Between 1995 and 2004 there were 34 underworld killings in Melbourne, Australia. Yes, 34. I don't think there were that many deaths in six-and-a-half series of The Sopranos and that has to be one of the most violent TV shows ever broadcast.
According to the authors "the size of the death toll varies from source to source because opinions vary about when the 'war' began and who are casualties and who are not". Even the concept of 'war' is disputed, because not all the murders are related, some are simply one-off hits to settle old scores. But police did establish that the bulk of the killings were part of a deadly feud between two rival gangs: the New Boys and the Carlton Crew.
Having followed this string of brutal and bloody murders from afar (I left Australia in mid-1998) via Melbourne's The Age website, I was anxious to read this book to piece all the crimes together in my head as one long narrative. Unfortunately, the book's structure doesn't work like that. Instead, what you get is 29 self-contained chapters that look at each crime in isolation. I imagine they were written like this for newspaper publication, but even so, I found it annoyingly repetitive in places -- explaining who characters are and how they are linked to each other and what terrible crimes they have committed -- which wears very thin very quickly.
And the prose style is terribly tabloid, surprising given that it's written by two journalists for whom I have the utmost respect (Andrew Rule's Strict Rules, a non-fiction account of his time touring the outback and staying with aboriginal communities, is extraordinarily good and worth tracking down if you get a chance, while Silvester's day-to-day reporting for The Age on the crimes covered in Leadbelly has been thorough, tenacious and imminently readable over the course of this ongoing gangland feud). Still, I wonder how much of this "dumbed down" style is simply a reflection of the market to which this book is aimed. It's not so much sloppily written, but it's riddled with unwarranted editorialising that I found patronising.
But if the objective of Leadbelly is to take the "glamour" out of the underworld and to expose these criminals for the violent sociopaths that they are, then perhaps the authors have achieved their aim. Here's what they say about the underworld,
...that loose collection of individuals who live outside the law and associate with fellow criminals both in and out of prison. Myths have been built up about this antisocial sub-class, mainly because there is a perceived glamour about being on the wrong side of the law. Some people think gangsters are masterminds with the brains and the nerve to beat the system, 'anti-heroes' and 'rebels' who snub conformity to 'live their own lives'.
The truth is most are too stupid, too lazy and too immoral to make a mark in the mainstream community. They don't decide to opt out of orthodox, law-abiding society so much as drift into crime because it seems easy and smart compared with working for a living. Others, of course, are born into ciminal families, condemned by breeding and circumstances to a lifetime cycle of crime and punishment.
Many criminals are 'stupid' by conventional standards -- in reading, writing and comprehension, for instance -- but some survive and prosper, at least until the law or even more predatory criminals catch up with them. Some develop a rat cunning, which trumps 'normal' intelligence in their bleak and brutal world. They can't read, yet can spy a police surveillance car a kilometre away. Others can barely count, yet can organise a bank robbery with split-second, military precision.
Rule and Silvester don't pull their punches -- they make it exceedingly clear throughout the 288 pages that make up this book that they do not have any sympathy whatsoever for the criminals. But by the same token they don't necessarily hold the Victoria Police in great esteem either, a much-maligned force that has been accused, at one time or another, of being reactionary, trigger-happy* and corrupt.
When two young police constables were ambushed and fatally shot one early morning in 1988 -- ten years before the 'war' began, mind you -- as payback for the police shooting of a well-known armed robber 13 hours earlier, Rule and Silvester claim that some police "were so desperate to 'get a result' they wanted to use illegal tactics to get evidence before a court". They add:
A huge investigation began within hours. Emotions ran high. Some police virtually declared war on the underworld. They wanted to mount raid after raid on known criminals and their relatives and associates. Many in the force saw this reaction as justified. Others saw it as blind rage, which would do nothing to gain evidence admitted in court.
This, essentially, is just the tip of the iceberg. The police's handling of certain investigations, their surveillance methods and their sting operations come in for some serious questioning -- and not just by the authors, there have been several public inquiries into specific incidents over the years which has resulted in changes to police working practices.
If you can forgive the slightly patronising Cops Vs Robbers tone of the book, what emerges is a fascinating account of Melbourne's dark underbelly and the ongoing rivalry that exists between a police force under siege and the street savvy crims who think they can do what they like, when they like.
I am reliably informed that the 13-part drama series Underbelly, which is based on these true-life crimes and comes out on DVD in the UK next February, is better value than the book. I will keep you posted once I have watched it!
* In the ten years after 1986, police killed 30 people in Victoria, whilst NSW police killed 10 in the same period. I remember it well, because it seemed like every time you turned on the TV news there'd be another report of a citizen gunned down. But this book explains the roots of that trigger-happy situation. Apparently, in 1985, two police pulled over a panel van on the Hume Highway just north of Melbourne. They knew it was being driven by a known criminal who was likely to be armed and dangerous -- in fact, they were tailing him at the time -- but what they didn't expect when they approached the car was the speed with which 'Mad Max' pulled out his pistol and fired off several shots. Rule and Silvester believe this random attack wormed its way into the collective psyche of the force, describing it as "the first milestone on a grim journey into hostile territory where almost every police officer felt threatened by unknown assailants who could be lurking in any car, any doorway, any hotel".