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.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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    1. Thank you. I think there’s a lot more to say about the gangster obsession but I’m struggling to express myself coherently today.

  1. I’m conflicted about Chopper’s death.

    Under the clownish exterior, he was a thug and a criminal, so adept at creating a false reality around him, we’ll never know the extent of his crimes.
    As for his books, they epitomise the very worst of the sub-genre known as true crime.

    It’s hard to conclude anything other than good riddance to him.

    On the other hand, I write crime and help edit a hardboiled/noir fiction and features magazine, which is fairly out there. So maybe I’m not one to criticise.

    It would definitely be interesting to explore this further.

  2. On a slightly abtuse angle to your piece, Jeff, there’s a certain sort of crime fiction which is about the crime which can’t be revealed, without the structure of things themselves being revealed – a rotten structure where those in power ARE the criminals. Here I’m thinking of Ellroy and the like, though of course he describes himself as a demon-dog of the right or something or other. Still, it is a vision which – like much conservatism – shares the approach of the left.

  3. I enjoyed this piece, in an odd way, without being able to say why. There’s definitely something more to the ‘something more’, a sort of mental titillation akin to tendentious humour, perhaps, where we commit the crimes we could / would never admit to committing, whether to our self or to others, as fantasy only?

  4. I’ve always thought the obsession with true crime is the flip side of a society in which risk and fear of crime are such central social control mechanisms. It’s essentially the same reason why we like roller-coasters, that secret pleasure in being (safely) confronted with things we fear.

  5. Nice one Mr Sparrow. Another link is that they both benefit from the trade in illegal drugs. Either financially, crims sell drugs, or politically, right wing pollies love Law ‘ ‘n Order.

  6. Have you read Robert Warshow’s “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”? I think Warshow was the first critic who made that point about aesthetics, gangsterism and US capitalism.

    1. Warshow puts it well, too, in “The Westerner”:

      Warshow puts it well, too, in “The Westerner”:

      “Like other tycoons, the gangster is crude in achieving his ends … the gangster is the “no” to that great American “yes” which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives… From the window of Scarface’s bulletproof apartment can be seen the electric sign proclaiming ‘The World Is Yours,’ and, if I remember, this sign is the last thing we see after Scarface lies dead in the street.”

  7. I haven’t. But I was thinking about the move to grant personhood to corporations in the US. As many people noted, if a multinational was a person, it would be a textbook sociopath. Often wondered whether that was behind the pop cultural fascination with psychopaths in the early 2000s.

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