Tony Cavanaugh is an Australian crime novelist, screenwriter and film producer. Kingdom of the Strong is the fifth critically acclaimed novel in his Darian Richard series. Read on to find out more about Tony, his famous character, and the dark, murderous side of human nature…
Your lead character Darian Richards is compared to Connelly’s iconic detective Hieronymus Bosch. Are you familiar with Connelly’s character? What do Bosch and Darian have in common?
Yes, I know Michael Connelly’s work very well. He is a brilliant writer, in my opinion the leading exponent in crime fiction today. A worthy successor to Raymond Chandler. It’s a little challenging to respond to the question when it wasn’t a comparison which I made, but one made by others. I guess the point of similarity is that both characters have an empathetic connection to the victims and vow, at all costs (usually a cost to themselves) to avenge their deaths. In this of course both Darian and Hieronymus are connected back to Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s wonderful character. Chandler has been a massive influence I think, on all crime writers in the last 40-50 years.
And what sets Darian apart?
Darian is based on a number of high-ranking police officers who I have met over the years. Their black humour and disdain for most people permeates my character. Additionally Darian is quite ruthless and is indeed something of a vigilante when it comes to securing justice. And he drives a red 60’s Studebaker and listens to Led Zep.
What’s Darian dealing with in Kingdom of the Strong?
The past. He’s been asked by the Commissioner of Victoria Police to conduct an investigation into the death of a young woman over twenty years ago. She may have committed suicide, she might have died by accident or she might have been murdered. The Coroner returned an open finding. The reason for the investigation into a long-forgotten death is that one of the ‘persons of interest’ at the time was a young cop. And now, twenty five years later, he is about to appointed the new police Commissioner. Darian is asked to clear his name. But is he innocent?
Can you explain your new novel’s title?
It came to me as I was writing the proposal. Words falling out of head without any pre-thought. It describes the mentality of the cops who put on a uniform and think they are bullet-proof. Above suspicion. Above reproach. ‘We all laughed because we were cops and no-one could arrest us, even if they tried, because we were lords of the empire living in the kingdom of the strong.’
You’re a prolific screenwriter as well as a seasoned crime novelist. What has been the highlight of your career writing for film and TV?
Working with great actors like Max von Sydow, Guy Pearce, Miranda Otto, Sam Neill… working in a collaborative environment with such talented and dedicated professionals is an amazing experience.
It’s been noted in the past that you present the policing world as exceedingly misogynistic. As your books go on, have you adjusted this portrayal to reflect changing times? Or do you think the police force is still irreversibly ‘macho male’?
I’ve just been reading the three part history of the rise of conservatism in American politics, by Rick Perlstein (Before the Storm, Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge – amazing books) which I mention because of the phrase “changing times” in the question. What is abundantly clear in this journey through American culture, attitude and thought is that for every liberal change in society which recognises and endorses the rights of anyone but wealthy white men, there is an upsurge in reaction. What he refers to, quoting Nixon (and I see Donald Trump at it too) as “the silent majority.” Which is a rather long-winded way of saying that I believe that sexism in the ranks of uniformed police officers is just as bad as it ever was and won’t be going away soon. So too with racism. This is exactly what I was trying to explore in my new book. When you think you’re bullet-proof, all gun and uniform, living in the kingdom of the strong, you can get away with a lot. I should add however, as I have written in all my novels, that the moron-thought and attitude towards women (and anyone not white) is pretty much, in my experience, limited to the young cops in uniform. The detectives and commanders I’ve met are extremely sophisticated, intelligent and forward-thinking.
You hit a dead-end in high school when a film you were making about protests against the Vietnam War had its production cut short by the principal. Did you come across similar experiences of censorship in later screenwriting projects? Is it liberating to not have to hold back in a novel?
Rarely but one, back when I was story editor on The Flying Doctors, has stayed with me. It was during season one of the show which I created, on the back of the original mini-series. I was always keen to put on the screen an indigenous character who was not defined by an ‘aboriginality’ but was just another person within the world of the show. Colour-blind casting. This was back in the 1980’s and our character, the local nurse, was a first in that respect, on Australian TV. She was a nurse and a nurse only; her stories were not driven by race issues at all. That was okay; the network didn’t have a problem but when I developed a relationship between her and the pilot; well, that then became a huge problem because he was white. The most disgusting time in my career was when I was in the editing room with the then Head of Drama from the Nine network (long gone thank God) who made us recut a scene with these two characters, fully clothed, on a bed and about to kiss. It was a great romance, not because of colour but because of character, however the aforementioned Head of Drama literally froze the image when the white guy’s leg began to cross onto the black woman’s body. And there was no kiss. That was edited out too. Censorship and racism: two of the most hideous things merging into a shameful moment. I left the show soon after.
As to ‘holding back in a novel’ I think all writers tend to apply some form of self-censorship, especially when, like I, one is dealing in dark material, exploring the very ugly side of depraved humanity. Of course there is a salacious element to that, for the reader. (Look at the success of Hannibal Lecter.) However we all have our moral codes and boundaries. What we are doing is, after all, a representation through fiction, a dramatization or, as Graham Greene might call it, ‘an entertainment’ for the reader.
Can you think of any recent exemplar crime-thriller novels?
Michael Robotham’s recent novel Life or Death is a wonderful novel. A captivating premise, a great thriller and, at its heart, a beautiful love story. It’s rare that I’m moved to tears on the last page of a novel but this one did it. Such grace and humanity in the story. As with all great crime fiction, the crime bit becomes secondary and the characters’ trajectories and the decisions they are forced to make, for survival or love, are what haunts the reader.
Why do you think so many of us are addicted to the bloody world of homicide and violent crime?
My take on this, and I get asked it a lot, especially in relation to the portrayals of evil – if that’s the right word – in my work, is that we are deeply intrigued in how and why a person strays off the ordinary norm of human behaviour and acts in a depraved, monstrous way. How can they do that? How can a person stalk and abduct and kill a person? I couldn’t. Or could I? How could a so-called ordinary baker don a uniform, end up a guard in a concentration camp and commit the most sadistic, hard-to-imagine crimes against his fellow humans? I couldn’t do that. Or could I? Nearly all us, we live and behave within a moral boundary. Sure we all transgress, pushing out the definition of human foible but nearly none of us would actually commit murder, rape, kidnapping, torture. It’s beyond comprehension… which is exactly why we are so intrigued when our fellow humans do it. What was wrong with them? What led them to do this stuff? It becomes a compelling question, for us to help manage the definition of humanity in our lives, in our ordinary interaction with friends and family, with people around us.
Who would you cast to play Darian in a movie adaption of your book?
The short answer is: I’m not telling. The longer response is that Promise is being developed into a 6 or maybe an 8 part series for TV so this question has now taken on a sense of growing urgency. Of course every film and TV producer has his or her own short list of who they want to play the lead in their movie or series but that’s kept very close to one’s chest. It’s not hard to figure out why; if your number one choice can’t do the role for whatever reason and you’re then forced to move on down the list you want to make sure that the actor feels he or she was always first choice. This can only sustain so long as word quickly gets out among the acting fraternity.
Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh is published by Hachette, rrp $29.99.