HOUDINI AND THE ESCAPIST
DEBUT NOVELIST TRENT DALTON LOOKED FOR THE JOY IN SOME GRIM PARTS OF HIS CHILDHOOD AND FOUND A CRACKING ADVENTURE THAT'S QUICKLY BECOME AN AUSTRALIAN PUBLISHING PHENOMENON
Trent Dalton’s earliest memories are of love.
As a five-year-old boy, the two men he adored were his criminal stepfather and a family friend named Arthur “Slim” Halliday, a convicted murderer and prison escapee known as The Houdini of Boggo Road.
His fiercest love was for the woman caught up in that dark and violent world. Now a contented suburban grandmother in her late 60s, she was the first reader of her son’s debut novel, Boy Swallows
Universe, about a boy on a quest to break his mum out of jail.
“Mum is my hero,” the 39-yearold says. “She inspired the character Frankie Bell and I don’t have enough words in the book to go on about all the things my mum survived, things that other people would have succumbed to.
“My mum went away for two years just like Frankie Bell does in the book.
“Everything that happened in that passage in the book with the kid wanting to see his mum is pretty close to the bone for me.”
For about a year, the Walkley Award-winning journalist sat down at his computer after his daughters’ bedtime each night to funnel his childhood into a work of fiction.
The star of Boy Swallows
Universe would be 12-year-old Eli Bell, a friend of the real-life Slim Halliday who escaped from Boggo Road twice in the 1940s before being convicted of the 1952 murder of 23-year-old Gold Coast taxi driver Athol McCowan.
Eli’s heroin-dealer stepfather, Lyle, is moulded from the man Dalton’s mother loved.
“The first memory I have, I’m a boy, I must be about four years old, and I’m sitting on this lounge in the outer western suburbs of Brisbane,” he says.
“It’s a brown leather lounge and I’m in a brown and yellow shirt and I see a freckle on my thumb — the freckle comes through the book — and I look up and to the left of me is this man with red hair.
“He’s got tattoos and muscles, and I turn to him and I say, ‘I love you, Dad.’ And he turns to me and says, ‘Mate, I’m not your dad, but I love you too.’ That man was genuinely the first man that I ever loved and he was probably in many ways my mum’s true love, the love of her life …
“The difficult part of falling in love with that guy was that he had a pretty shady past and he had some pretty dark activities that he got up to in his down time.
“What do you do when you fall in love with a criminal?
“That’s basically what my mum had to ask herself.”
When Dalton would ask about his stepfather’s associates — “Who’s that guy, who’s that guy, what did he do?” — the answer would be, “Trent I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“I got that a lot. Ultimately the whole thing is me looking for answers, answers that never came,” he says.
When his stepfather was taken away by police, “this guy I loved so much kind of disappeared from my life”. “A lot of the book is me just processing things in my head about what the hell happened to that guy,” he says.
“The things that happened to the kid, Eli, were very familiar to me and my brothers and I.”
Dalton’s three older brothers and protectors, Joel, Ben and Jesse, are “crowbarred” into one wonderful older brother in Boy
Swallows Universe: August Bell, who is mute and writes prophetic messages in the air.
August’s pivotal prediction, “Your end is a dead blue wren,” is at the core of the magic Dalton has conjured from a brief, profound and grim time in his life.
A red telephone in a secret underground room behind a wardrobe in Eli and August’s house is one of the mystical touches in the novel, but this, too, is a Dalton childhood memory, a surreal discovery his brothers made in their stepfather’s home.
“All I’m doing in the 407 pages is fantasising about who’s on the end of that phone line,” he says.
“I’m very interested in the child brain and the way it processes its trauma.
“Across a period of about 15 years, I kind of saw a mess of drug abuse, domestic violence, alcohol abuse and anxiety.
“I’ve always wondered, some things I’ve seen growing up, what did it do to you and how have I processed that?”
Dalton knew Slim Halliday in the early 1980s as a father figure and source of wisdom to his family.
He remembers being around age five, perched on Halliday’s lap, steering a rusted old fourwheel-drive.
“He’d let me turn the wheel and
“HE’D LET ME TURN THE WHEEL AND HONK THE HORN. I LOVED THE GUY. HE WAS THE FUNNIEST, KINDEST OLD BLOKE. TO ME HE WAS THIS MYTHICAL GUY THAT MY BROTHERS WOULD WHISPER ABOUT WHEN WE WERE PLAYING IN THE BACK YARD.”
honk the horn. I loved the guy. He was the funniest, kindest old bloke,” Dalton says.
“He was a man who dropped around the house of this guy my mum was in love with.
“To me he was this mythical guy that my brothers would whisper about when we were playing in the back yard.”
When his brothers told him Halliday had killed a man, a little boy’s fevered imagination saw it like this: “Slim used to carry around a fine-tooth comb to slick back his hair. I pictured him killing the taxi driver by leaning over into the front seat and slicing the taxi driver’s neck with a fine-tooth comb, which is just bizarre.”
Several decades later, as a writer for The Weekend Australian Magazine, Dalton was in The Courier-Mail archives researching a feature yarn about legendary cricketer and commentator Bill Lawry. The Lawry file wasn’t far from the five folders detailing the history of Queensland’s most notorious jail breaker.
