Two weeks ago Overland’s Jeff Sparrow published a short piece on the passing of Melbourne criminal identity, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. It centred on the obvious, although important, point that the crimes of rich get treated very differently to those of the poor.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the media’s treatment of Read’s death. Partly because as a crime writer I feel implicated by association in the media’s often-salacious interest in true crime, and it raises questions about aspects of what we, as writers of true or fictional crime, do and how we do it.
It’s also interesting to ponder why Read became such a public figure and, by extension, why contemporary Australia is so fascinated with the criminal.
The media dissection of Read’s life verged, at times, on the comic. Did he really kill 19 people, as he originally boasted, or just four to seven, as he said in an interview earlier this year, or just one, committed in self-defence?
Was he a police informer? Did he really shoot Neville Bartos (a little known underworld titbit given pop-culture prominence by the famous scene in the 2000 movie Chopper, directed by Andrew Dominik)? Was he very smart or just crazy? Was he a brutal thug or had he reformed? After all he wrote a children’s book, etc.
Read’s public persona was a product. He was packaged into a bestselling author by a couple of enterprising crime journalists, spun by the media and sustained by Read’s own highly creative flair for self-promotion. The tattoos, the missing ears and the signature sunglasses only furthered this persona.
His celebrity status is curious given just how little detail he actually went into about his criminal exploits. His interviews and sound bites usually consisted of scuttlebutt, seldom with any context or sense there was a larger structure within which crimes were committed.
There’s a scene in Dominik’s film in which Read, played by Eric Bana, has just brutally stabbed a fellow inmate. He sits calmly in the face of police questioning and responds only with, ‘None of us saw anything. It was just one of things.’ It’s an apt summation of Read’s public-criminal persona.
It’s interesting to contrast him with another famous local criminal identity, Arthur ‘Neddy’ Smith, armed robber, convicted murderer and accused heroin dealer, currently serving a life sentence in a NSW jail.
Smith’s literary output hasn’t been anywhere near as prolific as Read’s. He’s only produced one book, Neddy: The life and crimes of Arthur Stanley Smith, published in 1993 and co-written with former Melbourne crime reporter, Tom Noble. While it’s not without its own virulent element of self-justifying propaganda, it’s a fascinating read, detailing as it does his criminal activities in Sydney in the 1970s and 80s.
This includes his extensive cooperation with corrupt elements of the New South Wales police, who, he alleges, gave him the ‘green light’ to commit crimes for a percentage of the proceeds. When I first read Neddy, I was stunned by the sheer openness and extent of the corruption he described. I mean in no way to glamorise Smith, but you don’t get these insights from Read’s books, whether that’s because he had no tales of police corruption to tell or chose to keep silent, we’ll never know.
Arguably, Read also surfed an increasing public interest in the criminal as a hero or anti-hero.
When The Sopranos first appeared on free-to-air television in Australia in the late 90s, it was viewed as transgressive, of interest only to a niche audience and screened late at night. Now there’s Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad, just to name a few. With Dexter and Hannibal, even serial killers are in on the act. Closer to home, there’s the runaway success of the Underbelly franchise. And all of them are primetime fodder.
I don’t want to moralise about any of these shows. Some of them are brilliant and present a scathing critique of the reality of criminal life under late capitalism. Others are just sensational and excessively violent for no particular reason. Each of us will have our opinion on which show is which.
The question is why are these shows so popular?
I suspect the very fact we live in a less violent, more affluent society has encouraged our fascination with the criminal. Read understood this. As he reportedly said, and Sparrow quoted in his article, ‘Posh people love gangsters’. One could add they also need them at times to do their dirty work.
On a broader level, this statement was not just a nod to the middle classes’ desire to emulate the gangster aesthete. For better or worse, it signifies a fascination with the rough authenticity many of these people represented in a time when everything feels increasingly homogenised and technologically mediated.
In Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, where I lived for many years, people aren’t fascinated with true crime. There is very little local crime fiction and not a lot of interest on the part of the locals in reading it.
That’s because crime and corruption are facts of everyday life to a greater extent than here, and figures like Chopper or Smith aren’t roguish criminals on a disembodied television screen. They’re sitting in the national parliament, shaking you down for protection money, or turning up with bulldozers first thing in the morning to evict you from your land.