Movers and shakers, and fakers
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-
THE PORTRAYAL OF HOW AUSTRALIA WORKED IN THE 70S IS FASCINATING