David Whish-Wilson somehow manages to juggle a demanding day job (as creative writing teacher at Curtin University) with a prolific writing career—excelling at both. He has published six crime fiction novels, the brilliant historical novel The Coves (which he talks about here), and three creative non-fiction titles, including the (recently updated) Perth, a lyrical and idiosyncratic portrait of the capital city of the state we both live in.
David has travelled widely, and I love his author blurb, which tells us he has worked in Europe, Africa and Asia as a barman, actor, street seller, petty criminal, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig. It strikes me that you couldn’t orchestrate a better CV for a crime writer!
Three of David’s crime fiction novels have been published in Germany, and he has been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards and twice for the Ned Kelly Awards—most recently for his last title, True West.
I’m delighted that he’s agreed to talk about his newly released novel, Shore Leave.
Here is the blurb:
It is Fremantle in 1989 and Frank Swann is at home, suffering from an undiagnosed and debilitating illness. When Frank is called in to investigate an incident at a local brothel, it soon appears there is a link between the death of two women and the arrival of the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the port city. Shore Leave is the fourth book in the Frank Swann series and also features Lee Southern, the main character from True West.
Over to David…
2 things that inspired the novel
Shore Leave is the fourth novel in my Frank Swann crime series, although like the other novels it can be read as a standalone. The novel also has a cameo from the protagonist of my most recent novel, Lee Southern of True West (2019), who Frank Swann is training up in the craft of citizen investigations. The novel is set largely in Fremantle during the visit of the USS aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to port, part of the American fleet out patrolling the Indian Ocean at the behest of Presidents Reagan and Bush Snr. It was inspired by a couple of stories I’d heard over the years.
The first was when I was in my late teens, living in Mombasa, Kenya. At that time many of my friends were working prostitutes, whose main clients were the merchant sailors of different nations who berthed there. It was always interesting listening to the women break down the national traits of men from places like Bulgaria, Korea and Australia based upon their behaviour when drunk and in the privacy of the short-time rooms of the hotels that dotted the port. Some of these stories were funny, and others were disturbing, but most disturbing of all was the trepidation many felt when the American navy were due in port. It was a trepidation mixed with excitement, because apart from the Japanese, Americans were considered the most generous of clients. The rumours were strong, however, that on previous occasions when the Americans were in port there had been serious assaults, and alleged murders that were never investigated because of the inference that the money spent was important to the local economy, and because the Americans left as quickly as they’d come. I was present when one such visit occurred, and I remember the fear among my friends that they might be targeted, even though they were used to danger. I remember thinking then that for a certain type of man, being part of a navy that went from port to port, and was defensive about its reputation, would in fact be the perfect cover for a sex offender or even murderer.
A few years later I was working as a bartender in Tokyo, where much of the custom was US sailors and marines. I got to know some of them quite well, and one of them very well when we worked together in a different bar. He told me stories of life on board an aircraft carrier, both the racial politics and the black-market scams, and I took some of the things he told me, together with the atmosphere of fear and anxiety (contrary to my experiences of the navy being in Fremantle when I was younger) I’d witnessed in Mombasa, and worked these aspects into the plot of Shore Leave.
2 places connected with the novel
The two places connected to the novel are the port of Fremantle, and what might be termed, for the purposes of the law, the US territory aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. At the commencement of Shore Leave, Frank Swann is still suffering the ill-effects of his mistreatment and injury incurred toward the conclusion of Old Scores. As a result, he’s trying to live a quiet life, and tends to stick pretty close to his South Fremantle home. He’s put aside his usual source of income, retrieving money for those ripped off in stock-market scams. When the USS Carl Vinson arrives, however, he agrees to do a favour for an old friend, the US navy shore patrol officer whose responsibility it is to find AWOL sailors. A sailor was last seen upstairs at the Seaview Hotel (now the Local Hotel) and across the street at the Ada Rose brothel (which is still in operation.) Looking for this AWOL sailor means Swann spends a fair bit of time around Fremantle, then in the throes of the beginning of the restoration boom sparked by the America’s Cup and its status as a centre of Sannyasin life in WA.
The other place that defines Shore Leave is the sovereign territory aboard the aircraft carrier itself. Like all of my previous Frank Swann novels, Shore Leave proceeds by way of three separate narrative strands that become more and more intertwined as the story develops. One of these three characters is a US Navy midshipman with right-wing sympathies, who has a sideline smuggling black-market weapons ashore. Part of the novel involves exploring his life aboard the ship, which was quite entertaining to write.
2 soundtracks for the novel
If this novel had a soundtrack, it’d be ‘Shore Leave’ by Tom Waits. The song doesn’t relate directly to the narrative, but it does capture some of the strangeness and loneliness of being in a new place, all alone, that I remember from my early travels.
The other song I found myself thinking about when writing Shore Leave was Nina Simone’s version of Kurt Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’. It’s a song I’ve always loved, but its darkness and power were what I thought about while writing.