When I first set out to write A Willing Executioner in 2014, I had no idea where to start or what to expect from the process. I knew it would take about a year. I wanted to write a fast-paced, dark crime thriller in the vein of Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson. That’s right, I wanted to write a Scandinoir-style novel set in Australia! But I also wanted to enjoy it. I decided very early on to have fun with the ideas rather than take it all too seriously. The book could be dark; I didn’t need to be.
Of course, if I was going to write a Scandinoir-style novel set in Australia, it would have to have a great white shark, a saltwater crocodile and possibly a king brown snake – all the things that make living in Australia so damn fun. And the landscape would have to feature heavily as well. To provide an atmospheric alternative to the bleak snowscapes of the Nordic crime novels on my book shelves, I drew on my earlier travels through the jungles of the Northern Territory and the deserts of the Outback.
So who should be at the centre of this quirky take on a respected genre? Many Australian writers and publishers would argue an Aussie detective would be the best choice. It’s an Australian novel, isn’t it? Well, it is, and it isn’t. It is set in Australia and some of the social issues it explores are unique to this country, but it is a Scandinoir-style story. The lead had to be a European. This doesn’t sit well with some of my fellow Aussies. As a nation we like our culture to reflect an image of how we see ourselves as Australians. Apparently, this mirror should cast us in a favourable light.
But I prefer a lens to a mirror, a device that alters our perception and challenges us to think differently about what we see. The reflection comes later, when we’ve had a chance to process the information.
Some aspects of Australian culture are difficult to comprehend so it helps to view them through the lens of an outsider. It’s what made the film Wake in Fright (1971) so powerful. Although it was shot in Broken Hill, it was an Australian-American production, directed by Ted Kotchoff, a Canadian.
The story was based on the Kenneth Cook novel of the same name. An indentured teacher (played by British actor Gary Bond), working in a fictional country town, tries desperately to return to his girlfriend in Sydney. Despite his best efforts, he is steadily drawn into the mundane horrors of life in the Outback. There was no softening of the edges in this story. The image of Australia is a far cry from the one presented in Crocodile Dundee (1986). It was with this in mind that I wrote A Willing Executioner.
I created Birgitte Vestergaard as an outsider: a strong, intuitive, liberal-minded detective who is sent to Australia to investigate the disappearance of a high-profile Dane. Her presence creates an immediate foil to her surroundings, whether it’s a remote Indigenous community south of Alice Springs or on the banks of the Murray River outside of Mildura. I was keen to explore the uglier aspects of Australian culture – the racism, the provincialism and the sexism.
I also wanted the book to be international in its scope and appeal. This is where the baddies came in. Zachary de Graff is a methodical contract killer haunted by his childhood in South Africa. He is another outsider, but instead of passing through the landscape as an observer, he draws on the resources to hand. He revels in the very things that make Australia horrifying to outsiders. And without spoiling the story, there are several other questionable characters hailing from distant shores to put this localised drama in a global context.
It took a significant rewrite in 2017 to get the novel right – or at least where I wanted it to be. The main thing I learned was the importance of being flexible. If the story isn’t working, be brave enough to close a few doors and open some new ones, while being respectful of the parts that don’t need changing (the king brown snake had to go but the great white shark and the saltwater crocodile had to stay, and an Aussie detective in the form of Tony Kingsmill was also essential). The end result is exactly what I set out to achieve: a fast-paced, dark crime thriller that gives a confident nod to Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson.
In fact, Jo Nesbo’s first Harry Hole thriller, The Bat, is partly set in Australia. So creating a Scandinoir-style thriller that spans the jungles of Kakadu to the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour isn’t such a leap for any hardened lovers of Nordic noir.
And isn’t that what great fiction is all about – the suspension of disbelief?