David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight was one of my favourite crime fictions reads of 2010. A re-telling of the events following the murder of a notorious Perth brothel madam, Shirley Finn, the book deals with crime and corruption in seventies WA. It’s a fantastic piece of hard-boiled noir writing, unusual for the Australian scene. I’m obviously not the only person singing it’s praises, as Line of Sight is in the running for best first fiction book in the upcoming Ned Kelly Awards.
A review of Line of Sight appeared on Pulp Curry last year. Since then, I’ve been hassling David for an interview. A few weeks ago we finally pulled it off. As finding a time to talk by phone proved difficult, David very generously agreed to provide written answers via e-mail to my questions. His detailed responses are fascinating, particularly to someone such as myself with little knowledge of life in the West. Instead of cutting them back, I decided to run the interview in two parts. Part two will appear tomorrow.
Line of Sight takes as its starting point the real life murder in the seventies of a Perth brothel madam called Shirley Finn (known as Ruby Devine in the book). How did you come across the story of Finn and what made you think it would make the premise of a good crime story?
In the late 90’s I was working as a creative writing teacher at Casuarina Prison, just south of Perth. As you’d expect from a maximum security facility, most of my students were lifers, mostly murderers and bank robbers. Shane Finn was one of my students for a period (so was Alan Bond, but that’s another story.) Shane was the youngest child of brothel madam Shirley Finn’s three children left orphaned after her murder in 1975. When I met him he was serving sixteen years for the knife murder of a man who’d taunted him about his mother. Shane’s mother was one of three or four protected brothel madams in Perth at the time of her murder, under what was known then as the containment policy. Unfortunately for her, she got hit with a very large tax bill, and by way of appealing it she asked that the taxation department consider, as mitigating circumstances, the bribes she’d paid to CIB detectives over the years.
As soon as she put that in writing, unfortunately, according to the usual rules of the underworld, her life was pretty much over. She had friends in high places, was very well known in WA, a minor celebrity of sorts, but it wasn’t enough to save her. On the night of June 23, 1975, she was lured down to the South Perth golf club by someone she told her lover, Rose Black, would solve all her money problems. There she was shot four times in the head with a sawn-off .22 and left out on display. As you can imagine, her murder caused a sensation in Perth, and the shoddy CIB investigation into her murder only made people more curious.
At Casuarina Prison, Shane Finn gave me the full and complete CIB file relating to his mother’s murder, which had been given to him, interestingly enough, by a sympathetic policeman. Shane suggested I do something with the CIB file, and intro’d me to some people from the period. So I took the file away and starting interviewing people from the time, and what was immediately clear was just how shonky the investigation was. And who was involved. Some very famous names in the long history of shonky policing in WA.
But ultimately, it was the conversations I had with a couple of coppers I trusted that really piqued my interest, and made me decide to write the story as Line of Sight. Both of the coppers I spoke to told me that the rumour right away amongst their colleagues was that Shirley had been murdered by certain older detectives, pointing out that from the crime scene photos that it was pretty clear that whoever had done the murder had known they would get away with it. They also put me in touch with witnesses whose statements had been left out of the final CIB file. This atmosphere of intrigue but also brazen disregard is what initially attracted me to the story.
You’re on the record as saying that some of the events in the novel are true. What were some of the difficulties and challenges of researching the story?
I wanted to get the novel as close to the truth of what I think happened to Shirley Finn, without getting my arse sued or shot. It’s based on solid research; literally hundreds of hours of interviews and archival research. The main problem I faced in doing this research was the fear that was apparent in all of the people whom I spoke to, even thirty years later – the strong belief that those who had killed Shirley Finn were still alive and would certainly kill again if necessary. Nobody was prepared to speak on the phone, even other police officers who I knew I could trust. Lots of conversations were done in crowded cafes, in parks and in a couple of cases while walking up and down footpaths.
At some point, and with the help of a PI mate who knows all the Perth faces on both sides of the thin blue line, we came up with a couple of names I thought were worth pursuing. I looked into these blokes’ financial histories (all very wealthy, and all their assets in their wives names etc) and around that time there were a few strange incidents. I had my writing studio in Fremantle and work office at Curtin University broken into, and some nuisance phone calls and a couple of other more worrying events, which continued until the book came out. But at the beginning there were two things going on at the same time – the writing of the book, and the investigation that I was doing, a case of fiction imitating reality as the main character in the book is a detective trying to discover what really happened.
Basically, the way I did the research was to start with people that I could trust, friends of the Finn family and investigative journos who had a track record of being courageous, and I’d ask them – should I speak to this copper, or this bloke? And the answer might be, no that blokes bent, he’s a mate of so-and-so – you speak to him and you’ll wind up dead – but speak to this bloke, he’s a straight cop – and then I’d speak to that cop, and he’d recommend I speak to another bloke and so it went, also using the electoral rolls and landcorp and company house to locate people. And this had some interesting results.
