To begin with, let me set out my qualifications for this role—other than Denis Tracey’s explanation that, because I’ve been reporting politics for fifty years, I know where a lot of bodies are buried.
Firstly, I developed an interest in Sydney’s mean streets as a midnight to dawn police roundsman for The Daily Mirror in my journalistic youth. I was once chased down one of those mean streets by the legendary Bumper Farrell, Sydney’s roughest, toughest copper in the 1950s and ‘60s. On another street in King’s Cross late one night, a Mirror photographer and I heard a call on the police radio about a shooting in a building around the corner. We got there within seconds and followed bloodstains to the door, well before any police cars had arrived, but were nevertheless greeted by a well-known detective. He was a guest at the gangland party where the shooting occurred. Very Sydney.
My second qualification— when I switched from reporting crime to reporting politics it wasn’t a big leap. In a desk drawer at home I’ve got a reference from Sir Robert Askin saying what a good bloke I am—and it didn’t cost me a cent.
Third, I’ve been to The Oxford Bar in Edinburgh where both John Rebus and Ian Rankin drink, and I’ve got the souvenir bookmark to prove it.
And fourthly, I read crime all the time. Always have. Because It’s a lot more entertaining than another John Howard biography, or Fifty Shades of Beetroot by Barnaby Joyce.
This love of crime took me to Crimefest in Bristol in May, where—in addition to a lot of discussion about crime-writing– I heard Lee Child, of Jack Reacher fame, tell his favourite joke. A bloke, driving home in Los Angeles, phones his wife to tell her he’ll be a bit late because the traffic is crazy. Be careful, she warns. I’ve just heard on the radio that there’s a maniac driving the wrong way on the freeway. What do you mean one? says the bloke. There are hundreds of them.
It COULD be Sydney.
I’m really pleased to be here tonight because, in my view, an annual prize for the best book, TV series or film about crime and Sydney is a no-brainer. If ever there was a town that deserves such an award, that’s crying out for it even, it’s Sydney. The BAD:Sydney Crime Writers Festival deserves high praise for introducing the Danger Prize, as well as the Danger Lifetime Achievement Award for a career exploring Sydney’s dark side in fiction or in factual form.
To say that the association between Sydney and crime could not have been more intimate from the start is a truism. Mark Morri is right when he says you can’t understand Sydney if you don’t understand the part crime has played. I’d add that you certainly can’t understand the politics of this city and this state if you don’t factor in the crime.
Crime and Sydney are such a comfortable fit. As with love and marriage in the old song, if you try to separate ém—it’s an illusion. This is a city that began life as a gaol. A town built by convicts for convicts. Criminals and corrupt law enforcement officers arrived together with the First Fleet, establishing a cosy tradition.
Some of the troops in the early settlement even decided they’d rather be convicts. A period of servitude as felons, they reckoned, was preferable to years of military discipline. I recently read a report of the 1826 trial of two privates, Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson, who stole 12 yards of calico—wearing their uniforms and making no attempt to hide their identity—so they’d be drummed out of the regiment and maybe transported to Moreton Bay or Norfolk Island. Things didn’t quite go to plan, but the episode and others like it suggest that the corps and the convicts were pretty much inter-changeable.
A hundred and seventy years after Governor Phillip unloaded his prison ships, Cyril Pearl could assert in his true crime classic, Wild Men of Sydney, that: “Some day someone will write the full story of Australian roguery, from the rum racketeers of the First Fleet to the beer racketeers of the Second World War, from land swindlers to mine swindlers, from William Wentworth to Claude de Bernales. The dramatis personae will be well-assorted—red-coated English officers and wide-hatted Australian squatters; Tories and Socialists; knights and nobodies; politicians, policemen, aldermen, racing men and brewers; and every state will provide a scene or two, though unquestionably New South Wales will steal the show.”
NSW—Sydney—continues to steal the show. When the Fraser Government set up a Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking headed by Supreme Court justice Don Stewart in 1981,the judge insisted that the Royal Commission headquarters must be in Sydney because, he said, Sydney was the crime capital of Australia. I don’t think that has changed.
Sydney crime has always produced larger-than-life, colourful characters. Crooked coppers and corrupt politicians have been a big part of the mix.
From razor gangs to bikie gangs, Sydney has led theway. Economic and social pressures such as those we’re seeing now associated with population growth, immigration and refugees have almost always been more pronounced in this city than in others, producing conditions in which crime flourishes.
So Sydney should be a crime writer’s paradise. And there’s no doubt it is when it comes to true crime. There’s been a resurgence in the appeal of true crime everywhere—look at the success of the Serial podcast—and that is certainly evident in Sydney. Crime fiction, though, is another story, so to speak.
That’s illustrated by the shortlist for tonight’s inaugural Danger Prize. Three true crime books, all of them terrific reads by the way. And a TV mini-series based on fact, also gripping, thanks to the dynamic duo of shared initials, Roger Rogerson and Richard Roxburgh. But no crime fiction.There seems to have been shortage of good fictional crime-writing focused on Sydney last year. And that’s disappointing. I hope we’re not seeing a trend here.
There’s undoubtedly a market for crime fiction. I heard Candice Fox say on radio the other day that it now even outsells romance. But, while Sydney might be Australia’s crime capital, it is NOT the crime fiction capital. Obviously the Danger Prize won’t remedy that, but it might help.
