Below is part two of the interview with David Whish-Wilson, the WA based author of Line of Sight. Part one of the interview can be viewed here.
The murder of Shirley Finn is probably Perth’s most notorious unsolved murder, notorious because of the persistent (and correct) rumours of police involvement. You might even say that Shirley’s murder has achieved the status of myth – the kind of myth that develops when there’s so little on the public record, and which functions to fill in the gaps left by unanswered questions. As a writer, of course, that frontierland between truth and fiction and myth and legend is an interesting region to explore. The good news is that Line of Sight has been very well received over here, and it’s gratifying to have been contacted on a number of occasions by ex-policemen and ex-prostitutes and others from the period who have expressed their satisfaction that finally this story has been told in a fairly truthful manner, even if it’s a work of fiction.
I did toss up whether to write the murder of Shirley Finn as a work of fiction, or of non-fiction, and in the end decided for a couple of reasons to write it as a novel, primarily because there’s so little on the public record about her murder, and specifically because people are still very afraid to speak on the record. As well, when I started researching the book I was told time and again that there was a whole graveyard of books written on the Shirley Finn murder, and that I was wasting my time because no book that dealt with her murder would ever be published.
The most famous of these unpublished manuscripts was written quite soon after Shirley’s murder, by a friend of hers called George Stewart, who wrote about his life in a terrific memoir called The Leveller: The Story of a Violent Australian (George was for different periods a standover man, a union heavyweight, a marine salvage operator and manager of the George Stewart boxing troupe, one of the last travelling boxing troupes in the nation.) What is little known, however, is that George also wrote a story about Shirley Finn’s murder, trying to use a thinly disguised fiction to get at the truth – a story called – ‘The Life and Death of Pearly Sin.’
Remarkably, he wrote this at a time when all of the players involved in Shirley’s murder were still very much in play. And word somehow got around that he had written it. As the story goes, one day George was drinking in the Great Western pub in Northbridge (now known as the Brass Monkey) when he was invited for a drink by a certain person who was also quite close to Shirley Finn. Apparently, however, George refused the offer of a drink from this person, believing that this person was not a true friend of Shirley’s, to put it mildly, and a confrontation ensued. As the story was told to me, the subject of his manuscript came up during this confrontation. Bearing in mind that George Stewart was one of the toughest men around, who also had a penchant for firearms, having been threatened George retreated to his home in the South-Eastern foothills. Here he apparently set up an early warning system of cans attached to fishing line around the perimeter of his fences, and sat up all night in his kitchen with a loaded .303 rifle in his lap, bayonet attached.
One of the things that most stood out to me in your book is how well you portrayed the sights and sounds of the seventies – the after hours clubs, the criminals, the prison system, the Perth establishment, and just every day life. How did you manage to capture this so well?
With a father in the armed forces and then in the mining game, I had a pretty mobile upbringing. Apparently we moved some 21 times before I was ten years old. We lived in working-class neighbourhoods and middle-class neighbourhoods, in cities and small country towns, and everything in between. Then, as soon as I turned eighteen I headed off overseas for a period of about ten years, staying in a number of different countries. This kind of life has meant that I’ve moved through plenty of different worlds.
I live a pretty quiet life now as the father of three young children, in what has become (South Fremantle) a reasonably middle-class area, but there was a crazy time in my life when pretty much everyone I knew was a criminal of one kind or another. All of these are experiences and sub-cultures I’ve tried to draw upon in my writing.
Line of Sight is a fantastic piece of hard-boiled noir crime writing. That’s unusual for the Australian crime scene. We usually seem to like our crime fiction a bit softer. Was it a conscious decision on your part from the beginning to write a book in that style or is that something that developed as you wrote?
I’ll never forget the moment when, as a seven year old child I came across a hard-boiled true crime magazine, replete with gory B&W photos of slain gangsters and the like. I had the best comic collection of any of my mates at Karratha Primary school (in the Pilbara), and I used to trawl around the local building sites to see what builders had left behind, or were reading at the time. Soft-core porn and Westerns in the main, and plenty of comics, but that first lurid vision of a slain gangster in a true crime mag has stayed with me ever since, and probably still defines to some extent how I see crime and punishment.
As well, when I was a younger man living an entirely different life, I was unlucky enough to witness many, many murders at first hand, and plenty of stabbings, glassings and miscellaneous acts of violence. I saw friends OD. I’ve seen men shot dead with both handguns and machine guns. I’ve watched public executions involving petrol and ‘rubber necklaces’, which is about as horrible a thing as is possible to witness. Once, my girlfriend, who was a working prostitute, was raped by some policemen, and there was nothing we could do about it. I’ve copped a couple of serious beatings myself over the years and on two occasions I’ve had loaded guns pressed against my head by angry men. I know what it’s like to be in genuine fear of losing my life, in other words, and I still have nightmares from that time.
