By Fiona McGregor

Peter Doyle’s Sydney: Crooks Like Us

There is a conversation about books in Chapter Two of Amaze Your Friends, the third novel in Peter Doyle’s crime triptych starring Billy Glasheen. It’s 1958 and Glasheen, in his mid-thirties, is still getting by on cons, lurks, the occasional robbery and lucky bet. He’s taken a fancy to a bookish girl working adjacent to the Haymarket office where he runs a shonky mail-order business. Sussing her black clothes, he goes to his friend Max Perkal for advice about what beatniks read. Perkal suggests Camus’s The Outsider.

‘What’s that about?’

‘A bloke shoots some Arabs. Doesn’t give a shit.’

‘Oh yeah, like Mickey Spillane?’

‘No, it’s French. Very deep.’

‘… What else?’

‘Oh, I suppose Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre.’

‘What’s that one?’

‘There’s this bloke, everything gives him the shits.’

‘Don’t tell me. It’s French, and very deep …’

Doyle has never tried to woo the black-garbed hipster of OzLit, let alone her straight father, the real authoritary, yet for the past 15 years he has produced a variety of literature indispensable to Australian culture, rooted in our biggest city, Sydney. It ranges from crime fiction through essays and graphic novellas, to City of Shadows and Crooks Like Us, books of police photographs interlocuted by what I think is some of his finest writing.

In these books, probably his best known, Doyle draws on his extensive knowledge of early twentieth-century street life, criminal and popular culture, to conduct an intimate, astute dialogue with New South Wales Police photos taken from 1912–1948. The Bankstown warehouse where these were stored, part of a vast collection, tragically flooded in the late 1980s. Four tonnes of material, including glass plate negatives in their original boxes, were rescued from the warehouse by Historic Houses Trust when it took charge of Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum in the late 1980s. Case files and detective notes were damaged beyond repair, the photographs mostly uninscribed. Places are often deciphered but people are mostly nameless, without cause, mere traces on glass.

Enter Peter Doyle, whose trio of crime novels beginning in World War II had just been completed. The Historic Houses trust hired him to go through the photos with Justice and Police Museum curator Caleb Williams. Doyle read every NSW Police Gazette and supplement from cover to cover, tracking the careers of individual criminals through the decades, and more broadly the changes effected in a particular tranche of society by two world wars and the Great Depression. The Gazettes are in a sense annals of police gossip, records not just of The Law – not so much iron rod as ever-changing undulation – but also of mores and vernacular, all of which Doyle absorbed. Even outside the crime novels, written in period vernacular, his language is animated by idioms of an earlier time that, in the hands others, might sound forced or quaint. He writes in Crooks:

Fahy, unwashed and clad in rags, fully lived the part of the low-life. He hung about with the drifters and roughnecks, and participated in their gang feuds. His skin became ingrained with dirt …

Sifting through the NSW Police photographs over the years, Doyle gradually put names to faces. In Shadows this process was secondary, the engagement with lives and corollary deaths largely anonymous, yet always curious, penetrating, empathetic. The scope of Shadows is broad – streets, living rooms, warehouses, the urban and coastal fringes – and within these places, people, either as bystanders or under the spotlight in mug shots. Shadows becomes a montage of the city we lost to renovations, skyscrapers and arterial roads, its main players the people that history preferred we forget. The scenes are as interesting for their ordinariness as the evidence of disturbance the camera was brought in to record (crashed car, overturned chair, splatter of blood). Williams contributes fine essays that contextualise the place of archives and photography in twentieth-century art, as well as the forensic aesthetic. Doyle is more of a miniaturist, a social historian. The humanity he highlights inducts a relationship with the photographs of an exhilarating and sometimes discomfiting proximity.

Whether they comply, resist, remain aloof or surrender in shame and despair, in photo after photo we see their volatile but stubbornly persistent selfhood powerfully asserted.

We turn the pages, reaching deeper, and such is our identification that by the time we arrive at the photos of cadavers we cannot respond to them without emotion, even on subsequent viewings. (The book, like any good one, rewards repeated perusals.) This is not sentimentality, let alone sensationalism. Common sense prevails. Doyle’s awe of the material serves a comradeship with its subjects, as well as a respect for the creative process. Even the lives he manages to account for do not diminish the overall mystery of the collection, nor the writing its visual paramountcy. ‘These photographs are not just artfully taken, they are also deeply, unmistakably artistic,’ he writes.

It is interesting to see the lives unveiled in Crooks, which includes photos from Shadows, with names now put to faces. Crooks features portraits from the ‘Special Photographs’ series, an elliptical collection of criminals again without file notes, often unrecognised. But between the two books, some sleuthing took place. The publicity surrounding Shadows had brought forth living descendants who joined dots. Doyle told an anecdote at a seminar of being followed down the street near his house in Newtown by a slightly unhinged fellow, unhappy with the inclusion of his male ancestor in this rogues gallery. Doyle explained the motive was not to judge; on the contrary, many of these people were just – to use that great Aussie-ism – having a go. Indeed there is no sense of viewing from on high, any more than from the distance of time. We are right there.

