Movers and shak­ers, and fak­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Afea­ture of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian pub­lish­ing is the num­ber of jour­nal­ists ven­tur­ing into writ­ing books. For some, jour­nal­ism has been a meal ticket to sus­tain the dream; oth­ers, find­ing them­selves the vic­tims of a di­min­ish­ing busi­ness model, use their re­dun­dan­cies to write. And, of course, those who com­mand na­tional au­di­ences ap­peal to the larger pub­lish­ers be­cause they al­ready have a fol­low­ing and ready-made public­ity.

Tony Jones is best known for his ABC host­ing roles on Late­line and the tele­vi­sual sim­u­lacrum of democ­racy, Q & A.

Jones’s de­but novel, The Twen­ti­eth Man (Allen & Un­win, 482pp, $32.99), uses his ex­pe­ri­ence as a jour­nal­ist to reprise a se­ries of events in the early 1970s cen­tred on the threat to Aus­tralia’s na­tional se­cu­rity from the right-wing Croa­t­ian move­ment known as the Us­tasha, on the eve of a state visit by Yu­goslavia’s prime min­is­ter Dze­mal Bi­jedic in 1973.

Young ABC jour­nal­ist Anna Rosen is al­ready sniff­ing around the Us­tasha when she is sent to cover the bomb­ing of a Syd­ney travel agency. The daugh­ter of a noted Aus­tralian com­mu­nist, Anna is a feisty young woman find­ing her way in a male-dom­i­nated world.

But her mis­sion is as much per­sonal as pro­fes­sional. While an ide­al­is­tic left-wing stu­dent, she met and fell in love with Marin Katich, son of Us­tasha pa­tri­arch Ivo Katich.

In a tale of star-crossed lovers, Marin has dis­ap­peared. Un­be­known to Anna, he has been in­cor­po­rated into his fa­ther’s rather am­a­teur­ish plans to in­vade and re­take Croa­tia from the Tito gov­ern­ment. But Marin is no am­a­teur and with the Bi­jedic state visit loom­ing, Anna’s quest is to un­cover the plot and save her lover from be­ing im­pli­cated in it.

This ac­tion oc­curs against a tableau of real his­tor­i­cal events and peo­ple, and tra­verses ter­ri­tory rang­ing from the moun­tains of Croa­tia at its bor­der with Aus­tria to Syd­ney, Can­berra and the wild coun­try of the NSW Sap­phire Coast hin­ter­land. Jones shows a keen jour­nal­is­tic eye for de­tail and his evo­ca­tion of lo­ca­tions fea­tured in the novel is sharp. This fa­cil­ity also trans­fers to his use of the ac­tual his­tory as scaf­fold­ing for the story.

There’s an in­trigue in the novel’s por­trayal of real fig­ures, par­tic­u­larly Whit­lam-era fed­eral at­tor­ney-gen­eral Lionel Mur­phy, his press sec­re­tary Ge­orge Ne­gus, and the eth­i­cally com­plex for­mer head of po­lice in­tel­li­gence Kerry Milte.

Mur­phy died in 1986, but many of the nov­els real char­ac­ters are still alive, and al­though Jones was still in his teens at the time he is writ­ing about, it can be sur­mised that he knows some of the play­ers.

While this is in­trigu­ing it also cre­ates a prob­lem for the novel in that this re­al­ity some­times stands in for psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight into the char­ac­ters. Jones doesn’t as­sess their mo­tives in the same way as those of his fic­tional char­ac­ters.

While the ac­tion of the novel is deftly strung to­gether, there’s a lack of the kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight that the best writ­ers in this field — John le Carre, the Nor­man Mailer of Har­lot’s Ghost or, closer to home, for­mer ABC jour­nal­ist Christopher Koch — bring to their work.

Jones’s use of his­tory gives the The Twen­ti­eth Man a cer­tain mu­seum qual­ity. The dis­ad­van­tage is that de­spite the ac­tion, at times the story feels static, a prod­uct of will and dili­gence rather than flow. How­ever there are ad­van­tages to this ap­proach, too. The re­search is pal­pa­ble on the page.

The por­trayal of how Aus­tralia worked in the looser era of the 70s is fas­ci­nat­ing — one sus­pects there are fewer spliffs be­ing smoked in Par­lia­ment House and in ABC build­ings to­day — and rather than the fates of the pro­tag­o­nists it this finely re­alised tableau of life among the po­lit­i­cal and me­dia classes of the time that is the high­light of the book.

Michael Bris­senden, another sea­soned ABC jour­nal­ist, has also writ­ten a ter­ror­ism-fo­cused thriller. The List (Ha­chette, 314pp, $29.99) is a con­tem­po­rary tale pri­mar­ily set in Syd­ney.

On a mis­sion in Afghanistan, some Aus­tralian troops are am­bushed. Most of them are killed. Mick Har­ri­son is al­lowed to live, but only af­ter a ji­hadi with an Aussie ac­cent who calls him­self Scor­pion, per­forms a rough am­pu­ta­tion of his hand.

