The worm in the bud

by David Whish-Wilson

I’M SITTING IN the climate-controlled archival room at the Battye Library in central Perth, reading through old Police Gazettes. With a fifty-year buffer maintained to preserve the dignity of extant convicted criminals, the gazettes begin in 1905 and end in 1964. The journals record job availabilities and relate general policing news, but it’s the recording of arrests and accompanying mugshots – pictures of wanted men and missing women and children – that I am interested in.

The photographic record begins in 1905, during the tail end of Perth’s first gold boom and a time of great social change in the city and Goldfields. Prior to 1892, when gold was discovered out in the Coolgardie/Kalgoorlie semi-desert in Wongi country, Perth (and indeed Western Australia) had struggled to thrive. Despite the introduction of convict labour in the late 1840s, just as the practice was being phased out ‘over east’, the population had remained largely static and for the majority, times were hard. This is reflected in the statistic that Perth’s general crime rate was said to be seven times greater than in Adelaide and, according to historian Geoffrey Bolton, in one year alone one quarter of Fremantle’s male population was locked up for petty crimes, caused by poverty and unemployment. The discovery of WA’s mineral wealth and the subsequent gold rush brought opportunity and a surge in the population, fuelled largely by the arrival of miners and drought-stricken farmers from Victoria and South Australia. The city of Perth, with its population of 48,000, saw half a million new arrivals pass through the city in a matter of a decade. The boom wasn’t to last, however, and its benefits didn’t reach everyone. The crimes recorded in the gazettes reflect prevailing poverty and social problems associated with alcohol abuse among men and women – vagrancy, drunk and disorderly, resisting arrest, assault and petty theft are common.

Because 1905 was also the year that the WA government introduced the notorious Aborigines Act, which institutionalised the paternalistic and segregationist attitudes towards Aboriginal people that were prevalent at the time and made virtually all Aboriginal subjects wards of the state, 1905 also sees the beginning of crimes related to the Act – for example, the charge levelled against Aboriginal men of ‘enticing native girls’ away from settlements and missions. The charge sounds sinister, but of course relates mainly to men trying to maintain their relationships with institutionalised partners, without the prior permission of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. It’s an enduring tragedy that the effects of the 1905 Act, and the policies of ensuing governments, can still be felt in the social fabric of Western Australia today. It’s no simplification to suggest a link between these policies and the statistic that incarceration rates per capita are the highest in the country. While almost half of the prison population consists of Aboriginal inmates, recent analyses suggest that at any given moment one in fourteen Aboriginal males is in custody – the same rate of imprisonment as African–American males in the most disadvantaged areas of the USA.

Disaster struck Western Australia in the form of the Great War, then the Depression. Both of these were to affect Australia as a whole, of course, but in the case of the former not to the extent that they affected Western Australia, which, due to its higher rate of enlistment, suffered a greater number of casualties (51 per cent of the state’s eligible male population). From the end of the war and throughout the Depression, the crimes usually associated with poverty increased in prevalence, and a growing number of those charged were returned Australian Imperial Force servicemen. The faces in the mugshots are often gaunt and angry: the eyes are hard and the clothes are grimy and threadbare. Many of these men would have had grandparents, even parents, who were convicts and of whom many were still alive. The late winding down of the convict period in WA, where transportation continued until 1868, meant that there were men alive well into the 1930s who had been tied to a frame and flogged with the cat-o’-nine-tails and, conversely, men who had tied others to the frame and flogged them. The resulting attitude towards authority is made plain in common statements in the police records, such as ‘has a hatred for the police’ – evidence of a reflexive antipathy and a tolerance for social crime that has endured, and which partially accounts for the state’s considerably higher rates of general incarceration.     

The early Gazette records also detail a commonplace crime that has become less common, or one might say it has shifted its focus and amplified its effects in the process – the charge of gaining an advantage by false pretences, or of being a ‘false pretender’, or conman. In the 1920s, this often involved the passing of dud cheques or taking on a fake persona, usually of someone richer and more influential, to trick people into investing or parting with money. These kind of fly-by-night characters appear more in wanted pictures than in the lists of convicted offenders, suggesting that they were either highly mobile or experts at reinventing themselves. There is little sign in the gazettes of convictions for the kind of scams that have plagued boomtown stock markets over the years, including Perth’s, although that is perhaps because their targets were originally interstate or foreign investors.


