"FASCINATED BY THE PROCESS OF CHANGE" : AN INTERVIEW WITH ORPHAN ROAD'S ANDREW NETTE
Andrew Nette is one of the best crime writers working in Australia. One gets a feel for his country , it's rough edges, and what it's going through in his writing. He recently released Orphan Road which features the return of his professional robber Gary Chance with a job tied to a true
crime. The Hard Word caught up to Andrew to talk about the book, the heist genre, and his sunburned country.
SCOTT MONTGOMERY: What Made you decide to bring Chance back?
ANDREW NETTE: I enjoyed writing Gunshine State, the first novel to feature the character of Gary Chance, and I thought I had another novel in me that featured him. Plus, as you know, I massively dig the heist genre and the trope that the heist nearly always goes wrong. Chance is not only a character that I like writing in his own right, he is also my way to explore different ways of constructing and presenting heist thrillers. In Orphan Road, the heist that Chance gets involved in occurred nearly 50 years ago – Melbourne’s Great Bookie Robbery in April 1976. No one knows exactly how much money was stolen, but it was certainly more than was reported to the police. Nothing was ever recovered and no one who was involved in it was ever jailed for the crime. So, I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if cash money wasn’t the only thing stolen that day in 1976, that if Chance was asked to look for it, and what if he wasn’t the only one looking?
S.M. : This has one of the best getting the gang together passages. How did you approach bringing them in as a writer?
A.N. : I’m very pleased to hear that particular scene worked for you, because the getting the gang together passages, as you call them, are really hard to write. You’re introducing the players who will be taking part in a job, trying to hint at what is driving their participation and what their various foibles/vices/problems/attitudes are, while at the same time sketching out the job and how they are approaching it. There are a lot of moving parts, and it all must flow smoothly and be convincing. There’s no secret to how I approach those scenes, I just must write and rewrite them until they work. Hands down that chapter took the longest of any in the book to get right.
S.M. : You tie your fictional criminals to the real Great Bookie Robbery. What does that crime hold in Australian culture?
A.N. : If it is known at all these days, it is because it is Australia’s largest heist. Apart from that, I am probably interested in the robbery as a confluence of various forces that were swirling around Melbourne’s underworld culture in the 1970s. The organiser, a man called Raymond “Chuck” Bennett, was a career criminal known as “The General,” for his ability to plan jobs. He’d left Australia in the early 1970s and joined an infamous robbery crew that operated in London called the “Kangaroo Gang”. The job also involved individuals who were associated with an organisation called the Ships Painters and Dockers Union, a trade union that doubled as a tightly knit front for criminal interests involved in robbery, standovers and contract killing. They got away with the Great Bookie Robbery and were rumoured to have taken as much as 16 million dollars, a fortune in the 1970s, but they fell out with each other over the money afterwards. The resulting conflict left a trail of corpses that stretched well into the 1980s, arguably longer.
S.M. : You use a lot of Australian history in this novel. What did you want to portray about your country?
A.N. : A few people have asked me that. I am not sure that I wanted to portray anything particularly about Australia. I think having Chance get involved with the aftermath of the Great Bookie Robbery was a way for me to explore how much Melbourne has changed. I am not valorising the individuals involved in the robbery, what they did or the criminal scene more generally in Melbourne in the 1970s. They gang that did this heist were, for the most part, violent, damaged, terrible people. But the broader milieu they were a part of is also a foil to explore just how much has changed in Melbourne, how much the city of my youth has transformed and become gentrified. I am not so much lamenting this, although there are good and bad sides to it. But I am fascinated with the process of change, which I am obviously more conscious of because I am getting older and feel I can see it much more clearly.
S.M. : What do you get to do with Australia that American crime writers can't?
A.N. : Nothing. In fact, I would argue that Australian crime fiction is in some respects more circumscribed than American crime fiction because it is a smaller market and publishing industry. The crime writing scene in America is so large that it can support a decent community of writers doing noir or hardboiled or campus crime stories or what have you. Whereas in Australia, the cultural and publishing bandwidth is much narrower. This has always been the case. There’s a lot of terrific Australian crime fiction being published but it does seem to be grouped in a small number of key genres. Apart from police procedurals, domestic noir and rural noir seem to be two big ones now and it does not feel like there is a lot that falls outside that. Then again, I will admit that I do not feel as well read in the local crime fiction scene as I might have once of been, simply because I am busier. So, maybe I have it wrong.
S.M. : Both Chance novels start with a typical heist set-up then it begins to move away from the normal Richard Stark template. What does the genre allow you to do as a writer?
A.N. : I feel that is a pretty on the money observation. I am interested in the heist, but this sub-genre of crime fiction and the genre more generally is outlet for me to explore forgotten parts of history and changes that are occurring. That’s the kind of crime fiction I enjoy reading and writing. Ghost Money, my first book, was about what was going on in Cambodia in the 1990s when I was working there as a journalist. Gunshine State has a large focus on the lingering impacts of a particularly corrupt time in northern Australia. This next book I am working on, which will not feature Gary Chance. will explore another aspect of Australia’s little recorded criminal history.