How I Came to write A Pack of Bloody Animals

What are the most important crime-and-punishment issues modern Australia has experienced?

In 2001 I was a guest at the launch of a book on thoroughbred racing by Robin Levett in Macquarie Street Sydney. Another guest, consultant to a publishing company, told me about a heap of documents he’d obtained, documents which provided background to a much publicized crime of the day. ‘I was born to write that book,’ I said. Thus, I started writing true-crime books. Later, I undertook the big one, a dictionary of Australian crime and punishment since earliest times A to Z. This involved reading literally hundreds of true-crime books. The project was eventually abandoned after three years’ work:  internet sources, not worth a damn when I started, had grown hundredfold; the crime-interested reader had changed her habits; and reference book publishing had died.

The big reference book gone, living with my broken heart, I was in search of a subject. I asked myself, ‘What are the most important crime-and-punishment issues modern Australia has experienced?’ Queensland’s close brush with one-party rule was the stand-out of the 1970s and 1980s. But royal commissioner Tony Fitzgerald, journalists Phil (Road to Fitzgerald) Dickie and Evan (Hillbilly Dictator) Whitton, screenwriter Ian (Joh’s Jury) David and others had plowed that ground. Besides, I was not there then, and I could not add a frangipani.

The 1990s did not seem to have a stand-out at first. I now feel the reason for my initial blindness was because I was the width of a Richmond City Council ballot paper away from it, living in Richmond until 1993. After that, living in Sydney, I found a mention of Victoria’s police to a Sydneysider would surely see black humor about police shooting people follow. Australians know next to nothing about police over their own state borders and they don’t seem to want to. Victorians in the 1980s would often dismiss the NSW police as ‘all on the take’. NSW folk often thought their police were doing that too, but they thought Victoria’s police were worse, because of the perception of violent death surrounding them.

Back in April 1987 I’d read an obit piece on the front page of the Age. Dennis (Mr Death) Allen had died, and reporter Tom Noble had provided an amazing account of the animal. I published biographies, so I arranged to meet with Tom to talk about a possible biography. The result was the book Untold Violence. It covered the crazy careers of Dennis, his brother Peter, and another criminal, and gave accounts of Melbourne’s crime ‘businesses’ – flesh trade, cocaine, and vehicle theft for example. We went on to issue Walsh Street and Neddy Smith’s autobiography together, but in the immediate aftermath of publication, Untold Violence seemed to be the end of the line, a commercial fizzer. Bookshops had not re-ordered many in the all-important month after publication. More months passed. The book sold steadily on and on – for 20 years, in one form or another. The sub-title – Crime in Melbourne Today – became more and more irrelevant, but the contents were, and remained, riveting reading. Word of mouth recommendation takes its own time, and Untold Violence and Walsh Street have withstood time’s test.

Despite publishing Walsh Street, Tom’s account of the investigation of the murders of Constables Damian Eyre and Steven Tynan, and reading in Melbourne dailies of accusations, debate and concern over police shootings in the 1990s, I did not see these events as Australia’s Number 1 crime-and-punishment issue of the decade, after Fitzgerald closed his State-changing inquiry.

(I was living in Sydney in 1995 when John Silvester, Andrew Rule and Owen Davies published The Silent War, so, due to the parochial true-crime coverage of metro dailies, I missed then, the book sub-titled Behind the police killings that shook Australia. It detailed seven police shootings in Victoria. Between 1984 and 1994, Victoria Police shot and killed 29 people, more than the police who served the other 64 percent of Australians. These writers called it a ‘war’. Now out of print, it is worth a hunt if you are a hunter type.)

When I met Ray Mooney in 2009, over another matter, we got talking. I had read his novel based on Christopher Flannery’s life, A Green Light, but hadn’t known he’d written a play on the Walsh Street events, The Truth Game. He thought Walsh Street was the key crime of his time.

‘What about Russell, Hoddle, Queen Streets…?’ I stuck to Victorian examples, but contenders included Milat, Mosman Grannies, Milperra and that was just part of M in the big dictionary. And, since Walsh Street, two other Victorian policemen, Rodney Miller and Gary Silk, were shot by men intent on avoiding apprehension; not a random execution like Damian Eyre and Steven Tynan’s deaths, the thing that made Walsh Street such an ugly crime, but ugly nonetheless. Ray felt the Port Arthur Massacre was the only other contender when it came to crimes that changed Australia.

There was a veritable treasure trove of old documents, tapes, cuttings and exercise books that had survived raids by wombats. (Wombats will have a go at plastics and papers: fact.)  

I found there was a general consensus that the police caught the men who, in revenge or hate or both, did the Walsh Street killings but the men got off at trial because a woman pulled her testimony, so it was all Wendy’s fault. This is a half-truth, narrow slices of legal progress. It is without context: how busy the coroner was then; ignores the change of government; and was devoid of anything that went down in the days and years before it, or since. The lesson from Walsh Street is not that the trial failed. The lesson is that war on the streets does not work. While this lesson was learned by police in Victoria and interstate, by their high commands at least, politicians ignored it. The politicians went right on promising to be tougher than King Gees on crims, talking crackdowns, tough new laws, longer sentences… spending money like tomorrow would never come, and achieving nothing.

The finest leadership moment in the Victorian police shooting mess came in 1994. Such deaths had hit one every six weeks, but police command kept their heads and their integrity. They frankly admitted they did know how it came to be that the state’s police shot far more people than other law enforcement agencies, or how to fix it, and they set out to find out.

This is how I became convinced Victoria’s crime and punishment imbroglio in the late 1980s and 1990s needed revisiting. That conviction led to two years’ work, work long preceding the decision of the state attorney-general and cabinet to repeal the double-jeopardy rule in 2011, when A Pack of Bloody Animals was cut from the larger work.