Tony Cavanaugh's crime debut is set in a sunny town with shady people - Phil Brown, The Australian
IT began after an alcohol-fuelled night of madness. Tony Cavanaugh's personal and professional life was in disarray so he took his frustrations out on his mother-in-law's car, bashing it through rugged bush tracks on Noosa's north shore, the untamed wilds across the river from the boutique resort town of Noosa Heads on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.
"In the end I hammered this car off the road after a night of heavy drinking and ended up in the back of a paddy wagon," Cavanaugh says. "I don't drink like that any more but I got done and should have got done. It was really embarrassing and I found myself sitting in the Noosa police station getting my blood-alcohol tested."
He was barely cognisant of it at the time, but the episode was a turning point and sowed seeds that would eventually grow and bear strange fruit: his dark, confronting debut novel, Promise, a taut crime-thriller about a serial killer at large in paradise with a world-weary cop by the name of Darian Richards in pursuit.
With Promise just released, his publisher, Hachette Australia, is touting Cavanaugh, 55, as the next big thing in Australian crime fiction and his protagonist, Darian Richards, is being described as "one of the most complex and uncompromising heroes since Harry Bosch". It's a daunting comparison. Bosch's creator, Michael Connelly, has written 17 thrillers featuring the LAPD detective, has featured strongly on bestselling lists, won a stackful of awards, been translated into nearly 40 languages and sold more than 40 million copies of his more than 20 titles.
But if a publisher can find the next Connelly - or Stieg Larsson or Lee Child or Jo Nesbo - the rewards are great. Astonishingly, the genre accounts for 29 per cent of Australia's fiction market and last year brought in $84 million. (Coincidently, $84m is the amount thriller bigwig James Patterson earned between May 2010 and April last year, according to Forbes magazine. He is one of the world's highest paid authors.)
With 22 per cent of the Australian crime fiction market, Hachette is always on the lookout for new talent. Publisher Vanessa Radnidge was excited when she first read Cavanaugh's manuscript. "It is one of the most chilling, well written and memorable novels I've read in a long time," Radnidge says. "I feel really lucky when I discover new storytellers - that's my job, that's what I'm looking for - and the thing about Tony's manuscript was that it was so accomplished. It's his first novel but he's been writing strong character stories for a long time and that shows."
Cavanaugh, who has had a long and successful career in television and film screenwriting and production, joins an illustrious crime fiction publishing list at Hachette including some big names: Harlan Coben, Ian Rankin, Martina Cole, Tami Hoag and Lisa Gardner. He is chuffed to be in such good company and pleased Hachette has such confidence in him, but he isn't getting too excited just yet.
"I mean, I'm honoured, really, that people have responded to the book and are being so positive about it," he says. "That said, it really depends on what happens when it actually hits the bookstores. I've been a film and television producer for a long time and I know it will come down to how the punters respond. So I'm not getting ahead of myself."
Like Harry Bosch, Darian Richards knows a little of what it's like to go to hell and back. The character had probably been lurking in Cavanaugh's psyche for years and is, to a degree, an amalgam of the many cops he has met during his decades of writing and producing for film and TV.
But there was no catalyst to bring that amalgam to life, at least not before that night of shame in Noosa. While the beautiful people were sipping their morning lattes on Noosa's famous main drag, fashionable Hastings Street, Cavanaugh sat, mortified, watching an overweight local policeman struggle with the technology that would soon confirm his guilt.
"The machine wasn't quite working so he was fiddling with it and I was looking at him and wondering about him, so I asked: 'Are you from Noosa? Did you grow up here?'
"He said no, he had moved up here from Melbourne, loved the cruisey Queensland lifestyle, and I could imagine this guy getting up each morning going to the beach, then going to work, nice and relaxed. My very next thought was: I wonder what he would do if there was a really nasty serial killer operating here?"
