A few years ago, Melbourne University Publishing – once an exclusively academic press – launched an imprint called Victory so as to facilitate, among other offerings, an expansion into true crime. And who could blame it? Gangster books sell. Mick Gatto and Chopper Read and the rest of their ilk have, without doubt, shifted more units than almost all the poets and literary novelists combined.
The Australian fascination with violent criminality usually gets discussed in terms of larrikinism, a ‘national character’ that is, don’t you know, innately hostile to authority, inherently sympathetic to the underdog.
Yet the celebrity hoodlums could not be further from the ‘social bandits’ that Eric Hobsbawm once described. Indeed, they’re often not the slightest bit antagonistic to those in power, working as strikebreakers and palling around with high-ranking current and former policemen. Think of the various iterations of Underbelly: tales not of contemporary Robin Hoods but of venal sociopaths, amoral drug dealers fighting each other as much as the law.
In his famous essay on murder, Thomas de Quincy suggested that homicide should be considered as an aesthetic rather than a moral phenomenon, with atrocities assessed as ‘a picture, statue, or other work of art.’ He duly distinguished between the run of the mill slaying and the murder truly worthy of the connoisseur.
As to old women, and the mob of newspaper readers, they are pleased with anything, provided it is bloody enough. But the mind of sensibility requires something more.
What’s the ‘something more’ most suited to the modern murder aficionado?
Just as Chopper Read was dying, the American magazine Commentary hosted a ‘roast’ for Dick Cheney, an event attended by a galaxy of neoconservative stars, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Here’s a description of the entertainment that evening.
“There were some waterboarding jokes that were really tasteless,” the guest said. “I can see the case for enhanced interrogation techniques after Sept. 11 but I can’t really endorse sitting there drinking wine and fancy dinner at the Plaza laughing uproariously about it.”
Cheney himself told one waterboarding joke, the attendees said, which he attributed to Jay Leno. It centered on a one-shot antelope hunting contest in Wyoming in which the loser had to dance with an Indian squaw. Cheney’s shot got caught in the barrel, producing a dispute over whether it counted as a hit or a miss — and Leno, according to Cheney, joked that Cheney wanted to go catch the animal with his bare hands and waterboard it.
Separately, Rumsfeld joked about Cheney waterboarding fish.
If political leaders can crack wise so openly about waterboarding (a torture technique pioneered by the Inquisition and finessed by Pol Pot and the Nazis), should we be surprised in Read’s success in turning stories of (real and imagined) bashings, murders and toe-cuttings into a lucrative literary career?
In his little book on detective fiction, Ernest Mandel describes the rise of the modern crime novel.
It answers a need to overcome the growing monotony and standardization of labour and consumption in bourgeois society through a harmless (since vicarious) reintroduction of adventure and drama into daily life. The romantic, bucolic setting of the old bandit stories becomes increasingly meaningless in this context.
Under modernity, crime becomes individualised; narratives of law-breaking no longer feature bandits striking against unjust aristocrats but rather thieves and murderers seeking personal enrichment.
Every age, in other words, gets the criminals it deserves. Since Mandel’s book appeared in the seventies, we’ve seen an unparalled increase in inequality across the developed world, and a corresponding breakdown in social solidarity, as the traditional parties of the Left and the Right lend their imprimatur to the dog-eat-dog logic of the market.
Ours is thus a time of a strident individualism, of ruthless competition that celebrates swaggering success and derides those who fall by the wayside.
The era of the entrepreneur is, naturally, the era of the mobster, since the two occupations foster the same values and reward the same qualities.
‘Posh people love gangsters,’ as Chopper reportedly explained. The swagger of the racketeer is now a universal aesthetic.
Yet the criminal makes a better popular hero than the financier or the IT hustler or the neoconservative politician, precisely because the truly wealthy and the seriously powerful deal in abstractions and thus don’t get their hands dirty at all. If a gangster exemplifies all of the virtues celebrated by an entrepreneurial society, he (and it’s usually a ‘he’) also possesses a physical courage lacking in the bloodless arenas of commerce or politics.
Cheney and his pals might tell torture gags but none of them could claim to have personally done the business. They were not there in Abu Ghraib; they didn’t hold heads underwater in the cells of Guantanamo – indeed, most of the neocons weaseled out of any military service at all.
By contrast, Chopper, as everyone knows, wielded his own bolt-cutters, blasted his own shotguns.
The career thug, then, boasts an integrity generally missing from the upper echelons of the modern world. Read spent years in gaol for his activities. He did the crime; he did the time – and that in and of itself made his shtick less repulsive than the boasting by Rumsfeld and Cheney and the other neocons, who were never punished for the atrocities that they authorised.
‘It’s nice that we’re all here at the Plaza instead of in cages after some war crimes trial,’ said Joe Lieberman at the Cheney roast (which was, naturally, bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch, among others).
That’s the difference between Chopper and Cheney. Little crooks go to prison. The big crooks run the world.