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