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.