Reviewed by Ian Lipke
When I picked up a copy of Old Scores and read the story of former detective Frank Swann I did not have to be told that the story was set in the early 1980s. I just had to keep reminding myself that this story belongs to Western Australia, not my home State. Someone from overseas, having read this yarn, would most likely scoff in disbelief. An Australian of my generation would identify with it with no trouble at all. He would know the score.
This is a political yarn in the sense that it is about politicians and corrupt practices, the latter almost universal among the former. It is Perth in the early 1980s. Swann is working as a private investigator when he is offered a security job by Premier Farrell’s stooge Heenan. (The given name is rarely used). Swann learns that someone is bugging the Premier’s phone but that there is a reluctance to do anything about it.
Escaped murderer Des Foley makes his appearance. His character is revealed early – he murders two people, both hard-cases like himself. Don’t look for justice happening soon; this is early 80s WA. The story doesn’t unfold in that way. Rather, Foley provides some good assistance to Swann along the way. There are the usual bent cops in this story, their number reaching far up into the commissioned ranks. Swann is now a target for some of his older buddies, naturally enough given that he has been caught in a crime and dismissed from the police force.
The rear cover has this provocative, but accurate, blurb: “A motley assemblage of bikies, skinheads, low-level crooks and corrupt politicos hurtle towards one another in a shadowy criminal world that lies just beneath the surface of Perth’s glittery, sunny façade” (cover). It’s all true, but the real story’s three level structure makes it more so. The bikies and the skinheads, the crooks indistinguishable from the politicos, play a very serious game. That not all are low level soon becomes clear.
Swanning through the pages (I couldn’t resist that!) is the hero, ever alert, always one step ahead of his corrupt masters. Manipulative as the best of them, Swann knows what advice to give his bikie mates to exert utmost pressure on the Premier while building favours for himself. The bikies, the sub-tribes that make up Perth’s underworld, even the most deadly of all, the corrupt police are rarely ahead of Swann when some innocent has to be protected, or a petty criminal like the misguided teenager Blake Tracker guided back into prison alive. This is a world that has been thoroughly researched. It is an era when the Tactical Response Group make no arrests – “once the call went out the black-clad TRG simply turned up and shot dead the offender, before returning to their black van” (27).
One of the strengths of this first rate novel is the harsh cadence of the writing. The narrative is so delicately (and intricately) woven that its prose dances off the page. It never loses its hard-boiled edge, its stridency; a Shostakovitch shout to the heavens, rather than a melody that haunts and soothes, and lingers. To the crime novel aficionado a Whish-Wilson composition is unforgettable. The language flows, then it bounces and dances about with no harsh abruptnesses that a reader of the subject matter might have been led to expect.
No mothers were approached to help in the revelation of the characters; no mother would own up to inflicting on the world most of them. Whish-Wilson creates a dog-eat-dog world and populates it with canines that are cunning and forceful in pursuit of their own desires. Still, given all that, the deft hand of the author moves the character of Swann without a blemish in his performance. The minor character, Marion, presents the sense of decency that saves her partner from any tarnish that his interactions with the unavowed scum might produce.
Dark though this novel is, it is never without the suggestion that the author had his tongue in his cheek all the time.
Well worth a read.
By David Whish-Wilson