I’m currently having a “swords ‘n sandals” relapse; I’m reading the third of Robert Harris’s roman trilogy, Lustrum. I’m trying desperately to limit myself to one chapter a night, in order to maximise the pleasure.
Before that I read Nichola Garvey’s excellent bio of the gambling colossus, Alan Trip, Beating The Odds. Before that it was Liz Porter’s new collection of forensic stories, Cold Case Files. (Porter’s book is every bit as good as her previous, Written on the Skin, which won a Ned Kelly Award for “best true crime”. She captures the human drama in each unsolved case and has a remarkable gift for summing up complicated scientific stuff, without letting these explanations impede the narrative.)
Tell us about Rip Off.
I’ve been telling representatives of the media, post-launch, that it’s a work of undeniable brilliance by a tragically unrecognised master of the genre who - despite his extraordinary charm, obvious good looks and self-evident talent - has a pathetic need for public adulation. In return, I’ve been getting lots of “which village has lost its idiot?” looks. You feel the same way? Fine. To the book, then: a number of people connected to a property scam are murdered in Perth and Adelaide. AFP star-detective, Brad Chen, is sent west to keep an eye on the investigation. Despite being told not to get involved, Chen can’t help sleuthing his way into the thick of things. Seemingly unconnected deaths in Melbourne and Sydney see the public treating the killer as a hero; the same deaths prompt a dangerous outbreak of self-help justice around the country. The pressure is consequently on Chen to catch the killer(s) before all semblance of public order is lost.
You started drafting Rip Off in 2007, does that mean it was originally the second Brad Chen novel? What prompted you to come back to the manuscript?
My first publisher impressed on me the need to be producing a novel every twelve to eighteen months if I was going to sustain reader interest in a crime series ... and I took his instructions very seriously. As soon as Smoke and Mirrors (S&M - no smirking, please) was delivered to my editor, I started plotting Rip Off. So, yes, it was actually the third Chen book.
I shredded the early chapters and related research materials when it didn’t seem likely that I’d be able to publish a third book. However, after S&M won some prizes, I decided to resurrect the story.
A number of things lured me back to it: I kept seeing reports about fraudsters and conmen in the newspapers and found myself more and more fascinated by wrongdoing in the business world. I was increasingly bemused, too, by the fact that the victims of these corporate crooks rarely exacted their own vengeance, despite the inadequate penalties generally handed down by the courts. Finally, I couldn’t let go of the idea of Chen struggling against the popular will to track down the killer.
In Rip Off, Chen is chasing a murderer who is, in the eyes of many people, a hero. How did this aspect of the novel come about?
It occurred to me, while I was writing the first two Chen books, that most people at the periphery of violent death are grateful for the investigative efforts of the police; they want resolution and justice, in much the same way as readers of crime fiction want everything put aright by the final page. As someone who likes to tinker with aspects of the genre, I thought it would be interesting to invert these usual circumstances and have Chen chase a killer no one wants brought to book. For the general public to feel that way about a killer, they (the killer) needed to be doing something admirable eg. cleaning up white collar crime.
Where did Brad Chen come from, and how did you develop the character?
You probably won’t remember when senior Australians would talk very loudly and slowly to anyone who wasn’t white or in possession of a boomerang. However, Bradman (Brad) Chen is a direct result of my delight in the consternation on the faces of such people when their Asian interlocutors answered them in a broad Australian accent or in genteel Oxford English. Chen is also a result of a “self challenge” to rework the cliché of the clever, inscrutable Chinese detective. I should say, too, that love the extra complexity that his superficial difference adds to many of the situations in which he finds himself.
What is it about the crime genre that you think makes it so consistently popular?
It’s entertaining, it doesn’t usually patronise and it’s flexible enough to accommodate a huge range of characters, sub-genres, writing styles and settings. Add to that the genre guarantee of restored social equilibrium … and what is there not to like about it?
What about the tropes of the genre, how much do you keep them in mind when writing?
Good question. I like to pay homage but I also like to stretch the rules. In summary, though, I write what entertains or engages me ... and if others “get” what I’m trying to do - as you clearly do - I’m delighted.
Do you watch crime on TV and do you think your books would make a good basis for a series (I do!)?
I don’t watch much crime on TV but I do have a number of important crime series – foreign and home-grown – on DVD. I bought both of the Phoenix collections when the ABC released them (such good TV) and would like to complete my collection of Wild Side. I’ve watched Ian David’s Blue Murder many times; it boasts a great script and outstanding performances. I’ve also enjoyed some of the Underbellies (sic). I’m looking forward too, to catching up on East West 101 (recently recommended by Graeme Blundell in one of his Weekend Australian columns).
I suspect that Chen’s sardonic take on the world would be hard to translate to the screen but I hope that the books would, otherwise, make decent scripts. I often see the key scenes in the novels (before I get them down on paper) and I certainly try for climactic finales.
I promised myself, a few years back, that if someone bought the film rights to one of the novels, I’d put the money towards the Australian Film and Television School screenwriting course. The screen has clearly been on my mind. (If there is anyone out there who hates my work and is prepared to buy my silence, purchasing the screen rights to Dead Set, Smoke and Mirrors, and /or Rip Off should pretty much do the trick.)
Which books or authors have influenced you?
Growing up, I read vast amounts of crime, mostly Christie, Marsh and Sayers but also Upfield and some of the hardboiled Americans. I suspect, though, that the influence of Raymond Chandler is the most identifiable in my work. I’d like to claim, of course, that my writing style also demonstrates the clear influence of Peter Temple (whose work I greatly admire) but that would be mere wishful thinking.
What are you working on next, and is Brad Chen going to find himself on further adventures in the future?
There are various Chen possibilities. There’s also a black comedy (part written) and a couple of books on Australian political history. Regrettably, I won’t be retiring from my day job or working a short week any time soon, so I’m unlikely to be back on Shearer’s shelves with anything new before 2013.
Thanks for answering our questions, and good luck with Rip Off!
Thank you. It was good to be with you, if only in a virtual sense.
Rip Off by Kel Robertson is available here
The previous Brad Chen novels, Smoke and Mirrors (winner of the Ned Kelly Award)
and Dead Set are both available.