Raymond Chandler told us that down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean. Clive James extended that. Discussing Donna Leon’s crime novels set in Venice, he wrote: “Down these mean streets a man must row who is not himself mean.”
But leaving aside the means of travel…Los Angeles has Harry Bosch. Edinburgh has John Rebus. Venice has Guido Brunetti. Boston still has Spenser, thanks to Ace Atkins taking over authorship after Robert B. Parker’s death. And so on. Sydney, of course, HAD Cliff Hardy. Sadly, no more. Even sadder, we no longer have Peter Corris either.
As well as Peter Corris’s hero, the likes of Marele Day’s private eye, Claudia Valentine, used to be found in Sydney’s mean streets. And Jon Cleary’s homicide cop Scobie Malone. Don’t get me wrong. There’s still some great crime fiction being written in and about Sydney. I’m a big Candice Fox fan, for example. But Clive James also wrote—tongue-incheek but he had a point– that, ideally, a crime fiction author should turn out a sequence of detective novels that will generate a bus tour in the city where they are set. There is no risk of any such bus tours adding to Sydney’s traffic problems at the moment.
Speaking of Marele Day…
A couple of decades ago Marele edited How To Write Crime, a guide for would-be crime fiction writers. In the chapter dealing with setting, Nigel Krauth said: “In Australia you can set a crime novel in Sydney or in Surfers Paradise, but you can’t set it in Melbourne. Melbourne is the setting for spy novels.” Well, try telling the late Peter Temple or younger Victorian crime writers like Emma Viskic that you can’t set a crime novel in Melbourne.
Actually, Peter Temple may have provided part of the explanation for Sydney not producing more quality crime fiction than it does. In one of his Jack Irish novels he says this. “Melbourne hated success. It didn’t match the weather. Melbourne’s weather suited introspective mediocrity and suicidal failure. The only acceptable success was to involve pain, sacrifice and humility. Sydney liked the idea of success achieved at no cost and accompanied by arrogance.”
Introspective mediocrity. Suicidal failure. Pain, sacrifice and humility. If Temple is right, Melbourne is tailor-made for noir. And Sydney? Well, success achieved at no cost means no story. If you don’t have a cost—something to be endured and triumphed over—you don’t even have the makings.
I don’t think I’d over-play the weather influence, though. Sydney’s weather is similar to California’s. Some of the greatest crime fiction, including classic noir, has come out of Los Angeles. Peter Corris, after all, was inspired to create a hard-boiled Sydney private eye while holed up in a cheap hotel in sunny San Francisco, waiting for money from Australia back in 1971. Gloomy weather might have contributed to the success of Nordic noir, but it’s not a requirement for good crime fiction.
Which brings us back to setting. Sydney certainly doesn’t let the crime writer down there. Marele Day won a Ned Kelly award for her book on how to write crime, but says she had never even read any crime fiction before she wrote her first Claudia Valentine book, The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender. Her original motivation was simply to write a book about Sydney. A detective novel turned out to be the best vehicle for showing the city. It was Sydney that made her a crime writer.
Jon Cleary wrote Helga’s Web, the first Scobie Malone book set in Australia, to capitalize on world interest in the construction of the Sydney Opera House. The body of a high class prostitute discovered in the bowels of the uncompleted building. One of the suspects a shady Cabinet minister being blackmailed and protected. A cop worried about political pressure.You don’t get much more Sydney than that.
The American who produced the movie, though, thought it lacked something, so he turned Scobie—played by Jack Thompson—into a sex maniac . Cleary was shown the film at a private screening and said later: “When I saw Scobie nibbling on the fourth nipple I thought ‘that’s not my Scobie’. And I walked out.”
What Cleary’s book does have is political and social comment. I liked Detective Sergeant Malone’s ruminations on Australian politics. “In Australia, politics could be vicious; the stab in the back was an occupational hazard. He had seen politicians with independent minds who had bucked their party and finished up with independent heads carried under their arms.”
Concern about political corruption is at the core of the Scobie Malone books. Corris, too, often addressed the corruption at Sydney’s heart. Which brings me to the key reason why we need crime fiction that’s focused on Sydney, and why we need to encourage it. Good crime fiction engages with the place where it’s located. Crime fiction can help a reader understand the true nature of a city. And it can shine a light on what’s wrong with a city or a society. Sydney certainly needs that.
In the introduction to his book European Noir, British expert Barry Forshaw points out that, after far-right terrorist Anders Breivik shot dead 69 people and killed eight others with a car bomb in Norway in 2011, the pundit most often called on to talk about the influence of the far right in that country was Norway’s leading crime writer, Jo Nesbo. Forshaw argues that the ever-growing success of crime fiction in Europe “is built on the awareness among readers that the best writers…are now regarded as social commentators with quite as acute a grasp of the way their countries work as any serious journalist”.
Crime fiction is more than just entertainment. It matters. Good crime fiction writers have something to say, preferably something original to say, about their society or their city. I’d like to think that the Danger Prize will give crime fiction about Sydney a boost, and that the first Danger Prize will be the last in which crime fiction does not figure among the finalists.
For now, though, there’s plenty to celebrate in the quality of the three true crime books and the brilliant television drama from which the first Danger Prize winner has been chosen.