Mark "Chopper" Read, who died this week aged 58, was one of Australia's most ruthless and colourful criminals, spending 23 years in prison for crimes including assault, kidnapping and armed robbery; he wrote more than a dozen books detailing his long career as a violent psychopath, including one entitled How to Shoot Friends and Influence People.
Among his many claims to notoriety was that he had been involved in killing 19 people and the attempted murder of 11 others. But interviewed by the New York Times this year, Read revised his reckless tally as a hitman: "Look, honestly, I haven't killed that many people," he insisted, "probably about four or seven, depending on how you look at it."
Once, on Australian television, he outraged viewers with a blood-curdling account of feeding a man into a cement mixer, but it seems that his impressive rap sheet included only a single charge of murder - on which he was acquitted.
Yet if Read profited from creating his own brutal mythology, and if some of his stories were embroidered, made up, or given added spin, there was also no doubt that during the 1970s and 1980s Read was one of the most dangerous men in Australia.
His ability to inflict and absorb physical punishment passed into criminal folklore. Read had been on the receiving end of repeated violence himself, reckoning that he had been stabbed seven times; shot once; run over by a car; and gouged in the head with a claw hammer. Although the sobriquet "Chopper" was said to have derived from his having asked a fellow prison inmate to cut his (Read's) ears off for a bet, he latterly confessed that it had actually come from a childhood cartoon.
Read was renowned for swindling money out of fellow criminals and torturing his victims with blowtorches, although he maintained that he never hurt an "innocent" person. Dangerous gangsters feared him because Read himself showed no fear, not caring if he lived or died. He once tried to kidnap a judge at the point of a shotgun in a failed attempt to get a friend freed from prison - an offence that landed him with a 16-year jail term.
He was finally released from prison in 1998, after serving a further six years for inflicting grievous bodily harm on a biker by shooting him in the chest. By then he had already become an established crime writer, his first book, Chopper: From the Inside (1991), having been compiled from letters he had sent to a journalist from Melbourne's Pentridge prison. The book, like its multiple sequels, featured accounts of his criminal and prison exploits.
It sold so well - 300,000 copies, according to one estimate - that it made him Australia's bestselling true crime author.
With Chopper 5: Pulp Faction (1995), he turned to fictional accounts of criminal escapades based on his own experiences. Aspects of several of his books were used in the film Chopper (2000), in which he was portrayed by the Australian actor Eric Bana.
Mark Brandon Read was born on November 17, 1954 in Melbourne. His father was a soldier, his mother a devout Seventh Day Adventist. His first five years were spent in a children's home, and he was bullied at school and (he said) beaten at home by his father. At 14 he was taken into care and placed in several psychiatric institutions where, he later claimed, he endured 60 sessions of shock treatment in the space of six months.
From this point, if not earlier, Read's criminal career can be tracked only by reference to his own boastful recollections, including hair-raising tales of kidnapping and the torturing of underworld gangsters - he sometimes threatened to amputate the toes of his victims with bolt cutters.
A serial jailbird, between the ages of 20 and 38, Read spent a mere 13 months as a free man. In the course of internecine warfare inside Pentridge jail in the late 1970s, he and his henchmen, known as the Overcoat Gang because they wore long coats (even in summer) to conceal their weapons, repeatedly clashed with rival prison gangsters.
When Read proposed crippling every member of the opposing gang, he was apparently ambushed and stabbed by members of his own side who felt that he was going too far. The attack reportedly cost Read a length of intestine.
In 1990 a newspaper crime reporter, John Silvester, wrote a disparaging double-page spread about Read after he was acquitted of the 1987 killing of a drug dealer known as "Sammy the Turk" outside a nightclub. Read dropped a menacing Christmas card to Silvester, who subsequently interviewed him in prison. He boasted to the journalist that his article had merely scratched the surface, and proceeded to itemise a catalogue of crimes he claimed to have committed.
When Silvester later suggested he write down some recollections, Read responded with a torrent of letters, and the correspondence formed the basis of his first book. Even though the Australian crime novelist Peter Corris panned it as "badly written, cliched, chaotically organised and partly bogus", it became a bestseller. The American crime writer Elmore Leonard became a fan, describing Read as "a living legend ... he's vicious, he's a brute".
In 2001 Read featured in an Australian road safety advertisement. "I know most of you out there may hate my guts - I'm not a very popular person," he declared. "But you drink and you drive ... you're a murdering maggot just the same as I am."
His other non-criminal ventures included staging exhibitions of his paintings, and making stand-up appearances under the title Never Plead Guilty.
He was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in April last year.
Mark Read married Mary-Ann Hodge in 1995, while he was in jail in Tasmania. The marriage was dissolved, and in 2003 he married Margaret Cassar. Both wives, and the two sons of his marriages, survive him.