With help of my PI mate I came across three cops who claimed to have done it, and two mafia types. We investigated them all – they were all possible candidates, all wealthy and all either implicated in corruption or were people who had been jailed for corruption and violence. They can’t all have done it, but it does say something about the culture of the time that three policemen and two gangsters might boast about murdering the mother of three children in cold blood, because ‘it needed to be done.’ Having done the research, of course, the challenge then became about how to write a novel that explored this idea of competing truths and theories, that both fulfilled my responsibility to the Finn family and was as close to the truth as I could get it, but was also a satisfying read.
To what degree is the central character of Supt Frank Swann, the old school cop who turns whistle blower, based on a real person? You thank a number of former WA police in the acknowledgements of Line of Sight. Is Swann’s character a composite of them?
Precisely, he’s a composite of them. I had the good fortune to speak to a couple of ex-police whistleblowers, and they’re an interesting species of bloke. I admire their grit. It’s a tragedy what happens to whistleblowers in general, but especially police whistleblowers. The police force is by nature a prickly institution, highly sensitive to criticism, and its union is active and motivated. In Western Australia, any journalist or writer or pollie who takes on the police force is in for a hard time. Of course, the question of who is there to ‘guard the guardians’ is as old as civil society itself, although clearly it wasn’t something given much priority back in the days before corruption watchdogs and their like, when Line of Sight is set.
The police whistleblowers that I’m familiar with in Western Australia all spoke out against their colleagues (and suffered the consequences) in instances where they felt their corrupt colleagues were guilty of the worst crimes. When I started to think about the main character of Line of Sight I decided to amalgamate some of the characters I’d met while also following the old Chandler dictum – ‘down the mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean: who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’ I wanted Swann to be a good bloke, the kind of guy you’d like if you met him in normal circumstances, not at all moralistic or self-righteous. And yet the old-school noirish central character, as described by Chandler, seemed like a perfect fit for a story about a man trying against the odds to work his way through the subterfuge, the dissembling and intimidation of his colleagues as they try to shut him down.
In addition to Swann, there are two other important characters in the novel. There’s the anonymous hit man and the upper class retired judge who has been brought over from Victoria to head up the sham inquiry into the brothel madam’s slaying. What purpose did you want these two characters to serve in the book?
I wanted them to serve a dual purpose. Firstly, to broaden the scope of the novel, in the sense of making it a braided narrative, to enable me to look across barriers of class in particular, to ‘follow the money’ if you like. Secondly, there was that challenge of making the story as true as possible, while also making it a satisfying read. Obviously, someone picking up the book in Auckland, or Cairns or Hobart isn’t going to care that the story is based on a real murder – they want value for their money, they want a good read. By bringing in these other two characters I felt I was able to achieve a balance between getting the novel as close to the truth as possible, while achieving a sense of narrative closure despite the fact that in the real life case there hasn’t been any real resolution. Introducing the character of the hit man, in particular, allowed me to both explore a different layer of Perth society while bringing the novel to a conclusion that I hope will satisfy readers of Line of Sight.
I had no idea before I read Line of Sight that there was so much crime and corruption in WA in the seventies. For example, you say the bottom of the harbour tax evasion scheme, which I’d always associated with NSW, originated in WA. There’s also cops green lighting crims and links to the Mr Asia heroin syndicate. Why was corruption and violence so pronounced in WA in the seventies?
Money, lack of scrutiny, and a broad network of ‘mates.’ Western Australia, since its earliest gold-rush days, has always been a place defined by a particular kind of wealth – primarily because of its precious metal and mineral resources (although it’s not a wealth that is widely shared.) It’s no different now. A gram of speed over here costs between two and three times what it costs over East. That makes organised crime an attractive proposition. And this makes something that a couple of ex-coppers once told me ring true. That is, when business is the primary focus of organised crime, it makes sense that there exist certain ‘arrangements’ between cops and crims, businessmen and politicians.
Both of these coppers told me that they reckon crims over in Victoria and NSW are a bit thick, what with all the shootings and gangland wars etc – that basically you get a more clever kind of organised crim in WA, the kind of crim who knows what side his bread is buttered on, who knows that bodies in the streets bring unwanted attention.
The murder of Shirley Finn is an exception, of course, because by threatening to name names she was threatening this broader arrangement. By this account, if the old saying that the holy trinity of organised crime is business, politics and only thirdly crime is true, then Shirley Finn’s murder was primarily a business decision, then it was a political decision, and only finally was it a criminal decision – of a specific type.
As well, there are a large number of people in WA who, having made their start-up money in heroin or other such trades are now involved in legitimate business, the mining game in particular, although they are not beyond reverting to a bit of thuggery to protect their interests, when necessary.
Line of Sight is published by Viking Penguin and can be purchased here.