Some time later, a list of Aus­tralian-based ji­hadis is stolen. The peo­ple on it start turn­ing up dead with their hands cut off. At the same time there is in­tel­li­gence that the Scor­pion is in Aus­tralia and plan­ning dras­tic ac­tion.

Tasked to solve the case is K-block, an odd­ball unit de­signed to link the counter-in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions of the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice with those of ASIO. Its mem­bers in­clude for­mer po­lice­man Sid­ney Allen and his off­sider Haifa Hourani — a Le­banese Mus­lim from an in­flu­en­tial fam­ily that in­cludes gang­sters in Goul­burn’s Su­perMax jail as well as Hakim, a voice of mod­er­ate Is­lam who has caught the at­ten­tion of the politi­cians and of Syd­ney. Am­bu­lance and po­lice of­fi­cers at­tend to the vic­tims of the 1972 bomb blast that de­stroyed the Adri­atic Travel Agency in Ge­orge Street, Syd­ney in­gin preach­ers. Still, Benns’s rich sur­vey points to theth preva­lence in so­ci­ety of gulli­bil­ity, as well as of peo­ple who cal­i­brate them­selves to take ad­van­tageva of it.

In an era when fake news is all the rage, Dirty Rot­ten Scoundrels re­minds us that there have RRa al al­ways been peo­ple who have felt at ease with theth use of un­truth for achiev­ing their ends.

The ca­reers of 80s favourites Alan Bond and Christo­pherC Skase are reprised, as is that of Aus­tralia’sA “great­est” se­rial con­man, Peter Foster,te who man­aged to con not only Bri­tain’s most fa­mousfa page-three girl, Sa­man­tha Fox, but also Cherie Blair, whose own hus­band was in­stru­men­tal in the weapons of mass de­struc­tion de­cep­tion that trig­gered the sec­ond Gulf war.

Benns draws an in­ter­est­ing dis­tinc­tion be­tween con­men who seem to be lit­tle other than ly­ing psy­chopaths, such as Skase or Foster, and those who fall vic­tim to their own grandios­ity and are com­pelled to keep rort­ing their sup­port­ers as their out­landish schemes im­plode.

John Friedrich, one-time ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Safety Coun­cil, is an ex­am­ple of the lat­ter.

In some ways it’s a ques­tion of whether the will­ing­ness to de­ceive oth­ers co-presents with self-de­cep­tion.

Benns’s is a fas­ci­nat­ing if cur­sory sur­vey of this pathol­ogy in an Aus­tralian con­text. Be­sides the tar­nished lu­mi­nar­ies men­tioned above, the char­ac­ters in­clude ac­tor Er­rol Flynn and can­cer scam­mer Belle Gib­son.

Some chap­ters in­volve a par­tic­u­lar as­pect or va­ri­ety of con, such as the “boiler-room” scams on the Gold Coast, or fuel-sav­ing cons, of which the most spec­tac­u­lar was the pill pro­duced by Western Aus­tralian com­pany Fire­power.

Benns writes with a clear style and dry wit that pre­vents the moral out­rage from be­com­ing over­bear­ing.

And there is plenty to be out­raged by. It’s amaz­ing how many of these scoundrels got away with it, which makes you won­der whether the sto­ries in Dirty Rot­ten Scoundrels might func­tion for some more as in­spi­ra­tion than cau­tion­ary tale.

Haifa smokes d dope and has moved to Cro Cronulla so she can es­cape the eye of her fam­ily and com­mu­nity.

She fig­ures in the book as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the rich­ness of Ara­bic-speak­ing cul­ture and of what it looks like to be a cul­tural Mus­lim, facets of Aus­tralian so­ci­ety that our ob­ses­sion with ter­ror tends to treat re­duc­tively.

Bris­senden’s plot is well put to­gether even if it’s some­what over-egged.

The main prob­lem is in the in­ter­sec­tion of the char­ac­ters. The cen­tral­ity of the Hourani fam­ily to the plot re­ally tests the lim­its of plau­si­bil­ity. As does Sid’s con­nec­tion to Afghanistan, where he lost the love of his life, Rose, to a Tal­iban am­bush.

Still, there are clever twists, and al­though it lacks the greater se­ri­ous­ness of The Twen­ti­eth Man, the story, which takes the risk of en­gag­ing with con­tem­po­rary so­cial ten­sion, ben­e­fits from its con­sid­er­able ve­loc­ity.

Matthew Benns is also a jour­nal­ist, edi­tor-at­large with Syd­ney’s The Daily Tele­graph. He has not come up with a novel, though. Dirty Rot­ten Scoundrels (HarperCollins, 288pp, $32.99) is a non­fic­tion book about peo­ple who have used fic­tion in their lives, of­ten to great and dele­te­ri­ous ef­fect — Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous con­men.

It’s a rich list and Benns won­ders at the be­gin­ning of the book whether the Aus­tralian char­ac­ter with its anti-au­thor­i­tar­ian con­vict ori­gins has a pe­cu­liar affin­ity with the con­man.

This ques­tion is never an­swered — are we any more sus­cep­ti­ble to this than, say, Amer­ica with its snake-oil sales­men and pros­ti­tute-lov-


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