Why crime? This is the question most crime writers get asked more than any other. For a long while I couldn’t answer it. Honestly, I had no idea. To start with I didn’t read crime, which is a weird confession to make and one that could see me strung up by my thumbs above a bonfire of copies of The Wreckage, a very combustible read.
In my very first newspaper interview I was famously misquoted as having read only one crime book— which became the headline for the entire piece. The mistake has haunted me ever since with people desperate to know “which one.” Either it was the very best crime novel ever written, or the worst one—why else would I have stopped?
What I tried to tell the journalist (and obviously failed) was that I tried to read one of each because there are so many new crime writers emerging every year. We live in a golden age of mystery and crime fiction, with some truly brilliant practitioners of the craft. We all have our favorites. We all find our level.
But I go back to the original question: Why crime?
I can answer the question now. I know why I write crime novels. I can even pinpoint the day when the seed was planted (although it took more than twenty years to germinate).
On April 2, 1980, a young man called Raymond John Denning hid amid prison garbage and became the first inmate in eighty years to escape from Grafton Jail, 400 miles north of Sydney, Australia.
I was nineteen at the time, a cadet journalist on the old Sydney Sun, working the graveyard shift, midnight to eight.
Denning was serving a life sentence for the savage bashing of a prison warder during an earlier attempted escape. The warder later died. Although only in his early twenties, Ray was already a hardened criminal who had been in and out of prison since he was fifteen, and was notorious for his many escape attempts.
Denning was immediately classified as the second-most-wanted man in Australia (behind Russell “Mad Dog” Cox, who comes into the story later). He was almost caught within days in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, when police stopped a car being driven by a girlfriend. Denning fled into dense bushland and evaded police roadblocks and helicopters.
He spent the next twenty months on the run, not just avoiding the police, but taunting them. He managed to turn himself into a modern day folk hero by pulling publicity stunts designed to embarrass the police.
He rang talkback radio shows, did film reviews for 2JJJ, and appeared on Sixty Minutes. He visited Parliament House and sat in the public gallery; he strolled among the crowd at a prisoners’ art show attended by the Chairman of the Corrective Services Commission.
These stunts were comical and outrageous, but they carried an important message. Denning was waging a campaign against the police’s use of unsigned statements and “verbals” to convict criminals. These have since been outlawed, but in those days, the police were notorious for claiming a suspect had confessed to them in the back of the police car. This verbal “confession” along with an accompanying unsigned statement were then used to get a conviction.
During nights at the Sun, police and crime stories were my bread and butter. I was a siren chaser. I scanned the police, fire, and ambulance frequencies, picking up reports and dashing to the scene with a photographer.
One night at about three in the morning, I had a call from Ray Denning. I don’t know why he called me, but there weren’t many journalists awake at that hour so he probably just tried his luck.
It was the first of many calls from Ray over the next six months. Sometimes he’d rant about police verbals, but mostly we talked about football, movies, books, and stories in the news. I remember him telling me that he wasn’t a bad person when he first went to prison at fifteen—just a kid with an attitude.
“Prison brutalized me,” he said, describing how warders would hose him down with freezing water and leave him shivering in his cell.
“Why did they do it?” I asked.
“Because they could,” he said.
These phone calls became the foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship. Whenever Denning pulled a publicity stunt, he would tip me off. For example, he walked up the front steps of the NSW Police Headquarters in Sydney and taped a letter to the glass door, putting his palm prints on either side. He phoned me and I raced to the scene. We got photographs of the police finding the letter. They were furious, of course, but the story made the front page the next day.
I was interviewed by the police and cooperated fully. At their request I taped subsequent phone calls. It’s possible they were also being traced, but Denning was careful not to stay on the line too long or to use the same callbox more than once.
Toward the end of 1980, I was listening to the police radios one night when I heard a report of shots fired at Parramatta Jail, in Sydney’s west. Someone had fired a high-powered rifle at the perimeter guard towers, sending bullets through the windows.
