The West Australian
Fremantle crime noir author explores the blurred line between good and evil, writes William Yeoman
‘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.”