The good, the bad and the sexist – Tony Cavanaugh on the boys' club in the Sydney Morning Herald

by Steve Dow

It's never about the sex; it's always about the power. Tony Cavanaugh is already known for taking soapies to a smarter level as a TV scriptwriter, but his first novel, about a man who rapes and murders teenage girls, imagines the standard exhibitionist serial killer as a self-aware autodidact with a professorial brain.

It took Cavanaugh, who lives on the Gold Coast, just three months of full-time writing, often beginning at 3am, to produce Promise, about a psychopath, Winston, who stalks the Sunshine Coast hinterland armed with extensive readings in the serial killer literary canon and the psychological tropes of "cognitive thinking" and "catastrophising", and who is being pursued by Darian Richards, a retired, clever and superficially misanthropic homicide detective.

Clearly there was a creative upside to the dark mood in which Cavanaugh found himself after the recent "reasonably traumatic" collapse of his marriage to film writer and director Simone North - he produced her film I Am You, based on the real story of the murder of a teenage girl - but he wouldn't recommend others follow a course of separation and divorce to fuel a first novel.

The father of three has dedicated Promise to his children Delaware, Charlie and Scarlett, but wants his youngest to wait before reading it; the graphic noir nature of Winston's brutality required the author to take cold showers.

Winston sees women only as either playthings - in the manner of Brooke Shields, "nude and beautiful like a gleaming wet Pocahontas", as in the Disney version - or "packages", as in a 12-year-old he shockingly kidnaps and murders.

"I wanted to have a child-like, horrible psychopath who one minute can go into this world of Pocahontas and The Jungle Book," Cavanaugh says, "and the next minute be able to talk about Hannibal Lecter and Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer."

It's a given Winston's base metal is misogyny; potentially more controversial is Cavanaugh's portrayal of the police force as a "boys' club".

Thematically, I tell Cavanaugh, this common thread between a criminal and the law reminds me of the deeper questions posed by the critically lauded play, The Boys. It demonstrated a wide Australian misogyny and some wives' and girlfriends' passive acceptance of brutal treatment, as elements leading to the real-life murder of Sydney nurse Anita Cobby.

"The cop world I've observed is still a very sexist one to this day - it just is," says Cavanaugh, who is short and slim and has thick, wiry grey hair. "You know, it's a boys' club. I did want to write about that.

"Darian says early in the book [that] most male cops are dumb. Which is a paradox, because this is something I've heard from the top cops working in these areas.

"They will talk with great respect to their female colleagues, because they [the women] have a certain wisdom and maybe an empathy that some of their dumb male colleagues don't have. [But that] respect is not, in any way, shape or form, filtered down and passed on by the [lower-ranked] guys that will work in the same crews as the women. It really is a macho male world."

Cavanaugh was educated at Geelong Grammar and first courted controversy circa 1971 at the famous Timbertop boarding school, when the headmaster called a halt to production of a film he was trying to make about students running away from school to protest against the Vietnam War.

He's not sure if that early brush with censorship inspired him later to push the barriers as a TV scriptwriter, introducing one of the first ongoing Aboriginal characters in a serial he helped create, The Flying Doctors, and raising objections when a drama executive tried to tone down an interracial sex scene; or pushing storylines that conservative network bosses resisted, such as a sympathetic character with AIDS in the early days of HIV.

Cavanaugh's good at goodbyes. He wrote the final scenes for The Flying Doctors and the iconic wartime serial The Sullivans, and later made the film Through My Eyes, starring Miranda Otto as Lindy Chamberlain, after Chamberlain herself approached Cavanaugh, having watched his four-hour mini-series The Day of the Roses, the subject of which was the Granville rail disaster.

Convinced of the Chamberlains' innocence of involvement in the death of their infant Azaria, Cavanaugh remained friends with Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton.

"There was a lot of wickedness, there's no question. Going back to your comment about misogyny and sexism: that is one of the great sexist stories of Australia - Lindy Chamberlain." 

Read the original article, first published 27 May 2012

Rachael McGuirk