Dave was interviewed by JAYNE MARGETTS
The nouveau Mediterranean interior of The Deli Cafe on Melbourne’s prestigious Toorak Road is filled with an odd bric-a-brac of lunch time customers; some hold mobile phones to their ears, faces masked in concentration, while others sip at glasses of wine, trying to keep cool. Within the small handful of people there’s potentially a couple that could be the author of the narcotic and muscular crime novel Big Bad Blood, Dave Warner. What does a crime writer look like? Is it the kind of person who skulks around the corners of a room; a man shrouded from head to toe in black, nicotine stained fingers, baggy-eyed and carrying a few extra pounds or like James Ellroy in his earlier days; a collision of crumpled attire, sleaze and seediness?
When Dave Warner finally arrives, he shatters every illusion that the more romantically minded amongst us may have imagined; the skin is closer to olive than ghostly and translucent, the form leans toward the stocky side, his brown hair curls around the back of his shirt collar and the grin is warm with a Cheshire Cat edge.
Strike One for the man described as “Australia’s answer to James Ellroy”, whose pen crawls through tawdry cesspits of sex, politics, money, death and bent cops, and who would clearly love to embody the kind of low life characters that swim through his fictional canvases. He sits down, orders a coffee and breaks into a grin when he realises that illusions have been shattered. “Am I supposed to go out in a drunken haze and suffer for my art?,” he offers.
“I know lots of people like that, y’know, who have writer’s block and suffer. I don’t have any of that at all. I’m not even a nocturnal creature. In fact, I’m really boring. I sort of exist between the hours of 7am through to midnight. I swim every morning at Manly Pool – that’s my one bit of exercise – and then I write for as much of the day as I can.” Writer, performer, musician and broadcaster for the Sydney Swans, Warner has been garnering huge accolades for his second dizzying tome Big Bad Blood, a bible of a novel that recreates the nuances of crime and corruption surging through Sydney’s King’s Cross in 1965.
His two main protagonists, homicide detective Ray Shearer (“I became a cop to punish people”) and his wet-behind-the-ears novice John Gordon, get caught up in the blood splattered trail of a psychopathic murderer who has a penchant for mutilating prostitutes. It’s graphic, bold and surfs through staccatos of words like a New Orleans blues man exorcising his bourbon-ridden soul seeking some kind of redemption, and although the characters may be borne of fictional realms there’s also an occasional hint of its creator lurking in the shadows.
“The characters I most relate to in this book would have to be the main protagonist Ray Shearer and John Gordon,” he explains. “It’s like thinking back to when you’re a young guy and you meet an exciting and sexually adventurous young woman, and you are immediately defensive because you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can cope with this’ … that part of the book is similar to me. The other part isn’t quite so much reflective of what I am, but more of a fantasy. I don’t know if it’s a common male fantasy, but certainly with me, it’s like, I’d love to be as courageous and tough as the characters and to think, ‘to heck with the consequences, I’m just gonna go straight ahead and go for it’. So I guess it’s wish fulfilment rather than biographical.”
In an era where crime fiction is enjoying a surge in popularity and when Godfathers such as James Ellroy occupy our minds in the dark hours of the night and draws a cross-section of fans to his spoken word recitations of his novels – like he did on a recent tour of Australia – it seems that the public can’t quite get enough of this explosive and addictional literary genre. But, Ellroy, like Warner, doesn’t always revel inthe gutter level of deprivation and vice ridden havens that people may expect.
Beneath the shadowy demeanour of their creators, the characters who stare at life as if down the loaded barrel of a gun and who contribute to the rising tide of human tragedy and guilt are also reflective of life at the more desperate, and yet, realistic end of the spectrum. “In my first book City Of Light, [which scooped the WA Premier’s Books Award for fiction in 1996] Snowy Lane was the major character and I think the reason he struck such a chord with people was that he was so much like many men and women in Australia who are searching for themselves,” Warner concedes.
