Strange Territory

Guest author on the blog today is David Honeybone, founder of the original Crime Factory magazine, with a terrific write up on the Melbourne Writers Festival panel ‘Strange Territory’.

As Melbourne wins most livable city award again (how we laughed) it seemed prophetic timing to be attending the Strange Territory session at this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

The program described it thus: “The hidden underbelly of Cardiff, Belfast and Perth makes perfect fodder for hard-boiled crime fiction. Belfast noir novelist Adrian McKinty, John Williams and West Australian David Whish-Wilson discuss the questionable values of politics, police and power in the tough and gritty cities of their crime thrillers.”

Whiskey-wow-wow I breathed, what a racy bunch. The Slight Foxing: My Year as a Lesbian Librarian session was going to look very tame by comparison.

Adrian McKinty, David Whish-Wilson, John Williams & Angela Savage, MWF. Photo: Sulari Gentill

Adrian McKinty, David Whish-Wilson, John Williams & Angela Savage, MWF. Photo: Sulari Gentill

Chaired by Most Livable City’s own Angela Savage (the judges had obviously never visited Brunswick) it was plain that an immediate rapport had been established judging by the banter before the session started.

And things got even better. Prompted by a knowledgeable chair, the disparate characteristics of the panel soon fused and caught light. The gnomic sagacity of Welshman, John Williams, and a laconic David Whish-Wilson provided the perfect foil for the fizzing energy and humour of Adrian McKinty.

John Williams is the author of Into the Badlands, a fascinating book that follows his travels in 1989 in America meeting and interviewing crime writers in their own cities. Think Elmore Leonard, James Crumley, James Ellroy. He has since written the Cardiff Trilogy and a biography of Shirley Bassey. He also worked as an editor for Serpents’ Tail and discovered David Peace’s 1974 in the slush pile!

Williams’ first book was set in London, which proved to be too big, too difficult and too well-known a place to grapple with. His home town of Cardiff provided far more accessible territory. Williams’ passion for crime writing stemmed from a fascination in his late teens, but rather than write a “crime novel” he became far more interested in the ordinary lives of the criminal classes and their reliance on illicit earnings, the people at the bottom of the pile and how that sub-society then comes to underpin the modern city.

In many ways he feels that the old Cardiff has now mostly been forgotten as re-development has seen an end to the old docks area, Tiger Bay, which features in his work. A bustling, multi-racial area that basically serviced sailors it has now been turned into ‘Cardiff Bay’, Big Money’s idea of waterfront gentrification. His true crime novel, My Bloody Valentine, centres on a miscarriage of justice regarding the murder of a prostitute. As he delved into the actual case it became clear that he was treading on toes and received threats and legal action from police lawyers for libel. An experience that convinced him to stick to fiction. Williams describes his crime trilogy as unconventional, a soap opera of the criminal classes set against the demise of the old city in the 1980s. 

David Whish-Wilson is based in Fremantle, and is the author of Line of Sight and Zero at the Bone. He has also written a biography of Perth.

The research for his book, Perth, uncovered some juicy morsels. Did you know that Perth was founded on a real estate scam and when folk lost their livelihoods and the colony was foundering the population was boosted with the introduction of convicts, the last Western country to do so, right upto the 1860s? As a result there were men walking around the city in the 1930s who bore the scars of the cat o’ nine tails.

As an alternative teller of Perth’s history Whish-Wilson has taken a particular interest in the crimes that hide in plain sight, the political and business community in lockstep. The 1970s saw an increase in this when the drug trade sprang up and an uncontested corruption took a grip. Like Williams he also received various threats in researching his book Line of Sight. Whilst teaching poetry in prison, he befriended an inmate whose mother, a brothel madam, had been murdered, allegedly by Perth detectives. Together with a private detective, he followed up new leads and spoke to people, although it soon became obvious that fear still surrounded the case even after 30 years. Word got out and threats and burglaries followed. As he related, there are two kinds of cops in Perth, the smart ones and bash artists. The smart ones will let things blow over and the bash artists…

Adrian McKinty’s trilogy featuring Sean Duffy are set in his native Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. The latest is In The Morning I’ll Be Gone.

McKinty freely admits to being lazy and hating research and having grown up in the troubles, what else could he write about that would lend such detail for stories? The army on the streets, armed police, riots everyday and cop for this: of his male peers from primary school, a third are or were in prison, a third joined the police force and a third emigrated. The girls all did well.

Crime fiction provides the perfect vector for portraying social history and class. McKinty says literary fiction is way too nice and upper middle class and provides little he can relate too. Crime fiction provides the means to portray genuine working-class lives without patronizing, telling real stories rather than caricatures. Not be left out, he too ran the risk of payback as the original manuscript of In the Morning… included the names of real paramilitaries, one of whom was a former neighbor, jailed for life for a triple murder but released under the Good Friday agreement in 1988. Unwittingly, an editor sent out galley copies of the book without changing the names. It’s fair to say this led to a very nervous wait as they were all retrieved. The possibility of a kneecapping can do this to a writer.

An Irishman, an Australian and a Welshman walked into a writer’s festival and a very good session took place.

David Honeybone

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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4 Responses to Strange Territory

  1. Jaz Stutley says:

    Great stuff, Angela – as was Saturday at the Davitt Awards!
    – jaz


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks Jaz. It was great to see you at the Davitts. I reckon the Sisters should get you to sing at the event in future. We could nominate appropriately themed songs – e.g. ‘Femme Fatale’ by The Velvet Underground…


  2. Felicity says:

    Great article, and what an interesting panel – wish I could have seen it!


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