This year, I avoided the poetry
bashing workshops at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and attended a couple of interesting panel talks, one of which—Secrets from the Crime Scene—I reviewed, and I thought I’d share it here.
Crime, it seems, pays handsomely for crime writers, not necessarily in hard cash but in endless material on the peculiar machinations of the criminal psyche. And mid-morning on this glare-bright winter’s day at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival, The Theatre Bar at the End of the Wharf is packed to the raw, high rafters with an eclectic audience, from school-goers to retirees, dying to know more about what the panel facilitator, Tom Wright, refers to as “life as they imagine it might actually be led away from their fairly safe existences”.
Competing with the hiss of the venue’s overworked espresso machine, the conversation nevertheless flows easily amongst the Secrets from the Crime Scene panel: Kate McClymont, Fairfax investigative journalist, known most recently for He Who Must Be Obeid, an exposé on Sydney businessman Eddie Obeid’s corrupt dealings; Sarah Hopkins, criminal lawyer and fiction-crime author, her most recent novel being This Picture of You; and Michael Robotham, Australian journalist turned successful international crime writer, his latest book being Life or Death.
Kate, with her permanently quizzical left eyebrow, is an expert on the depths of Sydney’s criminal undercurrents, from the murderous mentality of organised crime and bikie gangs to the sociopathic undertow of white-collar crime. The audience roars when she says, “One of the things I really love about Sydney’s criminals is they are so stupid”. And vain: one of her regular informants, who was jailed for abducting Terry Falconer (subsequently murdered), whined to her that the actor portraying him in TV’s Underbelly: Badness “makes me look like a gay porn star”.
Michael says his books “tap into everyday fears” and that he often has to tone “down the truth to make it palatable, because people will not believe it in a book of fiction”, even though “truth always, always proves to be stranger”. Tom remarks on the frequent prescience in Michael’s novels as is exemplified by the story Michael tells of The Wreckage, a novel that was based on the idea “that $250billion of drug cartel money was laundered through major western banks, because during the Global Financial Crisis, banks were so short of funds, they waived all money-laundering laws simply to stay afloat”. The novel was reviewed by an incredulous Joe Nocera, financial writer for The New York Times, who said that no major Western bank would launder money for a drug cartel; it simply wouldn’t happen. With a larrikin air of perpetual amusement, Michael says that now every time there’s a factual report of such events, he sends Joe a tweet: “Say it ain’t so, Joe, say it ain’t so”.
Sarah, who has the demeanour of a meditating monk, rather than someone professionally mired in the mess of criminality and the constipated bureaucracy of social institutions, is more serious than the other panellists, but no less interesting. Through her creative writing, she questions who in our society gets to define what a crime is and the fact that, until recently, “criminal law wouldn’t reach its arm into the home” because “a crime, traditionally, has been about transgressions in the public realm”. As Tom notes, her books are now very much focused on the notion that “the place where your body and mental health is most likely to be at risk is in the home”, an unsettling thought.
In response to a question from the audience, Sarah says she’s never been threatened by a reader, but Michael’s tells of his stalker and many “angry emails” from Americans who objected to this line in an early novel: “something didn’t quite look right, like seeing Bill Gates in board-shorts or George W. Bush in the White House”. And then there is the intrepid Kate, who has had her fair share of legal action and life-threatening phone calls in the middle of the night.
Crime writing—it’s a dangerous but thrilling life.