It started as a challenge, the unforeseen outcome of an absurd conversation
at a writers’ festival in Western Australia. There was the usual panel on stage,
and an audience made up of the sort of people who frequent crime
panels—predominantly women with a sprinkling of men, highly educated, highly
literate, and highly imaginative. They were a group bound together by a
fascination with the gory details of behaviours in which they themselves would
never engage. These people would never commit murder, not in their wildest
dreams. Nor would they mix with people who did such things, no matter how fascinating
they might find their company on the page. But they loved to read about murder,
about the sudden, violent termination of human life, and of how it was done.
The panel was discussing realism in crime fiction. Two practitioners of the
art, writers of well-received Policières, had been pitted against the
literary critic of a local paper. The critic, who read very little of such
fiction expressed the view that there was a surfeit of realistic gore in the
"Look at the average crime novel these days," he pointed out, stabbing at the
air with an accusing finger. "Look at the body count. Look at the compulsory
autopsy scenes. Some actually start with the autopsy, would you believe it! The
autopsy room, so familiar, so comforting! Organs are extracted and weighed,
wounds examined for angle-of-entry, and it’s all so . . . well, it’s all so
graphic." He paused. From the audience came a brief outbreak of laughter. It
could not be graphic enough for them.
The critic warmed to his theme. "But there are crimes other than murder,
aren’t there? There’s fraud and theft and extortion. There’s tax evasion, for
heaven’s sake! And yet all we read about in books of this genre is murder.
Murder, murder, murder." He paused, then looked accusingly at the two authors
beside him. "Why not write about more mundane offences? Why not write about
things that actually happen? Murder’s very rare, you know. Not that one would
think so to read your books."
One of the authors grinned at the audience. "Weak stomach," he said,
gesturing to the critic. "Can’t take it."
The audience laughed. They had
no difficulty taking it.
"Seriously, though," said the critic. "How about it? How about a realistic
crime novel dealing with something day-to-day, some commonplace low-level
"Such as?" asked one of the authors.
The critic waved a hand in the air. "Oh, anything," he said lightly. "Parking
violations, perhaps. Those happen all the time.
Everybody joined in the laughter, even the critic. "Go on," he said to the
authors. "Why don’t one of you people do something like that? Give up murder.
Get real. Start a new genre."
One of the authors, George Harris, a successful crime writer from Perth,
stared at him. He had been laughing, but now he looked thoughtful.
George shared a small bungalow with his girlfriend, Frizzie, who ran a
tie-and-dye tee-shirt store in Fremantle. They had lived together for five years
now, in a narrow house near Cottesloe Beach. George liked to surf and Cottesloe
was a good place for it,
as the Indian Ocean broke directly on the broad expanse of sand there, hindered
only by the tiny sliver of Rocknest Island.
Whenever he went surfing nowadays, thoughts of what might be in the water
beneath him were always on his mind, nagging fears, repressed but still there,
somewhere below the surface. Eight months earlier somebody whom he knew,
although only vaguely, had been taken by a great white within a stone’s throw of
the edge of the beach. The incident had brought home to him the fact that
surfing in Australia had its perils—one was in their habitat, after all—and it
had also given him an idea for his next book. The plot would involve rivalry
amongst surfers—something having to do with a lover or a motorbike—which would
lead to one surfer planning to dispose of another. And what better way to do so
than to fake a shark attack? The killing strike would be administered from below
the waves by a large knife which the murderer had specially made in his garage.
The knife would have a number of serrations along the edge, each carefully honed
to the shape of a shark’s tooth, in order to leave just the right wounds for the
coroner to come to the inevitable conclusion—death by shark attack. It would be
carried out at a time when nobody else was about and certainly nobody would see
the diver down below, with his knife glinting in the water like a silver fish.
It was a good plot, even if it would not make comfortable reading for surfers,
or comfortable writing, for that matter, for a crime novelist who also happened
to be a surfer.