It sparked a thread to the novel: What if he did get to carry on a friendship with Slim? “He had a lot of wisdom to offer and he offered it to my mum in some dark times,” Dalton says.
“The novel explores the question: Is good wisdom still valid if it comes from evil men?”
In 1940, Halliday hauled himself over the Boggo Road perimeter wall using an 8m knotted rope fastened to a grappling hook made of two pieces of wood. He was captured two weeks later in a car chase at Caboolture. The second time, in 1946, he and two other dangerous inmates escaped over a nearby section of the wall using a piece of clothesline secured to a pipe that had been shaped into a hook over a gas stove flame. A huge manhunt tracked down Halliday and one of his accomplices four days later; the third fugitive was back behind bars a couple of weeks after the escape.
Halliday had been a free man for three years when he shot himself in the leg with a handgun in a violent struggle with a Sydney storekeeper he was trying to rob. He was captured in a shootout and police alleged he had used the same .45 Colt pistol to bash Athol McCowan to death in his taxi on the Gold Coast a month earlier.
“On the Boggo Road prison tour they will tell you there is a big question mark over whether he committed the murder,” Dalton says. “Slim always maintained his innocence. That said, I’m not going to be the guy defending Slim Halliday.”
One of several more failed escape attempts earned him 14 days in the jail’s infamous Black Peter underground solitary confinement cell in the summer of 1953. Later, he could move around in the exercise yard only in a cage, inside which a prisoner was allowed once a week for a game of chess. Halliday was paroled in 1976, at age 66, and died in 1987.
“It was pretty medieval, some of the treatment he got. For him to come out, by the time I knew him, as he did, he had some serious fortitude, some incredible inner strength,” Dalton says.
“That’s where the universe stuff comes from in my book.
“He used to read about the stars and galaxies. He would put his mind up there. He would go on these wanders, as he called them, through the galaxies. He would remove himself from that place.
“That’s what the kid in the book is doing all the time. He’s removing himself from his world and he’s trying to process his trauma.”
In the novel Eli and August are reunited with their father, as the Dalton boys were when the law caught up with their stand-in dad and their mother.
Dalton’s father, Noel, who died several years ago, was the same hard-drinking voracious reader living among towers of books in a Brisbane housing commission house in Boy Swallows Universe.
“He loved books so much he never put them down,” Dalton says. “It’s a dangerous thing if you’re truly happy with just a book and a rolled cigarette. If you weren’t into books in my house, you might as well leave home … there were books everywhere.
“If I think about him longer than a minute I’ll be a weeping mess because he was truly the most amazing dad. He genuinely had his demons. I thought he messed up with the love of his life, my mum, and that was his failing. He loved her so much.” Dalton and his mum agree Boy
Swallows Universe is a 50-50 mix of fact and fantasy. A big impetus came from a profound sense of peace a couple of Christmases ago on Bribie Island.
“My mum was having this existential moment as we were packing some Christmas presents into the back of her little car and she sees my daughter dancing near some trees,” Dalton says.
“She turned to me and said, ‘Trent, I wouldn’t change a single bit of it. I wouldn’t change it because it gets to this point.’ ”
When the novel was finished, “she was the first person I sent it to”.
“I told her, ‘Look, if you don’t like any of this, it goes straight in the bin, that’s it, don’t say another word’,” Dalton says.
“I was working away at work one day and she called my mobile and said, ‘Trent, it’s beautiful and I think so many people can get so much out of it.’
“That’s the greatest gift she could give me. I wanted to do it in the right way so I tried to change something pretty dark and terrible into something beautiful.”
As a parent of two girls aged 11 and 9, Dalton has had those same ‘what if?’ moments, and it was powerful inspiration for his novel: What if he hadn’t had the great fortune of meeting his future wife, fellow journalist Fiona Franzmann, at Brisbane News magazine in his first reporting job?
“Sometimes I would think about that notion of what if it all went a different way,” he says.
“I could have done a million different things and I wouldn’t have these two beautiful daughters, I wouldn’t have this beautiful wife.
“When I would think about that, deadset my fingers would tingle and I’d start writing.”
Dalton cherishes the praise he’s received for his fictional characters because they embody the people he loves most.
A global publishing deal in the high six figures — massive for a first-time Aussie author — is taking the Queenslander’s book to 12 other languages as publisher HarperCollins fields a flood of queries from international and domestic players about the film and television rights.
Before he wrote anything, the novel was a headline in the journo’s mind: Boy swallows universe. When those three words came to him, he was electrically charged by them.
“It is essentially a way I have honestly tried to approach life: Just take it in. Don’t just write about one thing, take it all in. Take every last aspect, take all the dark, take all the light, take the whole universe in. That’s what the kid in the book is doing, just going for it. That can be dangerous, but I love when anyone does that, just owns it. That’s what helps us survive.”
POLICE OFFICER BILL CRONAU WITH BOGGO ROAD ESCAPEES ARTHUR “SLIM” HALLIDAY AND DERWENT ARKINSTALL AFTER THEIR CAPTURE IN 1946. BELOW: TRENT DALTON, AGED 8.