David Whish-Wilson on his Frank Swann series
Fremantle-based writer David Whish-Wilson chatted with Amanda Frost about his novel Zero at the Bone and his process for creating crime novels. Readers should be on the lookout for his next work as a third Frank Swann novel is in the pipeline.
Your crime novels Line of Sight and Zero at the Bone have extremely tight, well-thought out plots. Tell us how you create your plots (do you use any particular structure or approach?).
I don’t think much about plot in the writing of the first draft, where I’m thinking mainly about character. Once the first draft is finished and I’ve got some critical distance, I go about picking apart the narrative to try and make sure that there are no ‘flat’ bits, and begin to think about inserting events, or scenes, that reflect the general atmosphere of the story and raise the stakes for the characters. But even here I’m still not thinking about plot – I’m thinking about what the consequences are for my characters if something happens, and in doing so aim to learn more about my characters. One of the things that attracted me to crime fiction is the idea that in placing characters in precarious situations, they are thereby forced to confront certain truths about themselves. I find that most of my plotting, such as it is, flows out of such moments in my characters’ lives. One of the other things that attracted me towards writing crime fiction was the recognition that this aspect of the craft was an area of weakness for me, ie. plotting, and that working in a medium where readers have certain expectations regarding narrative tension would force me to learn the craft better.
Frank Swann is a complex and rich character with a troubled personality. What do you feel is his underlying philosophy on life and crime, and why did you create him this way?
I deliberately wanted Frank Swann to go against type, in a sense. I wanted him to be a family man, not an alienated divorcee or general misanthrope, which is a character type that’s useful regarding plotting, in that the character has no real responsibilities and so can take greater risks, but I also think that it’s been done to death. Frank might have been a cop, but he also comes from the same class that most of Perth’s criminal fraternity originates from. Basically, I’m not interested in righteous characters or righteous people, or people or characters who follow the rules, just because they’re the rules. Frank has a code, but it’s the code of his community – you push back. This single motivating factor is a survival mechanism that can protect you from trouble or it can lead to trouble, depending on the context. There are a lot of men and women in prison because they’re sociopathic – they lack the empathy to understand, or care about the consequences of their actions upon others, but there are also plenty of people in prison who are there because they refuse to follow the rules, they feel like they are pushing back. Because Frank Swann understands this, because this is his code as well, his perspective on life and crime isn’t black and white. Perth was the last Australian city to use convicts as slave labour, and many men Frank Swann’s age had grandparents who were convicts. According to historian Geoffrey Bolton, in the latter part of the 19th century, Perth’s general crime rate was seven times that of Adelaide. In one year alone, fully one in four male residents of Fremantle were locked up for petty crimes. This is the culture and community that Frank Swann was born into – you get away with what you can, you survive, and you take responsibility for others. His becoming a policeman was a natural progression of this same ethos, although he could have easily gone the other way. He goes up against corrupt cops and gangster figures where they threaten his friends, and his own survival. With Frank Swann, it’s never about the job – it’s always personal. As far as Swann being troubled, this is really just my take on an aspect of the traditional crime fiction protagonist (and real-life detective’s) psychological profile. Frank wants to know, is driven to know, but what he learns damages him. I think James Lee Burke described this nicely when he said that ‘every protagonist, every narrator who sees the world as it is will be troubled by it…the narrator who is not troubled by it is one not connected to reality’.
You have an incisive eye for the undercurrents of society (eg. drug mules, prostitution). How do you research these?
Like all writers, I like to keep an ear out for the good story, or the telling anecdote. Because I’m not particularly interested in psychopaths, or serial killers, having met a few, and because I’m more interested in ‘typical’ crime, I’m more drawn to realist representations of the kinds of things that are absolutely ordinary and yet, because they are criminal, are largely hidden from view. I’ve known plenty of people over the years who have been criminals of one type or another, and where possible I like to use stories taken from real life.
There has been an exciting explosion of hard boiled crime fiction in the last four years or so set in Western Australia (Alan Carter and Noel Mealey spring to mind). Do you think Western Australia lends itself as a setting for hard-boiled crime fiction for any particular reasons?
Local writer Dorothy Hewett wrote of Perth in 1982 that the city’s ‘air of manufactured innocence’ was in fact the perfect field for corruption. This interests me, because this kind of environment, where crime happens in plain sight because people don’t expect to see it, is also the perfect field for crime noir. The old saying ‘the brighter the light; the deeper the shadow’ applies here. And I think the lack of a crime writing tradition in WA also has a lot to do with it – the building up of pressure in a vacuum of stories that generates the sudden production of stories. Because WA is a boom-time state, there’s also the sense that the social stresses that booms create, leading to rapid change and constant flux, is the perfect breeding ground for what you might call hustlers in business suits to operate in. In the midst of what you might also term a grand ‘crime opera’, in the sense that because there’s money around all the grand human frailties of greed and betrayal and bastardry are amplified, there are also the old networks of mates and the old arrangements that mean a limited few still call the shots. Because of WA’s isolation, and its more recent frontier culture, there’s always been the sense here that we can make up our own rules, because nobody’s really watching and nobody really cares, and of course this is also the perfect situation for people to take advantage of, if their goal is money and power.
Do you think crime fiction can act as a social critique? Why do you think so?
Yes, absolutely, and in a way that’s perhaps more interesting and insightful than other mediums. Particularly where the braided narrative is used to cross boundaries of race and class, and give a bottom up or insider’s view of a society, I think crime writers can hit the mark in a way that is also entertaining. In my own work, and particularly in my first crime novel, Line of Sight, it was very important to me to characterise a time in Perth’s history where certain detectives were brazen enough and felt confident enough to murder a popular social figure, the brothel-madam Shirley Finn, in a very public fashion, knowing that they’d get away with it. For me, what was interesting about this wasn’t only that the crime itself was shocking, but that the general person was shocked that it could happen in a city like Perth. Cities and communities, like people, tell comforting lies about themselves, and it’s not a bad thing that crime fiction sometimes functions to peel back certain lies or myths to reveal a sometimes awkward or uncomfortable truth. Because fiction is a sensual medium, or as they say is the art of empathy and the imagination, the experience of immersion in fiction can feel very much like the truth, and so fiction as a medium can bear the freighting of a certain amount of social commentary, as long as it’s non-didactic, or follows critic James Woods’ edict to ‘avoid tying the moral shoelaces of your characters’. Some of my favourite crime writers might also be considered social crime writers: Leonardo Sciascia, Richard Price, George Pelecanos and many others. In WA, more recently I think Peter Docker’s new crime novel Sweet One is both a terrific crime read but also a searing account of race relations on a frontier that remains disputed.
Your novels are rich in historical detail and social and political events. What are the most challenging aspects of drawing on events from the past for you?
The period details are important to get right, of course, but then again I do love the research, particularly when it involves, as my crime fiction research so often does, seeking out great storytellers and people in the know, who are prepared to tell me their stories.
Do you have any writing projects in the pipeline that you could tell us about?
I’m well into the third Frank Swann novel, having moved the timeline forward into the Perth of the eighties – a particularly rich period for a local crime writer to explore, as it was the first time that the darker and more predatory side of the cowboy capitalism that’s always thrived here was brought out into the open, if only briefly. As well, I recently completed an article for the Griffith Review broadly about WA crime, which I enjoyed writing. The article can be found at https://griffithreview.com/articles/worm-bud/.
Amanda Frost worked in administration at Swinburne University in Melbourne for six years, then moved to Perth to follow her passion for writing and editing. She is currently studying Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University.
The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 2 2015
Editors: Rachel Franks and Wendy J. Dunn