Friday, 16 March 2012

When Genres Attack: True Crime

Attending our 'When Genres Attack: True Crime' evening were Rochelle Jackson (author of Partners & Crime and Inside Their Minds: Australian Criminals), Clive Small (author of Blood Money and Betrayed) and Larry Writer (author of Underbelly: Razor and Bumper: The Life and Times of Frank 'Bumper' Farrell). Chairing the event was our genre event stalwart P. M. 'Pam' Newton (author of The Old School).

Due to the nature of the True Crime event some sections have been shortened or omitted.

Pam Newton: The true crime section is often very big and very busy. What's your explanation for true crime's appeal?

Larry Writer: Most of us are law-abiding people. We like to read about people doing things we wouldn't dare. It makes us feel safe or noble to not be involved in that. True crime ticks all the boxes, lust, envy and so on.
Rochelle Jackson: A lot of women read true crime too and women do like to understand motivations behind the actions.
Clive Small: People read about the crime in the papers, or hear about it and want to understand or know the motivation behind it.

PN: What motivated you to write crime?

CS: I'd been in the police force for years and I wanted to write about someone else.
LW: When I was a child my mother used to tell me if you see Tilly or Kate cross to the other side of the road. I don't think I really knew what they looked like. But I'd heard of the Cray brothers and Al Capone. That there was a story like in Sydney made for a very powerful story. I wanted to know what happened to all these people afterwards.
RJ: I grew up in a police family. I was in between jobs and wanted to distract myself, bury myself in someone else's life. I'd been doing police rounds for 'Today Tonight' and previously I'd been approached by Sylvia Bruno (ex-wife of gangster Nikolai 'The Bulgarian' Radev). I thought there must be other stories as extraordinary as hers about the women behind the men behind the crime.

Our Underbelly authors, Clive and Larry. What was it like being involved in TV? In Razor and the Golden Mile, were the producers too captured by subject?

CS: Well, the book covers the 1960s to the present day but TV shows have to reduce a story to less time and less characters. So it's all condensed and the public get a distorted picture. Books have a valuable contribution if you're after the full story. Producers are swayed by colourful characters, and if they accept stories from characters they can't sue for defamation. Underbelly was a very good job overall. But it does present some romantic views on characters, it doesn't show how nasty they really were.
LW: I had a brief role in Razor as 'Wealthy Drunken Reveller'. I got to drink whiskey, snort cocaine, have a prostitute on my lap... The whisky was dry ginger ale, the cocaine was castor sugar, and the prostitute was an actress. And I was sharing the screen with six semi-naked women. No one remembered me. When Razor came out it was set 1927-1932/3 and TV people wanted it but the story was too big. But they've managed it now. The actors were very professional, very interested in background. People criticised Kate and Tilly as being too good-looking but some images of them at 20 or 30 they do look good. Obviously some things can't be done on TV. But no one had a happy ending when they shouldn't have or anything like that. It was a great experience and I sold some books as well.

PN: To Rochelle and Clive now. Ivan Milat- Clive you arrested him, Rochelle you corresponded with him. Was he bad or mad?

RJ: Once you deal with Milat you never forget him. He's a sociopath, a sexual sadist, a serial killer. I received many letters from him in super max. I spoke to him on the phone as well. As a journalist and as an author I've dealt with many different sorts of people. But I won't forget Milat. He always signed his letters 'Ivan' with an angel and a halo underneath, and 'innocent' every time- which is in keeping with his personality as a psychopath. Only 1% of the prison population are psychopaths. Milat was typical. He had an extreme narcissistic personality, attention seeking behaviour, such as cutting off his finger. We corresponded fine, until I started asking questions. He always had to be in control. He will never confess to his crimes. He was extremely polite on phone, very chilling, in control. Then I'd ask a question and suddenly he didn't want to play. That was that. Stefan Milat, his father, used to hit the kids with whatever he had on hand. Violence is another form of learnt  behaviour. If Stefan Milat has been a drug addict, Ivan probably would have been a heroin addict.