Within minutes, my phone rang. The gruff voice read from a prepared statement. An organization calling itself the Reform Justice Devils was claiming responsibility for the shooting, as part of its campaign against police brutality and corruption.
I looked at the initials. R.J.D. Raymond John Denning.
“Is that you, Ray?”
“C’mon, Ray, I recognize your voice.”
“It’s not me. It’s the Reform Justice Devils.”
I laughed, but Ray didn’t see the funny side of it. He hung up and that was the last I heard from him for more than a year. Later I learned he’d gone to Queensland and hooked up with Russel “Mad Dog” Cox, who had been on the run since 1977, and they went on a crime spree, robbing banks and credit unions. In September 1981, they pulled off Queensland’s biggest payroll robbery, netting $327,000.
Denning was finally captured two months later. His girlfriend had gone to collect him from the Manly ferry on Sydney’s north shore. As the two of them waited at a set of traffic lights, a man in a straw hat and swimmers approached the car and put a pistol in Denning’s face. Ray didn’t have a chance to reach down for the gun he’d stashed under the passenger seat.
At his luxury condo—in Mona Vale (only a few miles from where I live now)—police found a .357 magnum and three rifles.
Even though he was already serving a life sentence, Denning was put on trial. I was called as a witness. Summoned into the courtroom, I swore an oath and then raised my eyes to meet his. It was the first time I had ever physically seen him.
I expected him to look frightening. I thought his crimes would be like a badge or a tattoo. But the thing that struck me most was how ordinary Denning looked. He could have been a taxi driver or a mechanic or a builder. I could have passed him in the street or stood next to him at a bar, and it would never have occurred to me that he was capable of such violence.
Ray was only a couple of years older than me, and I remember asking myself what made us so different? Why was I sitting in the witness box and he in the dock? What choices, mistakes, or twists of fate had made our lives turn out so differently?
I know now that this is why I write the books I write. I am fascinated by the criminal mind.
When a well-spoken university graduate in urban preservation flies a passenger plane into a skyscraper killing thousands of people, or when a student barely out of his teens sprays a university campus with bullets, or when a teenage mother gives birth in a toilet and leaves the baby in the wastepaper bin, it all comes back to some aspect of human behavior and interaction. Everything we think we know and understand—the good, the bad, and the inexplicable—is produced by four pounds of gray porridge in our heads.
Why crime? Because I’m fascinated by the dark side of human nature. I’m interested in how people react under extreme pressure—criminals, victims, and onlookers.
Author Sue Grafton summed it up when she said, “A mystery is more than a novel, more than a compelling account of people whose fate engages us. The mystery is a means by which we can explore, vicariously, the perplexing questions of crime, guilt and innocence, violence and justice.”
I still hear some readers say they feel guilty about reading crime fiction—as though it should be something they wrap up in a brown paper bag, like a cheap bottle of port.
This is ridiculous. Why do they have to be closet readers? Some of the finest literary writers in the world have embraced the genre at various times.
People like Faulkner, Thurber, Allende, Twain, and Greene, and more recently the likes of Martin Amis, William Boyd, and John Banville. They all understand the fascination and also that this genre, at its best, is worthy of the most demanding and sophisticated of readers.
I might not read crime books, but I love writing them.
Postscript: Raymond John Denning escaped from prison again in July 1988 and established contact with Russel “Mad Dog” Cox, who was still on the run. Eight days later they were both recaptured in a police shootout at Doncaster in Victoria.
Offered a deal, Denning rolled over and became a police “supergrass” in prison, revealing criminal networks operating behind bars. He served nineteen years in prison and died of a heroin overdose shortly after being released.
Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist in Britain, Australia, and the U.S before his career as a novelist. He lives in Sydney with his wife and 3 daughters. Learn more at http://www.michaelrobotham.com.
Mulholland Books will publish The Wreckage in June 2011.