So, while it’s certainly true that plenty of the policemen and criminals I’ve met, and in some cases have become good friends with, have been very funny people in their own way, it’s probably also the case that the memory of those murders and other things I’ve witnessed have also affected the way I write. Some of my favourite crime writers use humour to leaven their narratives (Shane Maloney, Adrian Hyland, early Peter Temple et al) but having seen people kill one another (and, significantly, get away with it) I guess that when I sit down to write, this experience of violence is what stays with me – and is perhaps a vision of life best exemplified in the narratives of mordant wit and hard poetry associated with the noir aesthetic.
You lecture in creative writing at Curtin University. In that sense, one can say you have been formally trained. Does that help when you write?
I suppose it does, inevitably. While it’s true that I was publishing stories well before I studied at university (I started in my late twenties), and for a long period of my early writing life I didn’t know a single other writer, which made me feel somewhat perverse and alien, teaching writing is probably a good thing in that it involves a constant returning to the basic techniques, the best examples. However, it must be said that I probably learned more, personally, about structure and form by working with my excellent editor at Penguin on Line of Sight, Meredith Rose. Teaching writing is one thing, and studying writing can certainly abbreviate the long apprenticeship that is a writing career, but because so much of the practice of writing is intuitive, a good editor I’ve discovered is a beautiful thing.
For a relatively small place in terms of publishing, WA seems to have a pretty good crime-writing scene. In addition to yourself, there’s Felicity Young and several others writing crime. Would you agree with this? Is there anything about the place that is specifically conducive to crime writing?
I could be speaking out of my arse here, but one of the positives about being a Western Australian writer, in general, is the ‘isolation’. It becomes a matter of simply getting on with it. Taking nothing for granted and assuming that what you write will never be read. That every published work will probably be your last.
That said, while I haven’t read Felicity Young’s work, I’ve just enjoyed a first crime novel by Alan Carter called Prime Cut, also set in WA, so hopefully there is some kind of scene developing. It occurs to me in writing this that one advantage of living in a city of some 1.5 million people with only a few working crime writers is that there’s opportunity here, to tell stories that others haven’t already told.
Do you read a lot of crime fiction yourself? What, if anything, have you read recently that’s stood out?
Oh yeah. I love crime writing, and do read a lot of it. My faves are George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Georges Simenon, Leonardo Sciascia, Richard Price and many others. What I love most about the crime fiction world at the moment is that I know, for sure, that there are plenty of other writers out there that I will like but haven’t yet come across, but know for certain that when I do, I’m gonna read everything of theirs I can get my hands on.
I’m currently reading Homicide, by David Simon, one of the writers of The Wire, a non-fiction account of when Simon was embedded with the Baltimore Homicide Squad in 1988. I can’t believe I haven’t come across it before. It’s written with that typical American tough-mindedness and clarity of vision. I’m also currently reading Bre-X: the inside story of the world’s biggest mining scam, by Canadian journalist Jennifer Wells, which should give some idea of where I’m headed with my next novel.
I believe that you’re working on your next crime novel, set in WA in the later part of the seventies and focusing on the links between crime, corruption and mining. What is it about that particular period that you find so interesting? Does Supt Frank Swann get another outing?
Yeah, I’m halfway through another Frank Swann novel, set in 1979, the 150th anniversary of the colonisation of Perth. What I find fascinating about that period is the fact that so little of it has ever been represented in fiction, and that is a source of frustration that I use to motivate me. 1979 was a time in WA when the policing culture was still old-school, when the race-tracks and the shonky mining ‘pump and dump’ share-markets were still largely unregulated, when armed robbers were still getting into the drug trade, when the traditional Australian working class culture of doing as little as possible and stealing anything not nailed down hadn’t yet been replaced by today’s corporate and middle-class values; a period in WA history just before the onset of the cowboy capitalism we associate with the eighties, when there was still a strong live music scene, with skinheads, bogans and Noongars daily fighting it out in the streets – all of which I’m hoping to capture in the next book.
For the first time in my writing life, too, an entire plot has immediately suggested itself, which alongside the fact that I’m working with characters I already know is a great help. I’m hoping to have a first draft finished in a couple of months, when I’ll start showing it to some of the coppers and crims from the period to check its veracity. One of the great unexpected boons about doing the research for Line of Sight was the discovering of plentiful material which I can use for future Frank Swann novels, working through the eighties, which of course was a time of great cultural change over here, when the political shit really hit the fan.
Line of Sight is published by Viking Penguin and can be purchased here.