As Doyle gets more personal with his subjects, it is the fiction writer who opens Crooks:

You’re in the cells at Central Police Station. They picked you up last night at eleven o’clock. It’s past lunchtime now and you’ve neither eaten nor slept. You’re to be charged with housebreaking implements in possession. They’re about to take your picture. The photographer arrives. He scarcely looks at you. ‘Stand over there.’ You straighten up a little. ‘Head up. Look this way.’ You can’t help yourself – you smile for the camera.

It is like a voiceover. Cinematic, knowing, playful yet serious. Two pages of these italicised hypotheticals, separated by little drawings of Cluedo-like totems – dagger, clock, card, eight ball – conjure entire lives for these people. One of the noteworthy aspects of their demeanour is an abandon, to anything from brio to despair, that belies the defensive formality one normally associates with police mugshots. More than hairstyle, clothing, or glimpses of the rooms in which they pose, it is this that marks the era. Camera-consciousness notwithstanding, there is no sense of rehearsal, something that decades of telemedia has bred in us since. But this does not fully account for the lack of convention of the series.

The informality of the poses, the soft tonal qualities, the generous framing and, above all, the sense of human complexity in these portraits mark them out as dramatically unlike any other known standard police portraiture. Indeed the Special Photographs seem to be almost collaborative artefacts, the sitter and photographer equally involved in the outcome.

It sometimes seems that the man with the camera had a relationship with the detainees that side-stepped the police. Relax, he might have said, out of earshot, I’m not one of those mug coppers: I just want to get a good photo. He couldn’t allay the resistance or hostility of all, but the directness is striking. This could be explained by hoodlum guile, the naivety of a first arrest, or a legal or illegal confidence booster still running in the blood. It is worth noting that at bigger than A4, many of the negatives have an unnerving clarity, the hairs on a man’s wrist visible deep into the cuffs. But it is also the prose, which takes the collusion further, replicating and side-stepping the camera’s lateral and generous gaze.

Doyle’s work harnesses much twentieth-century Americana, most esoterically Echo and Reverb, a scholarly publication drawn from a musicology thesis querying the use of reverb and echo in popular music recording from 1900-1960. His crime fiction comes from the other side of his brain, the soundtrack running through it extending to the advent of rock’n’roll in the late 1950s. A musician himself, most notably of guitar (including ukele and slide), Doyle is in his element.

… then Del and Dot sang. They were a big surprise to the bodgie crowd. They sang a hillbilly harmony, but with a boogie-woogie beat. They sang ‘Pistol Packin Mama’, and ‘It wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels’, then finished with ‘Shotgun Boogie’. When they finished there was half a minute of whistling and foot-stomping, along with shouts of ‘get your gear off!’

The Lee Gordon tour of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane and Little Richard, is central to Get Rich Quick. Glasheen ends up working as Gordon’s runner, chauffeur, and provider of illicit substances. Doyle’s descriptions of the concerts are exhilarating, hilarious: harbingers of the rock’n’roll excess that was just about to sweep the world.

Billy Glasheen starts off in The Devil’s Jump as a beer-drinking non-smoker who promised his father he wouldn’t touch spirits. By the end of the novel, he is smoking and drinking, and Get Rick Quick sees the addition of reefer and benzedrines. By Amaze Your Friends, Billy falls into daily patronage of the opium den near his Haymarket office, the upshot of which is the sweats and aches. His alcohol consumption is up there with the best of the hard-boiled. Eating occurs every few days, as often as vomiting. The action-driven narratives follow their hero in his speed-fuelled rounds, chasing scams and being chased, cataloguing pubs, sly grog dens, and landmarks long gone. Martin Place is a grimy thoroughfare. There is still a Court House Hotel, but the licensing restrictions delay its opening till 10am, and the Bourke Street cafe where Billy meets a shady government agent is no barista kingdom.

The books are veritable guides to mid-century urban Australia’s underground and popular culture. They show what was excised from the media by the zealous censors of the time; when the musicians push the envelope with lyrical innuendo that now seems so harmless, they risk their entire careers. It’s the lurid tabloid press that gets closet to Glasheen’s world, even if motivated by moral opprobrium. A lot could be happening elsewhere – Sydney is already global – the US has seduced the entire western world.

The writing is terse, fast-paced, not concerned with reflection, yet full of ciphers that reveal social shibboleths, even if the anti-authoritarian position is a little obvious. The government agents are acting for the far right; there are Croatian crypto-Nazi militants and (true to New South Wales), no sooner is one crooked cop defeated than another pops up to take his place. As well as the Lee Gordon touring ensemble, most of the cameos are played by actual people – Johnny O’Keefe (big on attitude and timing, smaller on talent); Paul Keating (aspirational westie whose first lesson is sartorial); Neville Wran (SP Bookie, say no more), and so on. At the turn of last century, feeling the pinch of anti-terrorist legislation and the rhetoric of fear and loathing, we often referred to a 1950s zeitgeist. These novels are a kind of mirror.

