Why We Love True Crime

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It’s a warm summer’s evening and Mick Gatto is sitting with friends outside a Lygon Street restaurant. A young woman nervously walks towards him, a copy of I, Mick Gatto in hand.

Gatto sees the woman and smiles. For the umpteenth time since his autobiography was published in October, he asks for a name and politely pens a personal inscription. The woman thanks him and disappears into the night, trophy in hand.

“The public interest in my story is unbelievable,” says Gatto. “The Underbelly series started it all going, but the book has capped it off. I’m recognised wherever I go: I can’t go down to Lygon Street for a coffee without being asked for autographs or photos. I don’t mind doing it – it’s water off a duck’s back – but it can get embarrassing.”

A decade ago, few people in Melbourne knew who Mick Gatto was. Outside policing and underworld circles, his running of Melbourne’s lucrative illegal gambling clubs (until Crown Casino opened) was known to only a few.

Today, Gatto is a household name, a shift that mirrors Australia’s recent fascination with true crime.
The explosion in true-crime books, documentaries and television series has been dramatic, and comes off the back of Melbourne’s gangland wars, which became almost a carnival sideshow due to the blanket media coverage.

And the fascination is far from over. Within three hours of the death of killer and drug dealer Carl Williams in April, the Herald Sun set up a live online blog. The following day’s paper had 14 pages devoted to Williams’ life and times. Television ran current affairs “specials” that night. And on the day of his death, “Carl Williams” was the eighth-most-talked about thing on Twitter (globally).

Meanwhile, the fourth series of Underbelly is being developed, Melbourne criminal Chopper Read is set to star in a film that begins shooting in July, and Channel Seven is developing a drama series based on the 1988 Walsh Street murders.

Supreme Court Justice Betty King, who presided over many of Melbourne’s gangland war trials, recently bemoaned the attention given to those involved.

“(Carl Williams’ wife) Roberta Williams has done nothing except be married to a criminal. Mick Gatto has become a celebrity for killing someone and being acquitted on the grounds of self-defence,” Justice King reportedly said. “How does that make someone a celebrity?”

Gatto agrees, to an extent. “I didn’t choose to become a ‘celebrity’,” he says. “I wrote my book after Underbelly came out because I was told someone was going to produce a TV show on my life, and probably make it up from police files and newspaper clippings. I wanted to make sure I got my side of the story across and had some control over what happened.

“I’d much prefer it if none of this had happened, and I could quietly do my own thing and stay under the radar. But I know that’s not going to happen now.”

RIPE FOR THE PICKING

Andrew Fraser is excited. He has been watching the first rushes of a new true-crime television series being filmed in Melbourne in which he is the main character.

“Watching the first rushes the other day was amazing – it was like an out-of-body experience seeing myself on the screen. It’s my former life. I don’t really think my personal story is extraordinary, because I’ve lived it.

“But standing on the outside looking in – and watching what happened come to life again – it really was an exciting and amazing ride.”

In his prime, Andrew Fraser was Melbourne’s most prominent criminal solicitor. His client list included the most infamous of the city’s underworld, as well as high-profile clients such as businessman Alan Bond and footballer Jimmy Krakouer.

But in the late 1990s, Fraser became addicted to cocaine, and it all went wrong, culminating in criminal charges of being knowingly concerned with the importation of a commercial quantity of cocaine. In December 2001, the once high-flying lawyer was sentenced to seven years’ jail.

Fraser’s experiences on both sides of the legal fence were chronicled in Court in the Middle, his best-selling autobiography published in 2007, which is the basis for Killing Time, a 10-part series being produced by FremantleMedia for the cable television network TV1. The show will be screened later this year on cable (and probably picked up for free-to-air broadcast in 2011).

The multimillion-dollar series is one of several true-crime series under development in the wake
of the massive ratings success of the first Underbelly series in 2008.

Killing Time’s producer John Wild said Underbelly created a template for commercially successful true-crime drama and Fraser’s story was rich and engaging – and “ripe for the picking”.

“If something works, you do tend to see that wave of similar stuff come … it’s certainly happening with true-life crime in television at the moment, and as long as it’s done well it will survive,” he says.
“If the story had been put to us five or 10 years ago and this culture of true-life crime wasn’t sweeping the country, we would have thought about it twice. But in this case there was a template for being successful.”

Wild says he was also attracted to the story because a large part takes place in the 1980s. “The 1980s are a bit now like the 1960s were … it was a very interesting decade, one of decadence, wealth and opportunity that was unbelievable … and the criminal milieu in that period is starting to take on iconic stature.

“We are trying to make something with a point of difference – it is seen through a middle-class
lawyer’s eyes in what is a traditional drama and a psychological journey, which is rather confronting and unpalatable on occasions.”

Wild believes the current popularity of true crime is inspired by a curiosity for others’ lives and a love of the anti-hero. ‘There’s a voyeurism about Australian society – they love to look into milieus they are not familiar with, even if it’s confronting.

