In an interview that ran in gr earlier this year, Melbourne-based crime author Robert Gott tells us about the bizarre crimes on which his books are based, the unusual process of converting a comedy novel to a serious thriller, the terrifying pro-Nazi villains in his new series and his character William Power, an astoundingly inept but admirably entertaining detective. Robert’s ‘William Power’ series has just been re-released as a cracking set of three darkly humorous crime novels. Angus Dalton reports.
‘Sometimes real life makes completely unconvincing fiction.’
Robert Gott arrived at this realisation while researching his most recent novel, The Port Fairy Murders, which is based on a string of killings that actually occurred in the 1950s. The circumstances of those crimes were so outlandish that he had to modify the events when he recreated them in his novel so that they rang true with his readers and didn’t detract from the story’s credibility.
The major change that Robert made to the events was the location: he shifted the killings 1700 kilometres south-west from their original setting in Queensland, near his hometown of Maryborough, to the Victorian coastal town of Port Fairy.
‘I love Port Fairy. I think it’s a beautiful town,’ Robert says. ‘But I hope the people who live there don’t mind; I’ve stolen their town and put a truly hideous thing in it.’
Called from Melbourne to investigate the murders are members of the newly formed homicide squad, still on training wheels after the department’s creation in 1943, only a year before the events in The Port Fairy Murders. The new department is captained by Detective Inspector Titus Lambert. His staff members include Detective Joe Sable, a battered man grappling with his identity as a Jew in light of the anti-Semitic atrocities underway in Europe, and Constable Helen Lord, a glaring rarity in the almost exclusively male police force.
Raised by parents who viewed themselves as ‘English first and Jewish a very poor second’, Joe Sable leafs through newspapers to learn about the massacres of Jewish people in Europe. He collects the newspaper clippings and soon has a disturbingly thick folder stuffed with stories that testify to the persecution of his people.
‘Detective Sable is ashamed that it has taken such horrific events to make him realise that his Jewishness is important to him, and he needs to find the courage to express it,’ Robert says. ‘Because if he does express it, he will discover that there are people in that society, as there still are in society now, who will treat him poorly.’
Helen Lord, Detective Sable’s colleague, similarly chafes at the restrictions that the conservative ideologies of Australia during World War II place on her. Titus Lambert, who Robert describes as ‘a man out of his time’, is a seemingly lone figure in disregarding Helen Lord’s gender and taking her on to assist with the investigation of homicide cases. This type of career promotion of a woman is something that Robert believes would never have actually occurred at the time.
‘There were only a handful of women police in the 1940s and they didn’t wear a uniform. Police Command had said that there was no point in a woman wearing a uniform because a female police officer would never rise above the rank of a constable. Therefore she didn’t need a uniform on which extra stripes could be stitched. That was the expectation – that women would simply not be allowed to be promoted. I invented the situation to highlight the fact that women struggled for everything they won. It simply wouldn’t have happened in real life – that Titus Lambert would have had the authority to assign a woman to homicide.’
The society portrayed by Robert is beset with fierce homophobia, racism and rampant sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics. Was Australian society really that bad?
‘I think it still is that bad!’ Robert says with a hard laugh.
Titus is exceptional in his rejection of the discriminatory views held by many of the people around him. He’s also a breakaway from the clichéd silver-fox inspectors with dark pasts and furrowed brows that populate many other crime novels and the legion of television crime shows. ‘I was sick and tired of reading crime novels where the main detective is this incredibly tortured, alcoholic, drug-addicted failure who is struggling with all of these demons,’ says Robert. ‘I thought, no, I will write a
detective whose name is Titus Lambert and is head of the Homicide Department, but he’s a nice guy – with a happy marriage!’In addition to the anti-Semitism and misogyny that Robert’s characters are subjected to – and sometimes perpetrate – the society portrayed by Robert is beset with fierce homophobia, racism and rampant sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics. Was Australian society really that bad?
‘I think it still is that bad!’ Robert says with a hard laugh. Many of the rotten ideals of the society he portrays still prevail today, although they are now directed towards different groups. He says that while many Australians weren’t overtly opposed to Jews in 1940, we can’t pretend that there was no resistance here to taking in Jewish refugees. This resistance is still at large – but now it’s aimed towards asylum seekers from the Middle East. The old Catholic–Protestant sectarianism may have largely dissolved, but in recent times it has morphed into antipathy between the Muslim and Christian communities.
‘When we read this stuff we think we’re different, we think we’re better, and we think we’ve come a long way. We haven’t. There’s a real danger in complacent thinking – it makes us more vulnerable to being manipulated. Governments are still using religious affiliation as a way of demonising people, and it’s easy for anti-religious sentiment to catch fire in a community. I think that when you’re writing historical fiction, it becomes inevitable that parallels between then and now become apparent. The fact that you don’t have to force them is a real indication of the truth – that nothing has changed.’
Many people in the 1940s kept to themselves whatever hostile sentiments they held towards minority groups in their communities. But there were fascist extremists who were only too ready to express their beliefs and act on them. Enter Ptolemy Jones and George Starling, two sinister and shadowy figures that Robert’s fans have already encountered in The Holiday Murders, the prequel to The Port Fairy Murders. Pair violent, easily enraged personalities with dark charisma and a toxic political standpoint, and the result is this duo of Nazi sympathisers who the homicide team struggle to contain. Dedicated to the Australia First Movement, Ptolemy Jones is set on rallying support for Hitler and National Socialism.
‘The organisation called Australia First, which features in The Holiday Murders, was a real organisation, and it’s really startling to learn that in a civilised country like Australia that a pro-fascist organisation like that can not only survive but flourish. It published a magazine called The Publicist, and that magazine was terrifyingly anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler, pro-Japan, and you could buy it for sixpence.’
Power is a failed actor, failed detective – essentially a failed everything – who Robert describes as a ‘bit of a nong’.
The Holiday Murders deals with these weighty issues, but the novel was originally written as the next instalment of Robert’s comical ‘William Power’ series. Power is a failed actor, failed detective – essentially a failed everything – who Robert describes as a ‘bit of a nong’. The three darkly humorous ‘William Power’ novels also centre on crime mysteries in the 1940s, but Robert says the two series are very different.
‘William Power walks the same streets as Detective Lambert and Joe Sable, but they exist in completely different universes. One is comic, and the other is hideously serious.’
At the suggestion of his publisher, Robert stripped the comedy out of the manuscript that would become The Holiday Murders. It was decided that he was moving into darker territory that was incongruous with the humour that featured in the stories of William Power. He replaced the jokes with tension and a strong cast of original characters who make it very difficult to stop flipping the pages. But you’re never comfortable while reading Robert’s latest books; a sense of menace constantly hovers.
‘I love novels that make me nervous as a reader, novels in which I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m thinking, Oh, please please please work this out! I’m addicted to that edge-of-the-seat feeling.’
Robert’s books are published by Scribe.