Nexus be­tween over­lords and un­der­world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Lit­er­ary crime is an in­trigu­ing sub­genre. At its worst it’s the ap­pli­ca­tion of pre­ten­tious lyri­cism to the seed­ier side of life, the ex­change of the clipped style of El­more Leonard or Garry Disher for con­vo­luted mus­ings about mur­der. At its best, how­ever, it uses the premise of crime to ex­plore cities, so­cial struc­tures and the dark spa­ces of our psy­ches, with lan­guage that cap­tures the in­ten­sity of para­noia and vi­o­lent fan­tasy

Stephen Greenall’s de­but novel Win­ter Traf­fic (Text, 416pp, $29.99) has as­pects from both sides. While the pub­lisher com­pares the book with the work of the Miles Franklin-win­ning Peter Tem­ple, its ob­vi­ous lit­er­ary an­tecedent is Amer­i­can au­thor James Ell­roy, who turned the ob­ses­sive com­pul­sions em­a­nat­ing from the child­hood trauma of his mother’s mur­der into a re­lent­less and fe­ro­cious prose style.

It’s an ex­ces­sive style de­liv­ered in a del­uge of short clauses that push the reader into the con­flicted and of­ten con­fus­ing worlds of Ell­roy’s pro­tag­o­nists, whether it’s post-World War II Los An­ge­les or the more gen­er­alised para­noia of his Un­der­world USA tril­ogy with its ven­tures into the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis and JFK’s as­sas­si­na­tion.

Greenall, who hails from Moree in north­ern NSW, has taken Ell­roy’s tem­plate and trans­posed it to Syd­ney in the early 1990s, to form a fic­tional corol­lary of a so­ci­ety on the cusp of the Wood royal commission. It’s the end of an era and of the ex­plicit nexus be­tween the po­lice force and the un­der­world that was the prod­uct of the long as­so­ci­a­tion of Syd­ney’s nightlife with il­le­gal casi­nos and their pro­tec­tion by the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment in the Askin and Wran eras.

It’s ter­ri­tory that’s also been ex­plored by Dave Warner in Big Bad Blood (1997) and Mark Dapin in King of the Cross (2009). With such rich pick­ings Greenall cre­ates a plau­si­ble story of cor­rup­tion, pro­fes­sional am­bi­tion and sum­mary jus­tice, where com­pro­mise is the pri­mary eth­i­cal sta­tus of ac­tors in a trou­bled moral or­der.

A work­ing girl dies dur­ing a de­bauched orgy. Her death sets in train events in which lives are snuffed out. It’s bru­tal enough to leave read­ers squea­mish in their arm­chairs.

The pro­tag­o­nists are Sut­ton, a man with a vi­o­lent rep­u­ta­tion and in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic code of hon­our. He is mates with Raw­son, a de­tec­tive fa­mous for his col­lars, but also for cross­ing the line. Mates mat­ter. Loy­alty is a rare com­mod­ity in this ecosys­tem, so rare that at times it’s even worth dy­ing for. But oth­ers, such as ris­ing tal­ent Karen Miller, rep­re­sent the al­lure of the new ca­reerism in the po­lice force.

At times it feels like Greenall is reach­ing to cre­ate an ef­fect, whereas Ell­roy, by con­trast, seems to in­habit a pathol­ogy. But per­haps, too, it’s the curse of fa­mil­iar­ity that cre­ates this sense of af­fec­ta­tion: Syd­ney seems too close to ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ence to be ren­dered in such a style.

This is a first novel and Greenall has taken risks. Not of all of them have paid off, but nonethe­less Win­ter Traf­fic is a book that shows po­ten­tial and re­wards the reader.

Like Syd­ney, Perth in the 80s and 90s was a place of fast money and dodgy net­works. It was op­er­ated by peo­ple of the qual­ity of Alan Bond, Laurie Con­nell and Brian Burke, in a cul­ture where greed and moral com­pro­mise in­ter­sected.

Old Scores (Fre­man­tle Press, 233pp, $29.99) is David Whish-Wil­son’s third novel fea­tur­ing for­mer West Aus­tralian po­lice de­tec­tive Frank Swann. In this out­ing, Frank finds him­self work­ing for the premier, as a se­ries of odd al­liances cen­tred on the award­ing of the ten­der for the Bur­swood casino are brought into play.