“At the same time, people find footballers with drug problems or domestic problems as interesting as those who win a Brownlow. And Fraser ticks that anti-hero box in that his psychology allowed him to do things other lawyers wouldn’t.”

LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS

The true-crime genre is not new, but it is certainly going through boom times. Twenty years ago, most bookshops had no true crime shelf and many had little idea what to do with the few true-crime books
that were published – books ended up on the current affairs or history shelf, and some drifted to biography. (In one shop, a book entitled The Silent War about police killings in Victoria found its way to the military history shelf.)

Today, most bookshops have dedicated true crime shelves. Part of the credit goes to Melbourne journalists Andrew Rule and John Silvester, who are known in some circles as the Godfathers of True Crime in Australia.

The duo published the original Chopper Read book Chopper in 1991, the first in a series of 10 paperbacks that sold hundreds of thousands of copies. They published the first Underbelly book in 1997, which spawned a dozen or more titles of the same name, selling hundreds of thousands more. And they have published other true-crime books by other authors, such as former undercover Victorian detective Lachlan McCulloch.

And while the content built slowly in the true-crimes shelves, true-crime television dramas were rarer, but some outstanding, such as The Great Bookie Robbery in 1986, and Blue Murder in 1993. In cinema, Chopper, starring Eric Bana, met with great success in 2000.

Then came Melbourne’s gangland wars. A fight over the drug trade – plus personal animosity, revenge and a healthy dose of paranoia – combined to claim 15 or so lives over just a few years (some have up to twice that death toll, but these were separate from the so-called gangland wars).

Silvester and Rule’s Underbelly books had long been championed by Eddie McGuire, and when McGuire was appointed CEO of Channel Nine in early 2006, he gave the green light for a new true-crime drama series.

The Underbelly phenomenon was unleashed on Australian television on February 13, 2008. There was a massive build-up and a huge marketing budget. Unfortunately for Channel Nine, Supreme Court Judge Betty King imposed an injunction on the series being screened in Victoria because it could affect upcoming trials (and this remains in place – only the first five episodes have been broadcast in Victoria).

Many Victorians got around the ban. “Most people watched it off illegal copies posted online, or DVD sets purchased in other states,” says Daniel Ziffer, who was The Age’s entertainment reporter at the time.

“People have always had a fascination with lives they don’t have themselves,” he says. “People who might get a speeding ticket once a year love to see the other side. Seeing people who live their lives without caring about the rules that society sets up, people with access to unlimited cash and the dark rewards that come with that – people are simply fascinated.”

Underbelly came at a time when networks had not been investing in big-budget drama, says Ziffer, and proved compelling and exciting. “Like the moon landings, you know what is going to happen, but you still want to see how it happens. It was well acted, with famous people and Nine spent almost as much on promotion as it cost to make the series. It was a good show done at the right time.”

As the first series began screening, the colourful former NSW detective Roger Rogerson was asked by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph to write an online blog, answering reader’s email questions. Two years later, and into the third Underbelly series, he still goes in every week to field more than 200 questions from that week’s episode. (Last year, Rogerson finally joined the true-crime boom himself with the publication of his first book, The Dark Side.)

“I will be 70 in January and I have grown up as a policeman through the life of all these people,” he says. He believes our fascination with true crime is due to people’s “morbid interest in blood and guts”.
“I get asked all sorts of questions, from right across the country,” says Rogerson. “You get the odd nutter, of course – I simply ask them if they’ve taken their medication.”

What disappoints Rogerson – and he is not alone – is the improbable links and inaccuracies in the Underbelly series. “Each episode should start with … ‘Once upon a time’ …,” he says.

Andrew Fraser agrees, and highlights a scene in which Ray “Chuck” Bennett goes to Sydney to buy machineguns from Lennie McPherson. “When I was acting for all the Painters and Dockers, the traffic was all the other way. The machineguns came into the wharves here and were sold to Sydney.”

Investigative journalist Keith Moor wrote a long article in the Herald Sun detailing error after error in the second Underbelly television series, which centred on the heroin-trafficking activities of Terrence Clark and the role of Robert Trimbole, lamenting a lopsided version of “true” crime.

“When the real story is so incredible, why is there a need to make things up? Especially when they keep calling it the real story?”

THE UNDERCOVER COP

The Underbelly phenomenon has helped authors such as former Victorian detective Colin McLaren, whose book Infiltration was published last year.

“Ten years ago I couldn’t have seen myself having three publishers interested in the manuscript – I would have been struggling to get even one publisher. Underbelly changed that.”

Infiltration was ultimately published by Melbourne University Publishing and quickly became a bestseller. It was the first true-crime book for scholarly, 80-year-old MUP, which is now under the helm of Louise Adler. “People have been writing true-crime books for years in Australia – it’s always sold newspapers and books – but it does seem there is an increasing appetite among Australians for that genre,” says Adler.

