Michael Duffy published three crime novels earlier this century, culminating in Drive By. But as Michael tells Pat Gables, he grew weary of crime writing, until a move to the Mountains reinvigorated him. His first Bella Greaves novel has been a local bestseller.
Pat: Why did you stop writing crime novels in 2014?
Michael: It got too much. I’d done two police procedurals and then Drive By, about a western suburbs Lebanese crime family. I’d been covering a lot of crime trials for the Sydney Morning Herald, so I felt confident I understood the dynamics of the drive-by shootings that were common then. But it was a lot more grim and demanding compared with the previous books. I didn’t want to go back to them, but I didn’t want to do another Drive By either. So I just stopped.
Pat: You did Sydney Noir: the golden years with Nick Hordern.
Michael: That was a sort of true crime history of the 1960s. We called it “the golden years” because it was the period just before drugs came in. There was tremendous corruption, especially with illegal gambling, yet it lacked the extremes of violence that came in with the drugs from 1972. I was interested to find out more about where modern crime came from. For a crime writer it was a bit like going onto ancestor.com.
Pat: And you and Denis Tracey started BAD, the Sydney Crime Writers Festival.
Michael: Yes. By then I’d realised just how much crime can tell us about society, about our humanity, if you’re prepared to be thoughtful about it. And it can tell us in ways that hold our attention. I wanted a platform to explore that. We launched the festival in 2017. It’s been getting bigger ever since, now at the State Library each October.
Pat: You were the chair?
Michael: I stepped down last year. I wanted to get back into writing, and living in the Mountains had affected that. I wanted very much to try a novel where the landscape matters. Winemakers use the word “terroir” to describe the effect of country and climate on wine, and I think the same can be said about people. Not so much in cities – many cities are interchangeable. But landscape is different.
Pat: There’s been a lot of Australian crime fiction set in the bush in recent years.
Michael: True, and a lot of it’s very well written, and has been deservedly successful. But in most of it, the settings are actually quite similar – small places where everyone knows everyone else's secrets. I wanted to try something different, where the landscape actually affected people. The Mountains are ideal for that, of course. It's not so much in the page-turning tradition of crime, it’s a bit more reflective.
Pat: Do you think people who don’t live in the Mountains will be interested in something so particular to them?
Michael: I don’t know, but it’s worth finding out. Culture is becoming increasingly international, and I think the further you go down that path, the more you lose meaning. These days there’s too much news from nowhere. It sounds odd saying this of a soft-boiled crime novel, but in her assertion of the importance of location, Bella Greaves is an act of rebellion.
Pat: Let’s talk about Bella. Why create a principle character who’s a woman?
Michael: There are actually two main characters, one is Paul Ruel, the detective. So it seemed logical to make the second main character a woman.
Pat: But it’s really Bella’s book.
Michael: True. That’s because she’s a writer and so am I, so I feel I have a lot more in common with her than Paul.
Pat: Do you feel uneasy writing so closely about a female character?
Michael: It’s not that close. I’ve talked to some women novelists about writing male characters, and they all approach it the same way I do with Bella: you write a character and just don’t worry too much about their gender. You try to be true, and certainly don't put in anything unrealistic, but neither do you try to delve into their sexuality too deeply. At the end of the day, novels do need characters of different genders.
Pat: You have a trans character in your book, Bella’s receptionist.
Michael: And assistant. They’re not a developed character, it's not my place to do that. But they're important.
Pat: There are to be more Bella Greaves books?
Michael: Bella says yes.