That idea stayed with Cavanaugh as his marriage to fellow filmmaker and business partner Simone North unravelled towards the end of 2010. They had just made a film about a shocking crime, I Am You, or In Her Skin as it's called in the US. It is a true crime story about Melbourne girl Rachel Barber who was abducted and killed at age 15, murdered by her former baby-sitter, Caroline Reid, a self-loathing depressive who was 19 at the time.
I Am You had a screening at the Brisbane International Film Festival in 2010 but difficulties had begun to dog the film as soon as it was finished and complex legal tangles have kept it off the screen in Australia. In the US it was recut so that it "in no way resembles the film we made", according to Cavanaugh. The pressure on Liberty Films and on Cavanaugh and North's working relationship was intense and ultimately affected their marriage.
Written and directed by North, with Cavanaugh as producer, it stars Miranda Otto, Guy Pearce and Sam Neill with Kate Bell as Rachel and Irish actor Ruth Bradley as Reid. The star power may be considerable and the film is gruesome but compelling (I was present at a media screening in Brisbane), but God knows when the public will see it. Cavanaugh, who is no longer associated with Liberty Films, the company he co-founded with North, is trying to forget about it and, possibly, the entire business of filmmaking. Unless, perhaps, someone wants to buy the rights to Promise.
"I may be done with it but I'm just not sure," he says when we meet on a humid afternoon in Brisbane's boho heartland, the inner-city suburb of West End. At an alfresco table at Avid Reader Bookshop, Cavanaugh is distracted momentarily by a subtropical downpour. "That's a little noirish," he says as the rain drums down.
He has travelled up from the Gold Coast where he's now living with his new partner Rachael McGuirk, whom he met after the breakdown of his marriage.
Cavanaugh and North and their three children lived in Brisbane for many years before moving to Eumundi in 2009, something of a hippie haven in Noosa's hinterland. After his drink-driving charge and his split with North he moved to the Gold Coast, where he already had a gig lecturing part-time in screenwriting at Griffith University's fast-expanding Tinsel-town campus.
"When I first went down there to live I was on my own in this funny little apartment complex called the Mango Cove Resort," Cavanaugh says. "I had started writing about the experience in Noosa. What fascinated me was that there were all these people up there, like that cop, who came from elsewhere to retire. But many find they can't, and they go back to doing what they did before or find something else to do because they can't bear retirement.
"F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in life, but actually there are a plenty of second acts.
"My character, Darian Richards, is a homicide cop who goes to Noosaville, the riverside village behind Noosa Heads, to retire and forget, but he gets involved again because he can't help himself. I started writing his story down, in longhand at first, working on it on the train on my way to work on the Gold Coast. I lost my licence and had to catch public transport and it took me half a day to get to and from work, so I started writing and it soon became a roller-coaster. So I ploughed into it then and I was soon getting up at three in the morning to write."
Visions of substance-induced writing sessions - a la Simenon or Balzac, who drank 50 cups of coffee a day - come to mind but Cavanaugh dismisses my reverie of bohemian excess. The guy is no Hunter S. Thompson either. "I drank a lot of orange pekoe tea. And ate a lot of chocolate. That got me through. I just pumped it out then and eventually I had a novel." In a way it's a book he had been preparing to write his whole life.
Cavanaugh lived in the small town of Ararat in Victoria's Western District as a boy and had a mostly happy, bucolic childhood there. However, on family outings he noticed the grim names that had been given to local landmarks and wondered: "What would it be like to grow up surrounded by places with such depressing names?"
Early on in Promise, Cavanaugh draws on these long-ago memories. "My name is Darian Richards," says his protagonist. "I grew up on a sheep farm, beneath a mountain called Disappointment in the soft valleys of the Western District. Every night I would lie in bed and stare out at the next mountain: It was called Misery. In the mornings I'd go outside and stare at a third mountain: it was called Despair."
