Set­tling scores

Fre­man­tle crime noir au­thor ex­plores the blurred line be­tween good and evil, writes Wil­liam Yeo­man

The West Australian - - BOOKS -

‘One of Nor­man’s eye­brows lifted, but only for a mo­ment. If he was cu­ri­ous about Swann’s mo­ti­va­tions for al­low­ing him ac­cess to all of the premier’s tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions, it wasn’t in his voice. ‘Sure, Frank. Any­thing’s pos­si­ble.’”

From Old Scores, by David Whish-Wil­son.

David Whish-Wil­son be­lieves the line be­tween good and evil is blurred — even if he doesn’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve in good and evil. “This is some­thing I try to ex­plore in all of my books,” the crime fic­tion writer and cre­ative writ­ing teacher says over a cold beer at Fre­man­tle’s Buf­falo Club. “It dates back to a pe­riod in my life when, as a younger man, I de­lib­er­ately put my­self in ex­treme sit­u­a­tions, try­ing to fig­ure out who I was and how I ticked and what my deep moral core con­sisted of.

“Am I brave? Am I a coward? Am I good? At the slight­est kind of pres­sure, am I go­ing to be­tray a friend? Look­ing back, that was a de­lib­er­ate process be­cause I kept go­ing un­til I reached a point of clar­ity, and ever since I’ve been re­treat­ing back to nor­mal life.”

He re­calls one in­ci­dent in par­tic­u­lar. He and a friend are smok­ing a joint in a dark al­ley­way in Kenya. Whish-Wil­son walks fur­ther up the al­ley to re­lieve him­self. He turns around in time to see his friend grap­pling with “two big African guys”. The flash of a blade. The friend goes down. The men turn to see Whish-Wil­son. “At that point, I had a choice: I could in­ter­vene or I could run. I would have liked to think I was the type to in­ter­vene. But as soon as they turned and saw me, I ran like a rab­bit.”

He did cir­cle back and man­aged to save his friend. “Turns out he was lucky: it wasn’t a knife, it was a screw­driver, and it had only just punc­tured the wall of his stom­ach.

“In lots of other sit­u­a­tions, I knew I was brave. But not in this one.”

Whish-Wil­son, who also saw things “no 18-year-old should see . . . like good peo­ple killed who I knew quite well”, says he doesn’t judge him­self too harshly. “It was a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion,” he says. “And it’s these kinds of things that play out in my crime fic­tion. Frank Swann is a char­ac­ter who’s an or­di­nary man placed in ex­tra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions. He’s al­ways be­ing tested.”

We first meet Supt Frank Swann in Whish-Wil­son’s Ned Kelly-short­listed 2010 novel Line of Sight, set in 1975 and based on the Shirley Finn mur­der.

The 2013 se­quel Zero at the Bone finds Perth on the cusp of of a min­ing boom and Swann work­ing as a pri­vate de­tec­tive hired to in­ves­ti­gate the ap­par­ent sui­cide of a ge­ol­o­gist.

The new Swann novel, Old Scores, takes us to the early 1980s. Perth is awash with money, there are new de­vel­op­ments at the Old Swan Brew­ery site and Bur­swood and Swann is work­ing for the West

‘In many cases there isn’t a great deal of dif­fer­ence be­tween good and evil.’

Aus­tralian premier’s flunkey, Heenan. Swann is also babysit­ting the premier’s fa­ther, Stormie Far­rell; but there’s a price on Swann’s head and it’s not just the bikies who are gun­ning for him.

Mean­while ace rob­ber Des Fo­ley, the Good Morn­ing Ban­dit wanted in four States, is mak­ing a bee­line for Perth with vengeance in his heart: “He’d burn the city to the ground.” Gerry Tracker’s son Blake has busted out of prison and is on the run. Cor­rupt CID chief Ben­jamin Ho­gan is ram­pant.

In true hard-boiled fash­ion, the line be­tween good and evil is in­deed blurred, and as Old Scores rushes to its bloody con­clu­sion Swann finds it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish friend from foe.

“That’s a real trope of the noir genre,” Whish-Wil­son says.

“And it’s true to real life. In many cases there isn’t a great deal of dif­fer­ence be­tween good and evil. I re­mem­ber when I was work­ing in the prison sys­tem, a guard took me aside one day and he said — it was a funny thing for a guard to say, be­cause a lot of them are so up­tight — he said ‘You know, if you stood us all against a wall and stripped off our clothes, you wouldn’t be able to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween the crim and the screw’.” Whish-Wil­son is at pains to point out Old Scores is a stand­alone novel and, although there are re­cur­ring char­ac­ters apart from Swann, one doesn’t need to have read the previous two books. “Though they do build on each other in some ways,” he says. “I guess if Line of Sight looked at street-level crime and po­lice cor­rup­tion, and Zero at the Bone looked at how some of that or­gan­ised crime money had moved into le­git­i­mate busi­ness, which was hap­pen­ing in the late 1970s, Old Scores at how some of that same money in­fected the po­lit­i­cal process.”

In Key Con­cepts in Crime Fic­tion, Heather Wor­thing­ton talks about the rise of hard-boiled crime fic­tion in the 1920s and 30s, ini­tially in pulp mag­a­zines such as Black Mask.

“In con­trast to the man­nered, mid­dle-class bour­geois ma­te­rial of Golden Age crime fic­tion, which of­fered com­fort­ing res­o­lu­tion and in which even the vi­o­lence in­her­ent in the act of mur­der was muted and dis­creet, the pulp mag­a­zine sto­ries de­liv­ered hard-hit­ting, of­ten graphic . . . rep­re­sen­ta­tions of crime and its om­nipres­ence in so­ci­ety which more closely re­sem­bled re­al­ity,” she writes.

Whish-Wil­son would agree, say­ing crime noir sees crime as some­thing foun­da­tional to so­ci­ety.

“A lot of peo­ple see crime as an aber­ra­tion; it just hap­pens,” he says.

“There is this kind of or­dered world where peo­ple be­have rea­son­ably to each other. That was the Agatha Christie trope.

“Crime noir doesn’t see it like that. It sees crime as the norm.”

David Whish-Wil­son’s new novel Old Scores is a stand­alone set in 1980s Perth.

Old Scores (Fre­man­tle Press, $30) will be launched by Fre­man­tle MP Josh Wil­son on Wed­nes­day, Novem­ber 16, from 6pm for a 6.30pm start, at the Buf­falo Club, 54 High Street, Fre­man­tle. RSVP to dav­e­whish­wil­ or 0439 010 459.

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