PERTH HAS ALWAYS been, in its isolation and size, a small enough city that a limited number of dynamic people can have a disproportionate effect upon decision-making and certain modes of behaviour. Inevitably, this has been a good thing on occasions, but of course in other areas it has led to ingrained cultures of favours, graft and relationships of undue influence. Writer and publisher Terri-ann White suggested as much in her book Finding Theodore and Brina (Fremantle Press, 2001), where she describes ‘a tradition in this place, entrenched and well accepted. It starts in 1829 and churns along all of the years. Favours in the tight little system of established business and power. Still as potent as it was with the first families who shared the first schemes and opportunities, and made sure they had a voice in the future. The tradition works across party political lines, across ideological divides. It transcends politics.’

WA joined the Commonwealth only ten years after it achieved self-government, and it wasn’t long before there were calls to secede, primarily because during the Depression it was felt that the ‘Hume Highway hegemony’ wasn’t acting in the state’s best interests. Post-federation, the physical isolation that led to a lack of scrutiny from the capital, and the attitude of WA being justified in looking to its own welfare, has traditionally reinforced the idea that certain vested interests might properly exercise their power by keeping up the appearance of a political and business culture that is clean to its core, with a corresponding accent on pragmatic interpretation of laws. This has led to some interesting accommodations over the years, whose effects can be felt today. For example, in the 1920s, during a time when prostitution was officially illegal but unofficially tolerated, the brothels on Roe Street not only survived but thrived, despite being visible from the central Perth train station and a minute’s walk from the central police station. During the first five decades of the twentieth century some of Perth’s madams were extremely well-known and popular figures. According to Ron Davidson’s biography of the ‘dirty but clean’ Mirror newspaper, Hijinks at the Hotpool (Fremantle Press, 1996), one such madam – the Frenchwoman Josie de Bray – on one occasion took a poulterer to court for setting up shop next to ‘Josie’s Bungalow’, the largest and best appointed of the line of brothels on Roe Street. According to de Bray, the sound of chickens being beheaded ‘tended to cool the ardour’ of her clients. Despite the fact that officially prostitution was illegal, the judge ruled in her favour, fined the poulterer two pounds and ordered him to move. During World War Two, with the arrival of thousands of foreign soldiers and sailors, Perth’s ‘Mothers Union’ forced the erection of hoardings to hide the brothels and the queues of men outside from the gaze of train commuters, but not only did the brothels themselves remain open, but the rumours have always been that they were in fact unofficially operated by the police. The fact that in subsequent years only a certain number of ‘licensed’ brothels have been allowed to operate has reinforced the belief that, along with Northbridge’s illegal casinos, such businesses paid regular weekly stipends to vice and gaming detectives to be allowed to operate.

There are good reasons why policing tends to prefer organised crime over disorganised crime, but the darker side to this mutually beneficial arrangement was brought into stark relief on the night of 22 June 1975, when high-profile brothel madam Shirley Finn was executed on fairway seven of the South Perth golf club, at a place where, according to the statement of a vice-squad detective at the time, consorting squad detectives met with their informants. Finn’s murder shocked Perth as the first example of a high-profile gangland slaying and was the subject of my own first crime novel, Line of Sight (Penguin, 2010). The fact that she was killed because she’d threatened to name the names of those policemen she’d been paying, and the fact that she was clearly left out on display after her ‘bowling ball’ execution (four shots to the head) as a warning to others, only reinforced the belief that she had been murdered directly by corrupt police officers. A few brave souls spoke out at the subsequent Royal Commission, but they were quickly marginalised and the status quo of CIB detectives taking payments from prostitutes and gambling operations soon returned to its original, although covert, modus operandi.


