The Crime & Justice Festival at Readers Feast Bookstore, now in it’s seventh year, is unique in bringing commentators and practitioners in the field of justice, together with crime writers, to explore the big issues of the day. I participated in three sessions on Day 1, all of which were both enlightening and entertaining.
First up was (Michael) Dan Mori, best known in Australia as the US Marine who defended David Hicks, talking to Russ Radcliffe about his new book, In the Company of Cowards. Dan is a natural story teller, engaging and down-to-earth, and his story is extraordinary.
He candidly admits to not having been ‘political’, having joined the Marines at 18 and never voted. When asked to defend David Hicks in a military commission established to prosecute detainees held at the US camp in Guantanamo Bay, his first reaction was disappointment. ‘So what did you do during the War on Terror?’ he quipped. ‘Well, I defended a terrorist.’
At first he ‘believed the hype’. But then he got inside the Hicks case, and realised the charges against him did not make sense. ‘Australians don’t have duty of allegiance to USA,’ Dan said. ‘So how can you charge an Australian with “aiding the enemy”?’
Dan gradually came to suspect that justice wasn’t purpose of the military commissions: none of accused been charged with war crime, and the invention of the new term ‘enemy combatant’, enabled people to be tried, but not protected under rules of war.
Using a sporting metaphor tailored for his Australian audience, Dan said, ‘the US military commission was the equivalent of letting a bowler make call on whether a delivery was LBW or not.’ He also noted that, had the system not been so incompetent, he wouldn’t have had chance to educate the Australian public on issues in Hicks case. The illegality of the US military commissions didn’t register much interest in the US because no Americans were detained in Guantanamo Bay.
Other things I learned from Dan Mori:
- US military legal training, in addition to studying the Geneva Conventions, includes watching the film Breaker Morant (‘It’s wrong to shoot prisoners.’)
- Marines consider Jack Nicholson’s battle hardened character Col Jessup (‘You can’t handle the truth!’) to be the hero of A Few Good Men, not Tom Cruise’s idealistic young lawyer
- Mori was once threatened with charges of ‘using contemptuous language against the President’ (we’d all be stuffed if such charges existed in Australia in relation to our national leader!)
Next up I got to interview two of my favourite historical crime fiction writers, Sulari Gentill and Robert Gott. Sulari’s books are set in the 1930s and Robert’s in the 1940s, and while Robert bases his fiction on real events, Sulari takes it a step further and weaves real characters into her narratives. ‘I use my protagonist Rowland Sinclair to meet the people I would like to have met,’ she said. Given that Rowland Sinclair seems to meet everybody whose anybody, I suggested he was the Kevin Bacon of the 1930s…
Our discussion covered the technicalities of researching historical crime fiction: both authors rely on newspapers of the time — Robert recommends The Truth and Sulari The Australian Women’s Weekly — as much for the ads as the articles. Sulari reproduces extracts from newspaper articles in her books to enhance the credibility of her plots; while in The Holiday Murders, Robert use of fascist writings of the time has been acknowledged in the author’s notes.
À propos of Benedetto Croce’s line, “All history is contemporary history”, we also discussed how to accurately reflect attitudes of the time, while taking into account the sensibilities of the present. Both authors do this by focusing on ‘people who move against the flow of the times’, as Sulari put it — bohemians, independent women, homosexuals, Communists, Jews and national socialists — while also reflecting on the relevance of this period of history for the present day. Interesting to note that as her character Rowland Sinclair becomes more engaged in politics, so does his creator Sulari Gentill.
In the last session I attend for the day, Morag Fraser interviewed award-winning journalist David Marr about his new book, The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell, expanded from his essay in The Quarterly. This was a tough session in terms of being reminded of the appalling crimes committed against children by priests and others, which the Catholic church covered up. But I was buoyed by how much David Marr cares about his subject, the passion of his anger — notwithstanding the sharp contrast with the consistently calculated and emotionally sterile response of Cardinal George Pell to the same abuses.
Some things I learned from David Marr:
- The church would never have been able to cover up the large-scale abuse of children as it has without the collusion of the police and politicians
- Australia is one of the last jurisdictions where the church’s financial assets are protected by law from litigation claims
- No one in the current government or foreseeable future has the courage to challenge the church’s ancient claim to legal separateness, i.e. that is is answerable to the laws of Rome, rather than the laws of the state which apply to everyone else.
For all his criticisms of the church’s failure to address the criminal abuse of children, Marr demonstrated respect for the ‘good people’, including the whistle-blowers and advocates who have been ostracised by the hierarchy. My favourite of his comments: ‘I love nothing more at a book event than having an old nun come up to me and tell me I’m too soft.’
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse is ongoing at the time of writing. But if Marr’s observations about the church’s legal and financial protection are anything to go by, justice for the survivors seems a long way off.
Congratulations to Simon Clews, Mary Dalmau and the team at Readers Feast for another great festival. I look forward to 2015.