“They start off at some point and it’s not until a certain point along the way that they are confronted with some sort of choice. Often they choose not to confront that, but they then reach a point where they have to learn about themselves in order to interpret what the world is around them, and that’s what City Of Light was about. I grew up in the City Of Light in Perth, between the years from 1979 through to 1990 and I really felt that it was a hugely important time because the city went from being an isolated big village to being an international city. It was a rites of passage, and I’d always wanted to write a book about the rites of passage of the city as well as of a character who had some autobiographical resemblance to myself. But with Big Bad Blood I felt that I didn’t have a particular axe to grind and the main characters, particularly Ray Shearer who is a bent cop who carries around a huge amount of emotional baggage and who’s psychologically scarred. It’s also a search for redemption in a way; a melodramatic way for redemption and I’m not sure he will find it, I’m not even certain we will.”
Ask Warner why he feels crime fiction has struck such a raw nerve with the public and he pauses for a moment, mulls over the thought and responds: “I think the first thing is that it’s really exciting. If you get caught up in it, it is the great drama of life and death. It’s so – to use a different analogy – if you go to a sporting event and you’re right on the edge of not knowing whether your side will win or lose, then you’re getting caught up with something that’s very close. Something about that is naturally very exciting; it’s a sort of life and death situation.
“And, in crime, if you get caught up in it then there’s something about that drama that touches you. Secondly, there’s such a lot of good writers who are getting better and better at it and bring in a lot of different skills. I mean, look at how much people enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s work, and I know he gets a bit of a pan, but the fact is he turned on a lot of people with Pulp Fiction – to a lesser extent Reservoir Dogs – but, he turned a lot of people onto a different cinematic genre. However, I doubt that he would have been able to do that if Elmore Leonard hadn’t already brought in ‘crim speak’ and used that vernacular. It would be like Midnight Oil trying to come out before Skyhooks. There are certain building blocks that lead onto other things …”
Born in the isolated port of Perth, Western Australia, Warner began his great romance with crime fiction as a child when he’d sneak somewhere quiet and lose himself in the tales from the quill of Sherlock Holmes. Vying for his attention however, was also his love of music and performance and during the late ’70s he tasted his first glimmer of notoriety and the spotlight when his band From The Suburbs recorded the gold album Mug’s Game. But it wasn’t until he finally took a break from the rigours of musicianship in the early ’80s and took himself off to a well needed trip to Crete that his future beckoned, albeit subtly. He remembers one afternoon, the weather was “scungy” and he decided to head off to a local book shop to pick up a couple of books.
“It was an English book shop and they had some Agatha Christie novels, and I’d never read any of her books before. So, I thought, ‘oh, yeah, this is the kind of crap my Grandmother would read’, but I bought two books and read them both within five hours and I thought it was fantastic, and I also thought, ‘I’d love to do this!’. Subsequently, I went on to read EVERY Agatha Christie book and chanced upon an idea.” Warner and a close friend, Dave Zampatti revelled in the idea of hosting a Murder Weekend, but it wasn’t until 1983 that they finally arranged one. “That was the first time I had to construct a murder plot,” he remembers, “and the plot and the characters were very stereotypical. So I did that and started to feel that I had some sort of facility towards doing it. It was something I felt very confident with.
“Then in the late ’80s I read Johnathan Kellerman, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy, and it just made such an impact on me that I felt that it was something that I could do. I wanted to do it like Ellroy, in that, he said, that he wanted to elevate crime writing, make it bigger, more complex, more exciting, morechallenging and that’s what I wanted to do. Y’know, take it almost beyond crime, and crime being the greatest drama of people’s lives …” Big, bad Dave Warner; literary tightrope walker pirouetting between daring, muscular and dark prose. A pulp merchant who gets high off his characters’ adventures. Part Ray Shearer, part John Gordon, but, unlike them, he has found redemption looking down the barrel of the boldest and most vivid of literary traditions, even if it only exists between the hours of 7am and midnight. Now there’s an irony …