He had barely started this new novel, this surfing story, and was tempted to
give it up. He had once before persisted with a book his heart was not in, and
he had wasted eight months in the gestation of something that did not work and
that had to be abandoned. Determined not to make the same mistake again, he had
been open to new ideas when the critic at the panel had made his comments. The
suggestion that a crime novel should concern itself with something as minor as
illegal parking had been made in jest, of course, but when one thought about it,
why not? It was such an outrageously silly idea that it could well end up making
its mark in a genre of fiction that was becoming increasingly crowded. It was
different, and people wanted something different. There were so many police
procedurals, all dealing with hard-bitten homicide squads on the mean streets.
Here was something that was at the completely opposite end of the spectrum, and
it would register with people. They needed a smile, and he would give it to
them. It would be gentle, whimsical stuff, devoid of violence and mayhem. He
could set it in Western Australia, on his own doorstep, and it could be full of
As he warmed to the idea, he began to imagine a plot. There would be tension
within the parking department. There would be rivalry as to who managed to give
motorists the most tickets. There would be a budding love affair between two
parking officers which would be frowned upon by the police superintendent. The
lovers would have to meet in secret, at the busy end of the street, perhaps,
where motorists were always parking in the wrong places and getting ticketed.
George smiled at the thought of it. But there was a serious matter to
consider—he would have to get the world of parking officers right. He would have
to go to the traffic department at his local police headquarters and get
permission to tag along for a day or two with one of the officers. He should
have no difficulties
there. The Perth police had always cooperated with him and he, in turn, had
always painted a flattering picture of them. In George’s books, the Perth police
always outsmarted visiting detectives from Sydney or Melbourne. They liked that.
He told his Frizzie about his new plot. She was the only person who he
discussed his stories with before they were published. She was a surfer, like
him, and they would sometimes lie on their boards, out beyond the waves, talking
about the ins and outs of whatever book he was working on at the time. It was a
comfortable relationship. As they chatted, the water lapping against their
boards, George hoped that there was nothing down below, listening, so to speak.
The police department arranged for him to go out with a parking officer on a
Friday. Fridays were good days, they explained to him, as farmers often came
into town then and parked illegally.
"They forget that they’re in a city," joked the officer he was with. "They
think they’re still out in the bush and can
park anywhere! We sort
them out for sure!"
George noted the vindictive edge to his remark. Farmers deserved sympathy, he
thought, with their struggles against drought and pests and low agricultural
prices. But he did not say anything; he just filed the comment away for future
use. He looked at the officer. He was a small man with a rather defeated look
about him. Obviously parking duty was not for the high flier. High fliers went
to homicide, he imagined.
They spent the morning going up and down a busy shopping street. The officer
took note of several violations, explaining each of them to him in great detail.
"This driver is a serious offender," the officer said, pointing to a battered
Holden. "Tax disc is out-of-date. He hasn’t even bothered to put money in the
machine, and . . ." The ‘and’ was stressed, as the final word in a litany of
sins might be given extra weight. "And he’s way over the line. Look at
that! Creating a hazard for other drivers. Shameless!"
"What are you going to do?" asked George, staring at the offending car. It
was a homely vehicle, much-loved, he suspected. On the back seat was a child’s
toy, a teddy bear.
"I’m going to book him for the lot," said the officer, taking out his
notebook and beginning to write down the list of violations.
After the officer finished his paperwork, they moved off, on foot, down a
side street. It was a narrow access lane with prominently displayed signs
stating that parking was forbidden. Yet there was a car parked halfway down the
"Look at that," said the officer. "Blatant. And they’re sitting in the
vehicle too. Bold as brass."
The two men in the car, deep in what appeared to be a heated conversation,
had not seen them and started in surprise when the officer tapped smartly on the
half-lowered window on the driver’s side.
"Do you realise that you’re illegally parked, sir?" said the officer firmly.
"Would you show me your driver’s license, please."
The driver opened his mouth to say something, but
no sound came out. He
"Come on, sir," said the officer. "Don’t hold me up."
Things happened rather quickly after that. The driver reached forward,
started the engine, and thrust the car into gear. Then, with a roar, he pulled
away. George reeled back in surprise, while the officer fumbled for his radio.
It was then that they saw the body under the car, lying with arms stretched
out, an ugly red-black stain on the front of the shirt. It was the sort of body
which crime writers like to describe in graphic detail. Eyes open but unseeing.
Fingers clenched. Hair tousled. Feet at an odd angle. And so on.
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