Cavanaugh was steeped in crime fiction as a boy. "My father used to read me Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett," he says. "I grew up with their world in my consciousness." His long and successful career in TV started in Melbourne in the 1970s with a job as an unpaid dogsbody doing menial tasks on the set of Matlock Police. His father had met legendary producer Hector Crawford and got him to promise the lad a school holiday job. He was 15.
"The first episode I worked on was called Death Takes a Holiday," Cavanaugh says. "It was a story about a bunch of cattle duffers who the cops were chasing across the mountains and they tracked them by following the cow shit. I arrived on the set and was given a shovel and told to go and pick up the dry cow manure from the paddocks there and lay it down for the next shot so the coppers could come along and follow it. So my first job in television was, literally, shovelling shit."
He graduated to a variety of other menial tasks including as driver on Division 4 and on one occasion he had to ferry stars Terence Donovan and Gerard Kennedy to the set, near Geelong. "I was so nervous I drove the whole route the day before so I wouldn't stuff it up," he recalls. "It was all 'Mr Donovan' and 'Mr Kennedy'. Strict protocols were observed."
He went to La Trobe University after school and "partied myself to great failure". He later attended Flinders University in Adelaide where he studied English literature, art history, visual communication and film-drama, graduating in the late 70s with a BA. He continued to work in TV and did stints on other cop shows, Special Squad and The Feds.
It was in the early 80s while working as an assistant cameraman-focus puller on The Sullivans that he decided he was more interested in writing and, ultimately, directing, than the technical aspects of the business.
"I got this life-defining phone call and was invited to go to Yugoslavia to work on Aviator, a George Miller-directed film starring Christopher Reeve," Cavanaugh says. "They wanted me to be the focus puller. I said, 'Of course', but when I put the phone down I thought, 'No, if I do that I'll end up being a cinematographer', and so I turned that job down.
"I went in the next day and resigned from the film crew and said I wanted to train as a script editor. Then I got a job as a trainee script editor."
He worked as a story editor on The Flying Doctors and honed his craft on other series. He co-wrote and produced the critically acclaimed 1990 film Father starring the great Max von Sydow, a project of which Cavanaugh is immensely proud (even though von Sydow wanted to dispense with large tracts of his script and replace Cavanaugh's dialogue with a deep and meaningful silence).
About that time Cavanaugh met North and they became involved in 1990 when both were working at Crawford Productions. The couple set up their own company, Liberty Films, and started working on bringing their first series, Fire, to the screen. It starred, among others, Peter Phelps, Georgie Parker and Deborra-Lee Furness. Indeed, Liberty attracted some of Australia's top actors to Brisbane for their projects: Rebecca Gibney, Andrew McFarlane, Peter O'Brien and Otto, who worked beside a plethora of local actors who, for once, didn't have to go south to get on TV.
Fire screened on the Seven Network in 1995. It was meant to be shot in Melbourne. "I'd done all the research in Carlton and we intended to make a gritty, grainy crime show like Phoenix or Janus," Cavanaugh says. "But when we sold the show, the Seven Network said they wanted the setting to be what they called 'a benign city', because apparently Sydney audiences had some resistance to Melbourne and vice versa.
"They asked us to have a look at Brisbane and we came up here and fell in love with the place. The show was very much Brisbane and it didn't pretend to be anywhere else, but of course the one city where they didn't watch Fire was Brisbane."
The program was about the hunt for an arsonist who was torching abandoned warehouses and factories in and around Brisbane. It oozed humidity and subtropical atmosphere. Liberty Films settled into Brisbane and produced a decade of acclaimed TV based in the Queensland capital including Medivac (a sort of Australian ER), Day of the Roses (the story of the Granville train disaster that won a Logie award and several AFI awards) and Through My Eyes, a miniseries about the Azaria Chamberlain case that starred Otto as Lindy Chamberlain.
For Through My Eyes the suburbs of Brisbane featured as Northern Territory locations with some shooting done at Uluru, with permission from traditional owners. Visiting the NT, Cavanaugh grilled local police about the case. "They are another breed altogether," he says.
