Crime writer Garry Disher has, like quite a few Australians, a Chopper Read tale to tell. On the phone from his home on Mornington Peninsula, on the very day Read's death from cancer was announced, Disher recalls his single encounter with one of Australia's most notorious crims, the man who funnelled his infamy into a flamboyant post-prison career as a writer and stand-up comic.
"Chopper Read attended a writing school I gave for inmates at Risdon Prison in Hobart many years ago," he says. "Even if I hadn't known about his hacked-off ears and his criminal history, I'd have found him powerful and compelling. The first thing he said to me was, 'Do your books sell many copies?' I answered, 'They average about 5000' (it's barely better now, he adds with a laugh) and Chopper looked me up and down, clearly unimpressed, and said, 'I sell 50,000'. So there was nothing I could tell Chopper about writing."
Disher could have taught Read a thing or two, if the man had been prepared to listen.
With book titles like The Singing Defective and How To Shoot Friends & Influence People, Read's style was crude, the direct opposite to Disher, whose writing is subtle, terse and relentless. His seven Wyatt thrillers, centred around a ruthlessly efficient criminal, which first started appearing in the early 90s, are especially popular in Europe, and the most recent one, simply called Wyatt, published in 2010, won the Ned Kelly award for best crime novel the same year. (Fans will be thrilled to hear Disher is working on a new book, with Wyatt scoping the nouveau riche of Noosa.)
He has also published another series, featuring two cops called Challis and Destry, several short story collections, some highly acclaimed books for young adults and children, and a handful of what his website describes as "literary novels for adults", one of which, The Sunken Road (1996), was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. He also taught creative writing for many years.
His latest thriller, Bitter Wash Road, introduces a new leading man: a cop called Hirsch who has been sent, in disgrace, from Adelaide to a one-man station in rural southeastern South Australia. Initially, we don't know why he is so hated by his fellow cops in the wider district - they call him a "dog" and try to entrap him - and Disher takes his time unveiling the backstory.
"I like the Wilkie Collins saying: 'Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait'," he says.
"Delaying and withholding tactics, red herrings, partial and doubtful outcomes are stock in trade for fiction writers, especially crime writers."
But Disher is much more than a stock crime writer. His descriptive powers are understated but astoundingly vivid. In Bitter Wash Road he evokes a harsh landscape, dry, dusty and poor. Hirsch notices "birds, sitting as if snipped in tin". He drives past deserted farmhouses on leasehold land: "Eyeless cottages ... little heartaches that had struggled on a patch of red dirt and were sinking back into it." Disher says it all comes from memory, from when he grew up on a farm in the mid-north of South Australia.
"I haven't lived there for 40 years yet I still call it home. My parents and siblings still live there and I go 'home' for Christmas every year. It continues to exert a powerful influence on my imagination, so I've returned to it in several of my novels over the years. I have vivid images in my head and I can smell and hear it. I do pay attention to the power of sensory information when I'm writing and would argue that I can't write a scene or describe a character until I can hear, see, smell, taste, touch..."
Books and reading were always vital to Disher when he was growing up on the farm, an issue he explores in Bitter Wash Road.
"I grew up in a house full of books and we belonged to the Country Lending Service - each month the State Library would send us a parcel of books by train. To be a writer you must be a reader, yet as many as 30 per cent of my writing students were not readers. My father was a strong influence on us. He didn't read bedtime stories but he told his own made-up stories and I saw the importance of the cliff-hanger because he'd say, 'I'll finish this tomorrow night, son'."
Bitter Wash Road features two teenage girls: Katie, a sharp young thing who reads books, and Gemma, a pudgy monosyllabic "shrugger" who lives in a house with a huge TV set and computer games, but no books. Disher, who has a teenage daughter, says that reflects his own observations. "When you're a parent taking your child to play at the homes of their friends, you see all kinds of domestic settings, some enriching, many arid. I can't imagine the inner lives of people who don't read."
The book spins around a couple of murders, police corruption, "Abo" bashings, domestic abuse and the gradual unfolding of a "sex party scene" involving prominent members of the community and very young girls. Disher reads the papers. "From time to time I have read of police officers in remote rural districts wielding great power, asking for sexual favours from young women, bashing up the Aboriginal kids and so on. I think one great handicap to reform in police forces all around the world is the existence of a police culture and an us-against-them mentality, so that honest officers are reluctant - or afraid - to point the finger."
Disher gets a lot of inside information from his brother, a police officer in Adelaide working in victim support and formerly a country town cop, and from his wife. "She's engaged in a big research project looking at domestic and family violence in Victoria. She and a team have spent years talking to victims, lawyers, counsellors, the police..."
His other great tool is the local paper, with the Challis and Destry series set on the Mornington Peninsula, where he has lived for 20 years. "It's vital for giving a sense of the community at work. Of course, I have bumped up the murder rate considerably but one notorious story made it into one of the books [Blood Moon]. There was community outrage at the contemptuous destruction of an old house of architectural interest by wealthy city millionaires who wanted to build an architectural nightmare overlooking the beach. You can tell from my language where I stand on the issue.
"My life is peaceful, the people around me are blameless, but I hear things and use my imagination to build them up into a story. When people at writers' festivals say, 'How can you write such terrible things in your books?', I say, 'Don't you read the newspaper? Worse things happen in real life'."
Bitter Wash Road (Text $37) is out now.