Last year MUP also published my book, I, Mick Gatto, which became Australia’s 14th biggest-selling non-fiction title in 2009. Adler says MUP intends to publish more because of strong demand.
“More and more we live in this culture of personal confession and the interest in the ‘real’ – our appetite for non-fiction based on true stories seems to be growing every year, and true crime fits perfectly into that.”

Infiltration is now being made into a film, focusing on McLaren’s role as an undercover policeman. “It’s about the infiltration of the Mafia and it’s the part of the book that attracted the production company,” says McLaren. “They thought it was a fascinating job with lots of twists and turns.”

McLaren believes the media’s celebrity treatment of criminals has enhanced the popularity of true crime. “What’s the difference between the bad behaviour of Britney Spears and Roberta Williams? It’s the same behaviours and they get the same treatment.

“Television has popularised and ‘blinged’ crime. Crime is ‘sexy’ – and it shouldn’t be. It’s riddled with pretty boys and bare breasts. And it shouldn’t be. I never saw a pretty prostitute. They were strung out, desperate heroin junkies who turned tricks for $20 notes. There’s nothing pretty in the real world of crime, but it now appears in New Idea and Women’s Day. Which is sad.”

The sentiment is shared by Herald Sun journalist Keith Moor, who wrote his first true-crime book, Crims in Grass Castles, in 1988. (The book, which details the life and crimes of Robert Trimbole, was updated and reprinted last year and sold a further 20,000-plus copies).

“In the gangland wars, the players almost became celebrities. There was Benji, Carl, Roberta, Mick. These people became household names, whereas 25 years ago there weren’t those names people could point to. If you’d asked the average Joe Blow in the street who Dennis Allen was, no one would have known,” says Moor.

“I worry we are almost turning them into cult legends and glorifying them. It’s not glamorous at all. Most of those household names are now dead or in jail.”

COCAINE AND VODKA

This week, in the back streets of Melbourne, the 14 weeks of filming of Andrew Fraser’s life story will continue.

“I was lucky I had some extraordinary clients. I had the crème de la crème of the Melbourne underworld, people like (multiple killer, police informant and drug dealer) Dennis Allen and (long-time Melbourne underworld figure and gangland war victim) Lewis Moran.”

The job came with risks. At the heart of the Underbelly television series was Jason Moran, Lewis Moran’s son. Jason was a drug dealer and killer who was himself murdered in June 2003 in front of his children at a suburban football ground. Jason also provided lawyer Andrew Fraser with one of his scariest professional moments.

Says Fraser, “Jason turned up in my office one day unannounced about 3pm. He was off his head on cocaine and vodka, which was a bad combination with him. His eyes were spinning in his head. Jason said, ‘We know you are an undercover for the jacks (police).’

“I said, ‘Jason don’t be silly, I’ve known your family all your life.’

“And with that he pulled out a gun and pointed it at me. ‘I ought to shoot you right now.’

“I thought, ‘You’re joking.’ He could easily have done it. But I didn’t back down and said firmly, in a fatherly tone, ‘Jason, put that away and behave yourself.’ And he did. And he left.

“I rang his father. ‘Lewis, I don’t like to lag, but Jason is out of order here. He is off his head. Get him to calm down and stop doing stuff like that.’

“Lewis was horrified.

“Next afternoon, about the same time and with no appointment, Jason came in again, but this time he was with Tuppence (Lewis Moran’s brother) and the Munster (Melbourne underworld figure Graham Kinniburgh, who was shot dead in December 2003 during the gangland wars).

“Jason had been off the gear for a day. Kinniburgh looked at him and said, ‘Say it.’

“And Jason apologised.”

When Fraser was released from jail in September 2006, having served almost five years on cocaine charges, he wanted a quiet life. “I’d had enough. I wanted to go home and then manage a mate’s farm in the Otways, and stay under the radar. I certainly wasn’t going to write a book.”

But then his name was widely publicised when it became clear he would give evidence for the Crown in a high-profile criminal case. Fraser says the publicity sparked a phone call from publisher Hardie Grant, and he went in to have a chat with them. He walked out of the meeting with a three-book contract.
Court in the Middle and his second book Lunatic Soup were bestsellers. Now 59, Fraser is about to have his third book published, one he promises will make serious waves.

He has a manager, Victor Susman, “an old mate who visited me in jail. We went out for a drink one day, chatting away, and it went from there. It’s been a handshake deal.”

It’s also led to the speaking circuit, books, the television series, a potential movie and even a show at the 2009 Comedy Festival. There are other projects under wraps and in development, most linked to true crime.

Fraser says understanding the public fascination for true crime is simple. “It’s like people watching a car accident – they can’t help themselves. They are appalled by it but at the same time they are fascinated by it.

“When it comes to the underworld, it’s a world the average person in the street never sees because of its exclusivity. People just don’t get to see it – and that’s its attraction.”

Tom Noble is a Melbourne journalist and author of true-crime books including Untold Violence, Walsh Street, Neddy and I, Mick Gatto.

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