David Whish-Wilson is well known as the writer of three richly imagined, superbly crafted crime novels that delve into the seedier threads of Perth’s past: Old Scores, Line of Sight and Zero at the Bone. He is also the author of Perth, a lyrical portrait of the city in all its brashness and beauty, corruption and innocence. He has been shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award and WA Premier’s Book Award, and in 2014 won the Patricia Hackett Prize for best contribution to Westerly for a story I remember well as a master class on landscape and character, tension and silence.
To many Perth writers, David is a much valued teacher, mentor and supervisor, as coordinator of the creative writing program at Curtin University. But he has not always been an academic. At the age of eighteen, he left Australia to live in Europe, Africa and Asia, working variously as a barman, actor, street seller, petty criminal, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug-trial guinea pig. Now, that’s what I call research. He returned to Australia a decade later and now lives in Fremantle.
I was intrigued when I heard that David had a new book coming out, and that it wasn’t in the crime fiction genre. Even more so when I read what it was about. (And all those intriguing vintage mugshots that he’d been posting on Facebook a few years ago suddenly made sense.) Here is the blurb for The Coves…
San Francisco, 1849: a place gripped by gold fever, swarming with desperate men come to seek their fortune. Among them are former convicts, Australians quick to seize control in a town without masters, a town for the taking. Into this world steps an Australian boy in search of his mother. Just twelve years old, and all alone in a time of opportunism, loyalty and violent betrayal, Samuel Bellamy must learn to become one of the Sydney Coves if he is to survive.
‘A clever tale of criminal plots, family bonds, and the birth of a new world. Holds like a vice and never lets go. Every turn of the page builds the pressure.’—Rohan Wilson
‘A lyrical coming-of-age tale and an historical crime novel, lit by something fresh, honest and generous.’—Joan London
Over to David…
2 things that inspired the book
Having written three crime novels in a row, I wanted to do something entirely different. I’ve never written from the perspective of a child protagonist, and the idea of opening up the spare Australian vernacular used in my crime novels to the more expansive diction of mid-nineteenth century language seemed like a liberating thing to do. When my then seven year-old son came to me and asked me to write a book about him, I told him that I couldn’t do that. When he then changed tack and suggested that I write a book about a boy ‘like him’, I said that I’d think about it, but the right project wasn’t on the horizon.
It wasn’t long after that I came across mention of the Sydney Ducks—a gang of Australian criminals who ran organised crime in San Francisco from 1849 to 1855, and in some cases beyond. I did a bit of research, and many of them were ex-convicts, some of whom escaped to make their way to California. They were a colourful bunch of characters, but even so the idea didn’t stick. It wasn’t until I did some further reading and visited San Francisco that I realised there was more to the story. Many of the same men and women who populated gold-rush era San Francisco returned to Australia for the 1855 Victorian gold-rush, and then later the Otago gold-rush in New Zealand. Everywhere this chaotic, multicultural and sometimes violent band travelled, they unsettled the existing social order, demanding democratic reform (such as those that followed the Eureka Stockade incident in Australia) that matched the egalitarian and self-reliant ideals practised on the goldfields. It wasn’t until I started looking at the early Australian presence in San Francisco, when roughly one quarter of the city’s population was Australian, as less of a collection of wild men and women and more as a proving ground for some of the social ideas later associated with Australian identity that I was able to commence writing the novel.
2 places connected with the book
The novel moves between various locations in Australia and California, but the most important are the Swan River colony where my protagonist, Samuel Bellamy, was born, and San Francisco. At the time of Samuel’s birth, Perth was a struggling village. After his father’s murder and mother’s transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, Sam is adopted by the local Magistrate, growing up along the banks of the upper Swan River near Guildford. Sam’s memory of living among the Whadjuk Noongar and the sense of mystery described by his early memories of place linger with him and help shape his view of things throughout the novel.
San Francisco in 1849 is a new world for Sam and his Australian peers. Where in Australia the stern realities of British governance were ever-present, in post-revolutionary and newly American California the pace of change outstripped any capacity for the rule of law to moderate the behaviours of the Australian arrivals in particular. As men and women who’d often served prison terms and were used to deprivation and manual labour, they were well suited to life as prospectors but also as criminals in the rapidly growing city. The police force and judiciary were easily bribed, and elections were readily rigged. When local merchants looked like organising (as they eventually did) in a bid to ameliorate the depredations, it was easy enough to wait for a sea-breeze to come in and set a fire that burned the city down, while sparing the Australian quarter. Sam Bellamy arrives in the city to find the Sydney Coves gang is well established but always vulnerable to political change. He learns to work alongside them, although for Sam the city is not just marked by opportunity. It is also marked by the absence of his mother, who he’s travelled there to find. It is her absence that is the thread that leads him to retrieve treasured memories of their early life together on the Swan River. Hers is a spectral presence that imbues the land of his childhood with a symbolic importance and power.
2 favourites elements of the book
The novel opens with a quote from a Hart Crane poem, ‘Cutty Sark’, which to me captures the tenor of the times and characters who populate the story.
Murmurs of Leviathan he spoke,
And rum was Plato in our heads…
I’ve chosen a few images of the period in which The Coves is set. When an English policeman (Isaiah W. Lees, who went on to become chief of police) was placed in charge of ridding the city of its Australian criminals in 1854, he soon realised that exiling them didn’t really work. The Australian criminals would merely leave town and return under a different name. To fix the problem, he instituted the use of daguerreotype images, now known as mugshots, of known criminals to circulate to various merchants. Lees’s use of mugshots is thought to be only the third time this practice was instituted worldwide, following Paris and New York. Sadly, many were lost in the great San Franciscan earthquake of 1906, although I was able to find some early examples in various archives.
This circa 1850s ‘Sydney Duck’ mugshot of a resident of Sydney-town is of Rose Church, who ran a brothel, and was charged on this occasion with drugging a ‘gentleman’ and stealing his wallet. She was born in New Zealand and spoke with an Irish accent. Described in her arrest record as five-foot-two, with bad teeth and a burn on her forehead, Rose later died in San Quentin prison.