WRITING ON CORRUPTION as it related to Perth in 1982, local writer Dorothy Hewett said that while the sense of ‘corruption…is palpable’, in general ‘the worm in the bud is secretive’ (from ‘The Garden and the City’, published in Westerly). Perth’s air of manufactured innocence, she felt, was in fact the perfect field for corruption. In other words, because of Perth’s native beauty and air of languor, its polite surface and general sprawl, the kinds of deeds such as Shirley Finn’s murder (and subsequent incidents of nepotism and corruption) merely represent minor breaches in the policy of keeping up appearances, and this false mask of civility is in fact best able to conceal a multitude of sins.

If Hewett is correct, then perhaps the best argument for her thesis is the fact that in Sydney and Brisbane the Wood and Fitzgerald Royal Commissions were able to, by way of proper resourcing, coercive powers and effective surveillance, make apparent what many people knew to be the case – that prohibition economies inevitably create a situation where corrupt police officers take money to turn a blind eye, and on occasions will also actively participate in criminal activities, including murder. With Shirley Finn’s murder, Perth’s old pragmatism towards victimless crimes and outmoded prohibitions (which had resulted in substantial sums of money reaching the pockets of detectives and senior officers, a system built up over generations) had moved out of the age of innocence and into the realm of violent organised criminality. Of course, this was happening in cities all over the world. What marks Perth’s response to the problem is the rapidity with which the city returned to its old and secretive ways. Hence, there is a resulting focus in true-crime and fictional narratives about Perth on the role of certain policing practices, as they relate to some of the state’s most sensational crimes.

Perhaps the best known (although least reflective of a pervasive criminal and political culture) are the murders of Eric Edgar Cooke, the last man hanged in Western Australia, in 1964. The murders have been widely represented in WA literature, directly and indirectly in the work of writers such as Tim Winton‘s Cloudstreet, Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net, Peter Cowan’s The Empty Street, Dave Warner’s The City of Light and Craig Silvey‘s Jasper Jones. Cooke is often described as the man who single-handedly stole Perth’s ‘innocence’, in that before he embarked on his killing spree, which resulted in eight murders and many more serious assaults, Perth was described as a place where people left their front doors unlocked. The idea that a city of Perth’s size could create such a ‘monster’ was surprising to many, particularly as his crimes had a clear basis in class resentment. Despite the revisiting, as mentioned, of Cooke’s crimes by Perth writers in various fictional narratives, it wasn’t until the publication of Estelle Blackburn’s Broken Lives (Hardie Grant, 2002) that a full account of the false imprisonment of Beamish and Button – two men who were charged for crimes that Cooke had committed, and confessed to committing – came to light. Not only was Blackburn key to the eventual exoneration of both men, but her advocacy on their part and her detailing of shoddy police work and the ignoring of key evidence by members of the judiciary marked the first successful prosecution, on the page and in the courts, of what has been called advocacy journalism. As described in my recent publication Perth (NewSouth, 2013), the title of Blackburn’s book ‘refers not only to the men Blackburn helped exonerate, and to Cooke’s blameless wife and children, but also to the numerous women who survived Cooke’s attacks (which were never attributed to Cooke at the time) and have lived quietly with their fear ever since. The strong sense begins to emerge that in a spread-out city where the streets are claimed by sometimes violent men, the stories of Cooke’s female victims and their experiences of another side of Perth’s quiet streets would never have come to light if Blackburn hadn’t given them voice.’ In other words, Perth’s so-called innocence was something of a myth, part of Hewett’s ‘manufactured innocence’ that wilfully ignored a long history of petty crime and street-level violence, mainly because it was quarantined from the western suburbs that Cooke targeted.

