THE VOICE UNHEARD
The art of ghostwriting is a silent balancing act between forgiveness and ventriloquism, writes Tom Gilling
Iwas introduced to Col Dillon over lunch at a Sydney restaurant. Dillon had a book in need of a ghost and I was a ghost in search of a book. We were a good fit. Dillon was from Queensland, a career policeman of unswerving honesty whose evidence to the 1987 Fitzgerald commission of inquiry was instrumental in jailing the crooked cops, led by disgraced commissioner Terry Lewis, who for a generation had extorted bribes from the state’s pimps, gambling bosses and SP bookies. Without Dillon, Tony Fitzgerald’s faltering inquiry might have collapsed before it had properly begun.
There was another dimension to Dillon’s tale: he was an indigenous man, the first to make the rank of police inspector anywhere in Australia. Institutional racism had dogged his career since the day he signed up.
Dillon had a compelling and important story to tell: about the culture of graft that was endemic in the Licensing Branch; about the SP bookies operating under the noses of their police handlers; about the attempts by colleagues to bribe him and the campaign of intimidation that followed his decision to tell the Fitzgerald inquiry what he knew.
I liked Dillon immediately. There was only one problem: 12 years earlier I had been hired by ABC Books to ghost the memoirs of another Queensland policeman who had played a starring role at the Fitzgerald commission of inquiry, Jack Herbert, the notorious bagman who, as a detective in the Licensing Branch, collected millions of dollars in bribes on behalf of Lewis and other corrupt officers.
By the time I met him, Herbert was long retired and suffering from a brain tumour. A popular member of a local writing group, he would not live to see his book published.
The system of corruption was known in the force as the Joke, but to a man such as Dillon there was nothing funny about it. Nor had Dillon’s experience as a witness given him much to smile about. In return for Herbert’s often dubious evidence, the Queensland government had promised immunity from prosecution as well as round-the-clock police protection against the crooks and crooked cops it was feared might try to shut Herbert up for good. Yet Dillon and his family received no protection; no one even screened the threatening phone calls to his home.
Although Herbert had left the police by the time Dillon joined the Licensing Branch, the Joke was still in operation and Herbert’s old mates were still there to make life difficult for Dillon.
I told him straight out that a decade earlier I had ghosted a book for Herbert. I wondered whether our collaboration might end before the entrees arrived, but Dillon seemed more wryly amused than anything.
Many Queenslanders had nothing but contempt for Herbert, a self-confessed perjurer and bribe-taker whose actions had done a lot of harm to a lot of people. It would be naive to suggest Herbert redeemed himself by coming clean to the Fitzgerald inquiry — he knew it was his only chance of avoiding jail. Nor did I believe he had told the inquiry everything he knew. Herbert had more to fear from some of his old mates on the force than he did from commissioner Fitzgerald. In the course of writing the book, I coaxed a bit more information out of Herbert than he had intended to give, but he took his darkest secrets to the grave.
As far as I was concerned, Herbert’s book — The Bagman: Final Confessions of Jack Herbert — had something useful to say. The author was a villain but he was no fool. He did not attempt to play down his guilt. His first-person account of how he was corrupted by senior colleagues, and how he used the same techniques to corrupt others, was a detailed and psychologically astute portrait of how institutional corruption works.
On the other hand, Herbert was a criminal who had made money out of a book I had been paid to help him write. If he was profiting from his nefarious life, so was I. Those who could not forgive Herbert were unlikely to forgive the ABC — and me — for his book.
Several years ago a lawyer contacted me on behalf of a client with an interesting story to tell. The client was an ex-drug dealer who had rolled over and was living under witness protection, reputedly with a six-figure contract on his head.
I knew all about six-figure contracts; I had once had one myself, but the worst I had to fear was being remaindered. The thought of having a contract with a man with a contract on his head was disconcerting: what if someone muddled up the contracts?
Security concerns were going to make researching the book a nightmare. As a Crown HERBERT WAS A CRIMINAL WHO HAD MADE MONEY OUT OF A BOOK I HAD BEEN PAID TO HELP HIM WRITE. IF HE WAS PROFITING FROM HIS NEFARIOUS LIFE, SO WAS I witnesswitness, his whereabouts had to remain secret and any meetings would have to be coordinated through the witness protection officers whose responsibility it was to make sure he lived long enough to give evidence in court. If I took the job, I’d be the ghost of a ghost.
Then there was the question of the “ex”. The lawyer assured me his client was now a reformed man. But how “ex” is an ex-drug-dealer? What if he went back into business? Any form of collaboration requires some kind of ethical judgment and this one just didn’t sound right.
Ghostwriting is a form of ventriloquism. It’s about catching a voice. Morally, Herbert and Dillon were poles apart, a crook and a whistleblower, but in the way they wrote and spoke, they often sounded oddly alike. All jobs have their jargon, but the police are different. Police officers have a strange, disembodied way of talking. They talk about male and female “persons” rather than men and women; they are fastidious about age and height. In their job the police encounter situations and have to work backwards to discover who did what; across time they develop a habit of describing things in the passive voice. Dillon, a native Queenslander, and Londoner Herbert shared the same idiom. Their voices were barnacled under decades of police-speak.
While the pair talked the same language, they lived on opposite sides of the law. Herbert was ingeniously bent and Dillon doggedly incorruptible. The latter gave evidence to the Fitzgerald inquiry voluntarily and at great personal cost; Herbert was a cagey and compromised witness who testified only to save his own skin. Dillon’s disdain for his corrupt colleagues was so intense it was hard to imagine him and Herbert in the same police force together, let alone the same room. But when I asked Dillon whether he and Herbert had ever crossed paths, he told me they had — once.
As a young uniformed constable, Dillon had been encouraged to apply for the detective training course, a first step towards a coveted job at the Criminal Investigation Branch. In 1974 one of the guest lecturers was Detective Sergeant Jack Herbert of the Licensing Branch. Dillon remembered him vividly. Tall, wellgroomed and — courtesy of the bribes he had been collecting for the past 15 years — immaculately dressed, Herbert cut a dashing figure. Dillon was not the only one in the audience of young officers to be awed.
In his lecture, the bagman not surprisingly named loyalty to mates as the most desirable quality in a detective. “Was Herbert sizing us up,” Dillon asked himself, “wondering which of us he would one day be able to recruit into his network of crooked detectives?”
Herbert was a shrewd operator, the brains of a system of graft that reached all the way to the police commissioner’s office. If the two had sat down over a beer, Herbert soon would have realised he was wasting his time with Dillon. As Herbert once told me, knowing who to ask was less important than knowing who not to ask.
Dillon is an easy man to like — but so, awkwardly, was Herbert. Some of the same journalists who had worked to expose Herbert’s corruption found him engaging company after his downfall. Had Herbert and Dillon met outside the court, I suspect they would have recoiled from each other. I got along with both, though I fully trusted only one.
In libraries all over Australia, the pair will now be sharing the same shelf, rubbing bindings with the crooks and shooters and shysters in the true-crime section. Herbert will certainly find the low-life company more congenial than Dillon, but whistleblowers have never been popular. They will have a ghostwriter in common but the chances are few readers will notice. That’s the catch with being a ghost: if you do the job well, nobody knows you are there. by Colin Dillon with Tom Gilling, was published this month by Allen & Unwin.