by Maria Nguyen-Emmett
Listening to two gun-toting grandmothers debating the merits of automatic handguns in a small country town in Arkansas – where even the waitress in the town’s only café packs a pistol – is a world away from greeting fans at a book reading on Sydney’s leafy and genteel lower north shore.
Michael Robotham, best-selling Australian crime writer, is at Mosman Library talking about his latest novel, Life or Death, and recounting tales from his time living in America’s south where the book is set.
A former journalist and ghost writer, Mr Robotham is one of the country’s leading literary exports: his psychological thrillers have been translated into 23 languages and sold more than six million copies worldwide.
He may soon become even bigger, following a US production deal to turn his crime novels into a television series in the vein of acclaimed shows, ‘True Detective’ and ‘Breaking Bad’.
Life or Death, recently released in Australia, is Mr Robotham’s tenth novel in as many years.
It tells the story of a convicted bank robber who, after a decade in prison, escapes the day before he is due for release.
According to publisher Hachette Australia, LA-based studios are currently negotiating film rights for the novel.
Sue Turnbull, crime fiction reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, describes Life or Death as “outstanding” and praises Mr Robotham’s ability to write convincingly about America’s south.
“Part of his skill as a writer, and background as a ghost writer, is that he is very, very clever at getting inside the skin of a person or place in order to make it seem completely authentic,” says Ms Turnbull, a professor pf social sciences, media and communication at the University of Wollongong.
Stephen King, the master of horror, is another fan.
He labelled Mr Robotham’s award-winning fourth novel, Shatter, “the most suspenseful book” he had read that year.
Says Mr Robotham, “When I got word Stephen King named Shatter as his number one pick for the summer, I turned to my wife and said, ‘It doesn’t matter if I don’t sell another book. In my dotage I will tell our grandkids that Stephen King once said I scared the pants off him’.” Not bad for a NSW country boy who dreamed of becoming a writer from the age of 12.
Mr Robotham began his career as a cadet journalist in Sydney before moving to the UK as a Fleet Street investigative reporter. He left journalism after 14 years to ghost write autobiographies for politicians, military officials and celebrities, including Geri Halliwell, from the Spice Girls, and Rolf Harris (Harris’ autobiography is the only book Mr Robotham says he regrets writing).
Mr Robotham, who is now also chairman of the Australian Crime Writers Association (ACWA), believes the health of Australian crime writing has never been stronger.
Susan Wyndham, The Sydney Morning Herald’s literary editor, agrees.
“Crime fiction is eternally popular,” Ms Wyndham says, “but I think the explanation for its popularity at the moment is that we’ve got so many anxieties about political, social and relationship tensions, that people are finding an outlet to let off steam or help make sense of what’s going on in the world.”
According to the ACWA, crime novels account for about one quarter of all books sales, globally, making it “the most successful genre”.
Peter Corris, considered the godfather of Australian crime fiction and best known for his 39-novel Cliff Hardy series, says, the genre is read, overwhelmingly, by middle-class women “who like to live dangerously vicariously”.
“They like to imagine themselves under pressure and enjoy the journey of discovery and escape … and to read about people cleverer and tougher than themselves and daydream,” Mr Corris says. “There is a big element of fantasy in crime fiction as well as hard-edged reality.”
Reality may well be stranger than fiction and for Mr Robotham it has been a successful – albeit often grim – well of ideas: all his novels have had their genesis in a news story that he’s either written as a journalist or read in a newspaper.
The inspiration for Life or Death came from a small article he read almost 20 years ago about an Australian convicted killer’s escape from Long Bay jail, only days before his release.
The novel, transported to America’s south, is a thriller, a love story and a novel Mr Robotham says he was destined to write.
“It took me 10 years to come up with a backstory as to why someone would escape only days before release and another 10 years to feel like I was good enough to write it,” he says.
Researching for Life or Death involved living for six weeks in America’s south, including Arkansas, where he signed up for a handgun course run by the Sheriff’s Wives Association.
It is here he met the grandmothers discussing their guns; one of many stories that has his fans at the Mosman book reading engrossed, gasping or in stitches.
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine his vast repertoire of research and anecdotes livening dinner parties for many years to come. Or, better yet, filling the pages of another best-seller.