But Blackburn’s role in the exoneration of Beamish and Button was not the first example of advocacy journalism in the state, or the first look at the use of certain policing practices (such as verballing) to ensure a conviction, or the near-impossibility in WA of getting a conviction overturned, despite convincing evidence to the contrary. When Avon Lovell published The Mickelberg Stitch (Bookscope, 1985) – alleging that the three Mickelberg brothers had been fitted up for the Perth Mint Swindle of 1982 by way of a false statement taken after the beating of Peter Mickelberg, the youngest brother, and a false fingerprint lifted from a cast rubber hand – the retribution was swift. Not only did Lovell have a bullet fired through the window of his office and receive numerous threats, one of which resulted in the brakes of his vehicle being tampered with, but he was also hammered in the courts. For a long while, every serving member of the Western Australian police service had their pay tithed to enable Lovell’s prosecution for libel. The book was banned and removed from bookshop shelves by uniformed police. Lovell’s prosecution bankrupted him and made him unemployable, despite the fact that each of his allegations was subsequently shown to be true. The culprit, according to whistle-blower Tony Lewandowski, who later hanged himself, was ‘the Silver Fox’, Don Hancock, who had also recorded the witness statements of each of Shirley Finn’s prostitutes in 1975, which were eerily similar. On the back of the Mickelberg convictions Hancock was made head of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, but was later killed by bikies in a car-bomb in retribution for the alleged shooting murder of one of their members in the Goldfields. Lovell has since written Litany of Lies (Bookscope, 2010) about this latter series of murders and the Mickelberg saga. Its concise thesis is contained in the introduction to the book, where writer and publisher Bret Christian makes the point that ‘so much was invested in supressing Avon Lovell and keeping the two brothers convicted that it is scarcely believable’.

And yet, a third work of advocacy journalism, Murderer No More (Allen & Unwin, 2010) by Colleen Egan, showed even more clearly the consequences of shoddy police work, conspiracy to cover-up the false imprisonment of an innocent man, and the way the local judiciary consistently ruled against appeals lodged for, in this case, the imprisonment of Andrew Mallard, who was convicted of the brutal murder of Mosman Park jeweller Pamela Lawrence. Mallard’s conviction was only overturned after the case was taken out of the state, when the five judges of the High Court found that the case involved a clear miscarriage of justice, based on the unreliability of Mallard’s confessions and the fact that highly significant evidence was deliberately withheld from the defence. On the back of Mallard’s false conviction, one of the leading detectives in the case was promoted to oversee the Claremont serial killer taskforce, which was never solved and, sadly, the man actually responsible for Pamela Lawrence’s murder went on to kill a second woman using the same weapon while Mallard was incarcerated. As a result, author of The Devil’s Garden (Random House, 2007) Debi Marshall, who began writing a book about the Claremont killings, ended up writing a book largely about police incompetence and cover-up.

This is only significant to any discussion about Western Australian crime in the light of Hewett’s description that the ‘worm in the bud is secretive’. None of these cases would have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the intervention of local journalists. Similarly, in the political realm, it took a Royal Commission into what became known as the ‘WA Inc’ period to detail the incursion of a particularly cynical brand of cowboy capitalism into the body politic. That the state government, under the auspices of Premier Brian Burke, got into bed with corporate sharks of the ilk of Alan Bond and Laurie Connell, and was subsequently shafted by them leading to losses of an estimated $877 million of taxpayer money – which went by way of juicy loans, financial guarantees and buying assets and corporate entities at inflated prices – might be read as an aberration and a salutary lesson. The premier is said to have kept hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in his office, corporate bodies were commonly required to donate to the party to be allowed to operate in the state, and Burke’s closest business ‘consultants’ profited hugely from the deals brokered during his tenure. Yet, what is of the greatest significance is that Burke, and the Liberal Premier he succeeded, Ray O’Connor, were soon to be imprisoned on entirely unrelated charges. Despite the fact that many figures significant to the period had died, and that many refused to speak to the Commission, the mask had slipped – albeit briefly – and the face behind wasn’t pretty.

The first novel to explore the period was David Warner’s crime novel City of Light (Fremantle Press, 1995). The book was critically well-received and won the Premier’s Book Award, but of equal importance was that the novel deployed for the first time the now-familiar Western Australian strategy of incorporating reportage in the narrative. City of Light was not only significant because it integrated fiction with thinly disguised representations of real events, but also because it was the first local crime noir novel for many decades. Not since Judah Waten’s Shares in Murder (Australasian Book Society, 1957) had the tight little system of localised organised crime and policing and political favours been examined by a WA writer in any detail.