Of course, there is more to the mention of Camus than meets the eye. (Even the ethnicity of the victim chimes, a further metaphorical ripple provided by French argot that renders it a pejorative.) Camus was influenced by American crime writers like James Cain. Writers like Horace McCoy were kept in print more assiduously by the French than the Americans for a time. The ennui that French existentialists famously delineated for the highbrow was also the lifeblood of lowbrow American crime writing already. There is nothing new to the erudite hard-boiled, McCoy – not above spicing his blunt sentences with words like ‘laminae’, or mentioning Ezra Pound. Camus’s Outsider is part of the catalogues.

Stuffed to the gills with such catalogues – of places, music, hairstyles, street lingo and fashion – the crime fiction is Doyle kicking up his heels, taking a break from those other brain cells that were writing sentences like:

Although the stated focus of Lacasse’s work is the ‘staging of the voice’ in recorded rock music, he ranges much further afield, touching on the uses made of resonance, echo and reverberation in Paleolithic and Neolithic times (with particular reference to shamanistic practice).

But he would be the first to point out the exigencies of genre writing. The energy of the books, like his scholarly writing, is largely driven by a sheer joy of language and craft.

I think of Luc Sante, Doyle’s US compadre, whose Evidence was surely a prototype for Shadows and Crooks. In his essay ‘The Ruins of New York’, from the collection Kill All Your Darlings, Sante writes incantatorially:

There would be trust fund teenagers who lived in vast lofts and hitchhiking teenagers who slept on floors, club veterans who could remember nights 20 years earlier at Cheetah or Arthur and saucer-eyed hopheads who couldn’t remember the night before, speculators and drag queens, graffiti writers and tourists, runway models and leather fetishists, squatters and rock stars, artists and drunks.

This sort of logorrheoa lends itself to writing about the past or a place slightly different, slightly exotic; to grand social portraits, the teaming urban world. You can see it beyond books, in verse and songs too (for instance, in Dylan’s early speed-fuelled albums). There are many who employ it to their peril; while they sup in the canteen, Doyle is in the first car smoking cigarillos with Sante.

Even then, too much knowledge, like too much technique, can be a smokescreen. There’s a masterly essay by Doyle in a 1999 UTS Review. ‘Three Way Stretch: the Business of Crime Fiction’ posits the view that crime fiction, far from being a binary of good and evil, is determined by a ternal structure of the law, desire, and illicit enterprise. This metaphoric chord allows for variations as endless as those found in music. It’s a brilliant theory; scotching simplistic notions of character, motivation and consequence in a way that the best writing of any sort does anyway. Inadvertently, the essay articulates the overtly masculine tradition Doyle works in. Sometimes I long for a female voice to cut some influence: acerbic, penetrating, watchful, interior. A longer and quieter psychological dwelling. (Which is not to say his female characters are weak.) They are self-propelled, tough individuals, many engaging in the sort of liminal prostitution common when women have limited job options. But there isn’t a smidgen of prurience or condescension. Doyle is a true socialist.

I think Doyle’s best work may be yet to come. He is a monument of knowledge and technique, the musicianship a boon to his writing, as lateral as it is central. He has already proved himself an indispensable cultural custodian. He did not begin writing seriously till his late thirties. His rock’n’roll life, replete with the highs and lows of his fiction, albeit of the purer variety characteristic of later decades, has given him an educational advantage in an academic and literary echelon groomed by private schools, temperate habits and tenure.

Doyle has an ambivalent relationship with contemporary Australian culture. I think he has been more comfortable excavating the past. He could continue digging up gems – god knows our untold stories crunch underfoot – but I wonder sometimes what he would have to say in response to the here and now? Enough of these categories – crime fiction, true crime. Perhaps when we have a stronger sense of the centrality of the urban to our culture, of our city myths and legends, he will be embraced for what he is: a true writer.


Get Rich Quick (Reed, 1996; reissued by Verse Chorus Press, 2012)

Amaze Your Friends (Random House, 1998; reissued by Verse Chorus Press, 2012)

Devil’s Jump (Random House, 2001; reissued by Verse Chorus Press, 2012)

Echo and Reverb (Wesleyan University Press, 2005)

City of Shadows (Historic Houses Trust, 2005)

Crooks Like Us (Historic Houses Trust, 2009)

Portrait of Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor

She writes novels, essays, articles and reviews, and has published 5 books. Her latest is the bestselling novel Indelible Ink published by Scribe in June 2010. Her travel memoir Strange Museums was published to critical acclaim in 2008. All her previous books - two novels and a book of short stories - won or were shortlisted for prizes, including the Steele Rudd Award for best book of short stories in Australia. Current works-in-progress are an essay and a novel.

Further reading

ABC TV Lateline interviews Peter Doyle about City of Crooks.

Watch Peter Doyle talk about crime writing.

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