Garry Disher is an award-winning, prolific, and versatile Australian author best know in the U.S. for his Inspector Challis series of procedurals as well as for the crime caper books featuring the meticulous bank robber and thief, Wyatt Wareen. But this is only part of the Disher story. He has published over 40 books of mainstream and crime fiction for both adults and younger readers, as well as nonfiction books dealing with topics from writing technique to aspects of Australian history.
The winner of two Ned Kelly Awards, Disher began writing professionally three decades ago, and ten years into his career began the series of books featuring the hard-bitten hold-up man Wyatt. He penned six of these titles, Kickback, Paydirt, Death Deal, Crosskill, Port Vila Blues, and The Fallout, before turning his attention to his procedural series featuring Detective Inspector Hal Challis and his partner cum lover, Sergeant Ellen Destry. The titles in this latter series have all been published in the United States by Soho Press, which is also beginning to bring out the Wyatt novels, especially as Disher brought his antihero back after a thirteen-year hiatus in the 2010 novel, Wyatt (which earned Disher one of his Ned Kelly Awards; the other was for a Challis book, Chain of Evidence). The return of Wyatt was, for Booklist, “cause for celebration.” Kirkus Reviews was also jubilant at Wyatt’s re-entry into the world of crime fiction: “Disher takes us back to the golden age of thrillers, a time when they were fast, taut and dependably suspenseful.”
Disher’s Challis books have also earned high critical praise and a loyal readership worldwide. Booklist termed his award-winning Chain of Evidence “moody, inventive, and extremely hard to put down,” and Kirkus Reviews dubbed it “engrossing.” Publishers Weekly called his Blood Moon, from 2009, “a superior police procedural,” while the New York Times Book Review found it “excellent.” His most recent Challis release, Whispering Death, out in Australia last year and coming in the U.S. later this year, is “written in that beautifully dry, laconic style that Disher has bought to these police procedurals,” according to Austcrime. The same reviewer added: “There is simply no better way to spend some time ignoring everything and everybody around you, than reading the latest offering from one of the best writers of Australian Crime Fiction around.” In its survey of world mysteries, PBS.org noted of this series: “Serial killing, suburban sex rings, blackmail and child abduction—it’s all in a day’s work for the dysfunctional …homicide squad” in Disher’s novels.
Garry, it is an honor and a real pleasure to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. Let’s start out as we usually do: a chin wag about your own crime scene.
The setting of my Challis and Destry police procedurals is the Mornington Peninsula, one hour south east of Melbourne in Australia. I have lived there for twenty years, and have seen great changes as some of the old coastal towns have doubled in size, with new housing creeping over farmland. But services (schools, hospitals, social welfare) have not kept pace, causing social pressures and a headache for police. I like to explore this in my crime novels: they are as much about a place and a way of life under strain as they are about crime and detection.
The Peninsula is distinctive geographically, with the sea on both sides, pretty coastal towns and a beautiful rural hinterland, where vines are grown. The coastal towns are a playground for Australia’s richest families, but there are also pockets of poverty and social distress – giving rise to terrific material for a crime writer.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
The story setting should be seen as vital in all kinds of fiction, not only crime. Characters are shaped by the setting and they shape the setting. They can’t be separated from each other. So, when I am writing a scene of any kind I can see where it occurs and how my character(s) interact with it. My characters aren’t just amorphous states of consciousness.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
I incorporate not only the specifics of a place (a road, a forest, a beach) but atmospheric details, light quality and an appropriate mood: if the scene I’m writing is tense or scary, for example, how can I use elements of the setting to heighten this (for example, shards of broken glass in a ditch)? And in my Mornington Peninsula novels I am writing about real places (the town of Mornington, for example) and invented places (the town of Waterloo, where the main characters are located). I invent places because for the sake of the plot I might need to incorporate buildings and events that can’t be found in real life on the Peninsula.
How do your protagonists interact with their surroundings?
My police characters are outsiders and so at odds a little with their surroundings. This is useful for creating tension, and for observation. My characters like living there but, being police officers, are wary of living in the town they serve in (not wanting to encounter, in the supermarket, a citizen they once arrested, for example). I should point out that Australia has only two levels of police: federal and state. The state police go to a training academy and are then sent to serve in any town or region in the state. Of course within the police they might be attached to special units, such as Drugs, Homicide or Traffic. And mercifully there is no such thing as an untrained, small town grocer being elected town sheriff, as I might find in American crime fiction.
The locals love my books, fortunately, and some have even made tours of the areas I describe. Of course this falls down when they try to find a place I invented (“You know that nature reserve you describe in Snapshot? I can’t find it…”). And my books are translated into various European languages and are becoming very popular in the States (so much so that a Mornington policeman phoned me to say a tourist man and wife from California had called in because they so liked the books). I hope my books are appealing because they’re well written and absorbing and the mystery/suspense element is gripping, but the exotic element can’t be denied – but at the same time, fiction of any kind won’t travel unless it has universal appeal, and the elements of crime fiction (love, hate, betrayal, etc., etc.) are universal.
I also write a series of caper novels featuring a character named Wyatt, who will travel to wherever the money is. But some of his capers have occurred in Melbourne, and a Melbourne reader has contacted me several times to point out that such-and-such a street is one-way east to west, not west to east, or that Wyatt couldn’t possibly have caught a tram at the corner of X and Y streets because the tram stop is a hundred metres further down the road…
Of the Mornington novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
In this scene from Blood Moon, the young detective constable Pam Murphy, out for her morning run along the beach, comes upon a wrecking crew demolishing a lovely old house on behalf of rich developers (possible local government corruption is a theme of the novel):
“She came to the little stile on the low plank wall at the bottom of the cliff, stepped over it and was lost in the ti-trees, their trunks and roots like dark hanks of rope. Dodging to avoid the traps in her path, all sounds shielded from her, Pam powered up the crooked track to the cliff top. Finally she burst through the bushes and onto the road.
“And stopped in her tracks. She struggled to take it all in. There was a gap in the vista, but what? Then she realised: the old fisherman’s cottage had been flattened. Heavy bulldozers were growling and scraping among the pines. People were milling about, shouting angrily, some of them in tears. Eight security guards, beefy, beer-fed thugs dressed in black, maintained a line of defence between the protesters and the demolition crew. The latter, wearing hard hats, jeans, work boots and gloves, were wielding mallets and loading dump bins in concert with the bulldozers.
“It was implacable, unstoppable. It was noisy, dusty and shocking to witness. Pam felt tears spring to her eyes and she crossed the road to join the protesters.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I don’t know that other writers have influenced my use of the spirit of place, but I do admire several American authors who use place to good effect: James Lee Burke, John Sandford and Michael Connelly, for example. Lately I have been reading the new wave of Scandinavian crime fiction: as unlike Australian settings as you could get, whereas Los Angeles is not so far removed from an Australian city like Sydney, or Boston from Melbourne.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I don’t wish to live anywhere else – but wish I could afford to live on a cliff overlooking the sea (I just need a few million bucks). I like it that the sea is close by. I could never live in the outback; I’d feel trapped.
I recently holidayed with my family at a resort in Queensland (the tropical north of Australia), and, seeing the huge, costly mansions and lifestyle, realised it was going to be Wyatt’s new hunting ground…
Many thanks, Garry, for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Garry Disher, visit his homepage.