He is faced with one of the great noir co­nun­drums: it’s im­pos­si­ble for him to do the right thing, and per­haps even sur­vive, without se­ri­ously com­pro­mis­ing him­self in the eyes of the law. While the plot is out­landish, it rarely feels im­plau­si­ble and Whish-Wil­son writes well of his adopted home in the wild west.

A cu­ri­ous thing about both of these nov­els is how they reach to the past for their idio­syn­cratic evo­ca­tion of the in­ter­sec­tions be­tween un­der­world and over­lords. Noir has al­ways had that qual­ity of nos­tal­gia for a lost world that was trou­bled yet hu­man and where in­di­vid­u­als had greater agency within sys­tems.

Cer­tainly con­tem­po­rary cor­rup­tion, with its


com­mer­cial in con­fi­dence pro­vi­sions and cost in­fla­tions on gov­ern­ment con­tracts, lacks the same read­abil­ity as sto­ries about bikies, wal­lop­ers and girls in biki­nis on boats. These all fea­ture in Old Scores, and Whish-Wil­son has again de­liv­ered a fast-paced, en­ter­tain­ing and smarter than av­er­age crime novel.

Some col­lec­tions of short sto­ries thrive on their in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness, their re­la­tion­ship to each other, like a se­ries of an­gles cast­ing light on a par­tic­u­lar as­pect of the world. Oth­ers thrive on jux­ta­po­si­tions formed at a greater dis­tance. Kyra Giorgi’s de­but The Cir­cle and the Equa­tor (UWAP, 216pp, $24.99) is one such col­lec­tion.

It’s a book of mo­ments across na­tions and eras. Giorgi, who was born in Perth and has lived over­seas and now is in Syd­ney, has cho­sen his­tor­i­cal flash­points and imag­ined her char­ac­ters into them. We meet Namib­ians dis­placed dur­ing the na­tion’s war for in­de­pen­dence from South Africa; a Ger­man man tak­ing a jour­ney to re­con­nect with his child­hood sweet­heart at the end of World War I. An un­usual romance blos­soms and dies in a hos­pi­tal ward fol­low­ing the bomb­ing of Hiroshima in World War II.

A hand­some young man is in­jured and the sight in one of his eyes be­comes vi­sion­ary, in a story that is rem­i­nis­cent of Mer­linda Bo­bis’s mytho­log­i­cally charged tales of The Philip­pines. In an­other, an Ar­gen­tinian woman muses over her part in a love tri­an­gle with two broth­ers and her em­i­gra­tion to the Soviet Jewish au­tonomous re­gion of Biro­bidzhan in the wilds of Manchuria.

One of the plea­sures of these sto­ries is the way Giorgi takes these large mo­ments and ren­ders them small. Es­sen­tially these are vi­gnettes of in­di­vid­u­als pur­su­ing their in­ter­ests against the tableaux of big his­tory.

In such an im­pres­sion­is­tic dance through his­tory, there are bound to be ques­tions of au­then­tic­ity re­gard­ing the way the char­ac­ters are rep­re­sented. Look too closely and it some­times be­comes dif­fi­cult to see them as em­bed­ded in their eras and the mark­ers of cul­tural par­tic­u­lar­ity are some­times un­der­done. The best sto­ries, how­ever, sur­mount this chal­lenge and leave you puz­zling over the pos­si­bil­i­ties and con­straints of lives lived in other times and places.

The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect is one of fresh­ness. Giorgi is a deft bower­bird, pick­ing through the im­men­sity of his­tory for small, shiny things. The Cir­cle and the Equa­tor is an in­trigu­ing de­but, one of a se­ries of strong and idio­syn­cratic short-story col­lec­tions re­cently pub­lished by UWAP (Roanna Gon­salves’s The Per­ma­nent Res­i­dent and Michelle Michau Craw­ford’s Leav­ing Elvis come to mind) that have en­riched the ter­rain of Aus­tralian fic­tion. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the im­por­tance of small pub­lish­ers to our lit­er­ary ecosys­tem.

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