During the past few decades he has spent, rather fortuitously, a lot of time talking to cops. "I've got a lot of respect for them, particularly homicide cops, because they have to deal with some pretty heavy stuff," he says. His bank of knowledge about procedure and the psychology of crime fighting is considerable and has set him up well for his new career as an author. Harry Bosch's creator Connelly learned his craft covering crime for a newspaper while Cavanaugh has done his slowly and meticulously to inform his filmmaking.
A regular collaborator was The Australian's crime fiction reviewer and national television critic Graeme Blundell, who is also in I Am You, albeit fleetingly.
"Unfortunately Graeme's scenes were mostly cut except for an appearance in a funeral at the end," Cavanaugh says. "The people who have seen it probably think, 'What the hell, I didn't know Graeme Blundell was in this!' "
Blundell was sent some early chapters of the book without Cavanaugh's knowledge. "I saw an early draft quite out of the blue," Blundell says. "I wasn't told who had written it but after 16 pages I thought I knew. Maybe it was the Noosa setting that gave it away because I knew Tony had lived up there. I don't know of any other Noosa crime novel and I love the sense of place in the book. I think it's one of the reasons we read crime fiction, why we love the Scandinavians so much, or Peter Corris for his version of Sydney or Carl Hiaasen's Florida."
Blundell's recommendation adorns the front cover of Cavanaugh's book: "Chilling and memorable: top-notch Aussie noir definitely not for the faint-hearted". He claims Cavanaugh is "as good as Harlen Coben" in some ways and is excited by his friend's debut, "the best since Michael Robotham".
But do we need more Australian crime fiction?
Cathy Cole, professor of creative writing and the University of Wollongong's deputy dean of the faculty of creative arts, says emphatically that we do, and a new voice is always welcome. Cole, author of Private Dicks and Feisty Chicks, "an interrogation of crime writing", hasn't read Cavanaugh yet but likes the sound of his book and the idea of a novel set in a tourist haven such as Noosa.
She agrees with Blundell on the importance of place in crime fiction. "The best crime authors make the sense of place one of the characters," Cole says. "Ian Rankin did that with Edinburgh. I just read a book set in Mississippi that evoked the place so powerfully with all its small-town intrigue and racism. The sense of place is important but the moral and ethical dilemmas are equally so and that also attracts readers in this day and age."
The moral dimensions are important to Cavanaugh, too. Darian Richards is, after all, a very moral man trying to escape the nightmarish world of his past life as a homicide cop in Melbourne. "He is burned out and can't handle the nightmares any more but he's always going to be pulled back in," Cavanaugh says. "He's a character destined to live alone, to be hurt. He has this warrior-knight consciousness, this burden of righteousness. He has to go out and do right." So instead of hanging up his gun he dusts it off and sets himself the task of catching a serial killer who is murdering young girls in the Noosa environs.
As well as giving us an insight into the mind of his protagonist, Cavanaugh explores the inner life of the killer. Passages in the killer's voice increase the sense of dread as the story unfolds. Cavanaugh shudders as he recalls channelling his monster.
"It was freaky," he recalls. "I wrote those passages in the third person to start with but my editor said it needed to be first person. I was already in a dark place but that took me to an even darker place. Writing that stuff was very difficult but, like an actor, I had to inhabit the character. I literally had to go and take a shower after each session."
With a two-book deal, Cavanaugh is well advanced on his follow-up to Promise, a novel tentatively titled Dead Girl Sing. It's no surprise to hear it is set on the Gold Coast.
There's also the publicity process for Promise to get through, putting Cavanaugh in a situation that's not exactly unfamiliar, but is slightly confronting.
"It feels weird because usually I'm out there talking about Miranda Otto or Peter O'Brien or Rebecca Gibney and saying how great they are," Cavanaugh says. "Now there's no group of people beside me and I can't say: 'Look at them.' "
Promise, published by Hachette Australia, is out now.
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