CS: Milat was one of thirteen children, two of whom died very young. From a young age Ivan exhibited no emotional control, he was obsessive, had no respect. As a child he would go out shooting and cutting up animals. In 1972 he picked up two young girls hitchhiking. He offered them a lift, attacked one girl, then drove to a petrol station and the girls escaped. His lawyer used the defense that they were lesbians who'd gone through shock treatment and wanted a man. The jury acquitted Milat. In the 1980s Milat picked up another women who escaped. He would have kept on killing. Like a lot of other psychopaths Milat was a mummy's boy. In the early 90s when she was dying she went to the prison and asked him if he'd killed those women. Ivan said yes. And that's the closest to a confession we're ever likely to get. We suspect he killed others, but I couldn't say who, it's not fair on the families. When he didn't have a woman under absolute control he'd flare up. A stable relationship and he was under control but when his wife left he was uncontrollable. He took mementos of his victims too. Took one girl's jumper, gave it to his girlfriend. Took NZ money, stashed it beside his bed. Took a camera, had it in the living room. In plain sight. He's one of the nastiest people we've ever had. When I was at the jail in '95 or '96 he was claiming the air from the air conditioners was giving him a rash. But in super max everything is on camera and you could see him rubbing his forehead on a brick wall.

PN: Rochelle, Larry, women in crime. Is there a difference between Kate and Tilly and modern girls? Were women tougher back then?

LW: Women could be more vicious and smarter than male counterparts. Take Bruhn from Melbourne, for example, thought he could come up to Sydney and take over from these women. He was found dead in Charlotte Lane. Kate and Tilly were products of circumstance. Kate was from a law-abiding family, lots of siblings, living in poverty. She couldn't wait to leave Dubbo. Tilly was from the London slums, she sold herself on the Strand and did the same in Sydney. At the time pubs closed at 6, and men couldn't run brothels. You can see in those Peter Doyle books, the police photographs, lots of them have razor slashes on face. There was a lot of poverty at the time, people were doing what they had to. There were women with Tilly, mothers feeding themselves and their children, when their husbands were away fruit picking.
RJ: The difference is that the women in this book were partners, ex-wives etc. All clean skins. We think we know, we're fed stories on the tv, and if you go out with an infamous man and you will be defined by them unless you have a strong personality. There's no one type of woman who goes out with a notorious man. The women here have different personalities, come from different social backgrounds, different education.

Q: Are there any women like Tilly and Kate these days?

RJ: I've interviewed women in brothels but modern day Tilly? Not really. You could say Judy Moran or Roberta Williams but Roberta's not really a crim and Judy's in jail. There aren't that many participating.
CS: Well, brothels are legal now. Financed by colourful male characters and run by their girlfriends. You could say the Cabramatta Vietnamese street gangs were started by a woman. She started the importation, and trafficking of heroin. With the distribution, they realised it was better to stick together. But there were women behind the scenes encouraging men to be better or worse, and there have been significant woman money launderers.

Q: Don't you ever feel unsafe?

RJ: Women often ask "are you afraid?" But I don't just show up. I do lots of negotiating. I've got a back up plan- someone waiting outside in the car or something. You do have to read body language, and suss people out. But I still get calls from Ivan Milat. It would be naïve to think they're friends with you.
CS: I approach from different position. Criminals know the worst thing to do is kill a cop or ex-cop. It's not going to happen, and to quote Woody Allen: If it does happen I don't want to be there at the time.
LW: Normally I just start with a chat. Some people can be aggressive initially but we have coffee and talk it through. I got a phone call once from a gruff fellow who said "I'm the man who doesn't exist. I'm Tilly Devine's son John." Then the phone went dead. So I hunted down the name J. Devine and found him in Adelaide. Told him who I was, asked if he was coming to Sydney. We met at Circular Quay. His mother had worked at Tilly's brothel and had gone to jail. She didn't want him so Tilly looked after him and he looked after Tilly when she was dying of cancer. The chat with him enabled subsequent editions to show a different side of her.

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