DESPITE THE FACT that the 1991 WA Inc Royal Commission led indirectly to the imprisonment of two premiers and a number of businessmen, and because of the fact that there has never been an effective enquiry into the links between corrupt Western Australian policemen and organised crime, the kind of books that Brisbane-based writer Matthew Condon has recently published – Three Crooked Kings (UQP, 2013) and Jacks and Jokers (UQP, 2014) – which take an insider’s view of the roughly contemporaneous culture operating in Queensland under Bjelke-Peterson, will never be possible here. Instead, given the lack of prosecutions and, consequentially, problems associated with defamation, it’s been left to WA crime writers to fill the documentary void and explore the always-murky frontier land between truth and fiction and myth and legend.

An article published recently in the Guardian described the WA crime fiction scene as arguably ‘one of the most exciting in Australia’, although it’s true to say that most people’s perceptions of sunny Perth and the strong noir flavour of the majority of current WA crime fiction can seem at odds. That is, until the point is made that a majority of this fiction incorporates to varying degrees the mode of reportage, bearing witness to the difference between characters’ lived experience and the purported benefits of life in a boom-time state. In such novels, what is truly corrosive and frightening is not the danger to the crime fiction ‘hero’ but the damage done to the body politic, just as what is represented isn’t the policing of the kind of regular crime associated with a modern metropolis but the implicit violence and layering of fear associated with protecting the reputations of often powerful interests.

Ned Kelly Award-winning author Alan Carter’s two novels, Prime Cut (Fremantle Press, 2011) and Getting Warmer (Fremantle Press, 2013), inflect the police procedural with the darker accents of crime noir, calling out aspects of the Andrew Mallard case and tropes of police corruption that feel local and authentic. Ron Elliott, in his collection Now Showing (Fremantle Press, 2013), reinterprets the Danny Hobby and Strike Softly racetrack scam perpetrated by Laurie Connell in a way that measures the fear and desperation of a man on the run, sustained financially by a benefactor he cannot trust. My own crime writing, which draws upon the dozens of storytellers and informants I’ve come to know during my research, incorporates as many true stories as possible within an overall fictionalised framework, so as to represent something of the history of politics, business and organised crime in Perth that is generally neglected by formal histories. Former policeman and private investigator Terry McLernon’s four self-published titles contain thinly disguised representations of true Perth crimes and criminals, designed to be both entertaining and provocative. As a result, McLernon’s car has been firebombed and his house set on fire, and although his books are popular with Perth’s criminal fraternity (to the extent that he gets complaints when he neglects certain figures) he has also been bankrupted by litigious enemies. Rob Schofield’s first crime novel, Heist (Allen & Unwin, 2013), contains a fictionalised representation of CIB chief Don Hancock’s notorious interrogation methods, as well as exploring the fallout from the state’s movement towards restricting the rights of assembly and association of outlaw motorcycle club members.

More recently, Peter Docker’s novel Sweet One (Fremantle Press, 2014) powerfully explores the idea that the frontier war against Western Australia’s Aboriginal population has never ended, building upon a fictionalised representation of the terrible and tragic death in custody of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward in 2008, who baked to death over the course of hours in the back of an unventilated prison transport en route to jail after his arrest in Laverton. The novel investigates a war of retaliation enjoined by returned members of the Australian Defence Force previously based in Afghanistan, having been exposed to the cynical expedience and violence of a front-line guerrilla insurgency and then relocated to the frontier at home. This aspect of Docker’s thriller is, of course, fictionalised, yet the crime that precipitates it is not. Neither are the Third World conditions visited upon many Western Australian Aboriginal communities, nor the long history of the sexual commodification of Aboriginal women in the state, or the history of deaths in custody and the tradition of cover-ups and protecting perpetrators. Like all of the crime narratives described here, the novel is leavened by humour and acts of goodwill among its marginalised characters, but it also has a tendency to skewer what might be described as a socially conditioned propensity to turn away from unpleasant truth towards more pleasant, picture-postcard narratives of our local history and culture, producing as a side effect the kind of cultural amnesia and manufactured innocence that Hewett described. It’s merely the most recent example of a regional trend towards representing that aspect of WA crime that exists in the tension between what is known but cannot be said (on the record), and as such is precisely what has drawn WA crime writers and journalists towards its representation.

 

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 47: Looking West © Copyright Griffith University & the author.