know how to publish the Wyatt books. They released them as inoffensive little pulp paperbacks that were not going to be noticed in bookshops.

Paperbacks that litter the shelves of second hand books shops across Australia and further abroad.

That’s true.  When I ran out of my own copies I went on the Internet. I was trying to find a copy of Kick Back. I found it for six dollars fifty in New Zealand or $240 in New York.

Is there much interest in Australian crime fiction overseas that you are aware of?

I did an author tour of the states last year for Blood Moon. I had reasonably modest audiences in books stores. I was certainly aware of a following for those books but not for Australian crime fiction in general.

Where are the Challis and Destry published apart from Australia?

Challis and Destry are published in the United States, Germany, the UK, Italy and a couple of smaller markets like Turkey and Spain.

What about Wyatt, is he going to get an international outing?

The first six Wyatts have been published in Germany, where they have been a bit of a hit and by smaller publishers in Denmark and Holland.

Soho, the same American group that publish the Challis and Destry novels, are publishing him later this year or early next year.

In addition to writing crime novels, you have also written for TV.  What was it like and how is it different from writing novels?

After a couple of Wyatts had appeared, back in the 1990s, I was contacted by a Sydney production company to write a character profile for a series character, and three storylines that a scriptwriter could turn into two-hour telemovies.

I got paid well, it helped me clear our mortgage, but two things went wrong, leaving me pretty cynical.  First, I had met an undercover cop who had infiltrated the NSW bikie gangs, and was interested in the strange kind of double life he led, where he had to keep reminding himself he was the good guy, and a normal guy, with a house and a job and a girlfriend, and I thought a guy like that would make a terrific series character.  But the producers said: ‘This is a bit dark; Gary Sweet can’t do dark.’  So, I had a created character in mind, they had an actor.

Then the storylines. It’s a strange form, present tense, no writing craft involved, only plotting craft.  ‘And then this happened and this happened and a bit later that happened’.  One story I wrote involved art theft, stolen paintings being used to bankroll crimes or as security for crooked loans, etc, etc.  In real life, art theft is a big deal.  But the producers said: ‘We see our audiences as the western suburbs of Sydney.  They’re not interested in art.’  So, take the money and run is the only attitude to take to film and TV.

Picture credits: Text Publishing and Allen and Unwin

Redback

Redback is a fast paced thriller with a distinct pulp spy fiction feel from one of the newest players on the Australian publishing scene, genre specialists Clan Destine Press.

It opens on a small Pacific island, where ex-Australian army commander Bryn Gideon and her team of retrieval agents, known as the Redbacks, are attempting to rescue hostages being held by local rebels. It’s the first but by no means the last time in the book that things don’t go as planned with bloody results.

The story moves to Tokyo where American investigative journalist Scott Dreher thinks he is onto the story of his life about a revolutionary manga combat simulation computer game that has been pirated and is being used to train terrorists. This quickly takes a turn for the worse when its creator is killed, turning Dreher into a fugitive from the knife-wielding assassin.

What follows is a sequence of apparently unrelated events, including bombings in Europe and America and an assassination in Sydney. Gideon, her Redbacks and Dreher soon find themselves in a common quest to unmask a larger conspiracy on the part of a shadowy international criminal mastermind.

Without giving too much away, the plot of Redback bounces between a number of locations, including Pakistan, France and Thailand, and introduces a host of characters, including rightwing American extremists and mysterious terrorists cum criminals. There’s high-level intrigue in the halls of power and some good, gritty on the ground action.

At times, it almost feels as through there is a bit too much going on – the reader definitely needs to pay attention. But Redback author and Clan Destine Press founder, Lindy Cameron, manages to stay on top of things and deliver a cliff hanger of a conclusion.

Whether it was  self-conscious on the part of Cameron or not, one of my favourite aspects of Redback is its liberal use of high-tech spy gadgets, which give the book a great pulpy spy fiction feel. I particularly liked the Redbacks with their rooftop apartment headquarters and operations centre and the two-way communication devices surgically implanted in their ear lobes.

The idea of a crack team of private soldiers whose job is to get people out of difficult situations is a great invention that offers plenty of room for a sequel.

This is the second outing for Red Back, which was originally published by Mira Books in 2008. If Cameron, the author of several works of crime fiction and true crime gets her way, this is exactly the type of material Clan Destine will be publishing, “the best of Australian genre fiction I can find by new writers and some older hands who are out of print or want to try something new.”

“I established Clan Destine Press because I wanted to take control of things for myself: and to ensure that my authors feel they have control too. I am prepared to take risks on new authors; on inventive genre fiction of any kind.”

The plan is to follow these up in 2011 with what Cameron describes as a couple of “gritty crime novels” and an urban fantasy, amongst others.

Clan Destine Press books are available from all independent bookstores and Borders and (for overseas readers) on-line at the Clan Destine website: www.clandestinepress.com.au

A version of this review originally appeared in issue 5 of Crime Factory.