Someone asks David Whish-Wilson if he is “a dead man walking”.
We all laugh, then quickly fall silent. We wait to hear David’s answer because the suggestion is not outside the realm of possibility.
The crime fiction author has been telling this audience at the Perth Writers Festival about his experience researching the 1975 death of Perth madam Shirley Finn, one of the most notorious unsolved murders in Western Australian history.
We now know his interest was piqued after reading the file on the murder investigation and talking to police sources. He wondered why Finn’s body was not hidden after the murder but left out “on display” like a warning to unknown others, why the killer made such little effort to cover their tracks, like they knew they would get away with it, why police didn’t make more effort to find out what happened.
We have imagined the tension as he interviewed sources in crowded cafes, while walking down the street and in the privacy of their kitchens – never on the phone – trying to stay safe and to avoid tipping off the bad guys that he was “asking the right questions of the right people”.
And his relief at, perhaps literally, dodging a bullet when a contact advised him not to approach a certain police officer because “he’s bent – you speak to him, you’ll be shot”.
It is the stuff of a classic thriller, in which a crusading journalist risks all to uncover the truth, where he knows he has a target on his back but keeps going, driven by a promise made to the victim’s son after meeting him in a prison writing class.
So we wait, uncertainly, for David’s response. He flashes a quick smile – or is it a grimace?
“Writing this book had its moments,” he says. “There were times when I was genuinely afraid.” He pauses. “I felt it was worth pushing on with it.”
A few days earlier, he told me it had quickly become apparent that everyone in Perth had a theory as to why Shirley Finn was murdered and who had done it. “Nobody had a monopoly on the truth,” he said. “There were many competing versions, competing narratives.
“The struggle for me, at that point, was how do I weigh up what I regard as my obligation to the Finn family to get as close to the story as possible without getting shot or sued, with this idea of competing truths, while also clothing it in a crime fiction narrative which has some kind of resolution, given that it is an unsolved murder?’”.
There was no proof, no resolution. Yet David still had to deliver a crime novel that would satisfy a reader who knew nothing of the Finn case.
“Obviously the book has been released around Australia and New Zealand. It doesn’t matter to someone in Auckland or Hobart or Townsville, if they buy the book, whether it’s based on a true story. They want a good read,” he said.
“I was trying to create a story that was an entertaining read for crime fiction fans. The way I did that was by taking a more social crime perspective.”
In his novel, David employed three fictional characters – a judge who believes in the power of the law, a police whistleblower suffering the ire of betrayed colleagues, and a hit-man – to explore the different aspects of Perth society in the 1970s, the different classes and different groups.
“By balancing out those three characters I was able to achieve what I was trying to say – exposure of some of the policing culture around Perth in the 1970s but also finding an ending which was satisfying to the crime fiction reader,” he said.
David is currently working on another book drawing from his research into the Finn murder, this time focusing on WA’s booming resources sector in the late ‘70s. It is something he had not originally planned.
“For me, there is just more to tell,” he said. “The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became about the fact that it hasn’t been said yet. There were these big gaps in the public record, things like police corruption and what have you.
“I want there to be something on the public record and non-fiction at the moment is quite a difficult medium to get these things across. Fiction is my way of saying more.”
At the festival, we wait for the rest of David’s answer. Is he a “dead man walking”?
“When the book was going to come out, I spoke to a couple of people whose opinion I respect and I put it to them: ‘what do you think will happen?’” he says. “My main worries were, obviously, personal risk but also defamation. They both, thankfully, said, ‘Look, I think, once the book comes out, you will be okay’.
“This advice turned out to be correct advice – so far.”
David Whish-Wilson lives in Fremantle and teaches creative writing at Curtin University. His first book, The Summons, was published in 2006. Line of Sight, a novel based on the Shirley Finn murder, was published in September last year. David was a guest writer at the Perth Writers Festival.