Review: Bruce Johnsonon Peter Doyle

These Are The Suburbs

No-one in these police photographs, dead or alive, wanted or planned to be caught in that camera.

Shoes. Ordinary shoes. Shoes worn by corpses, the soles scuffed by personalised wear. Shoes put on in the morning by owners who did not know they would not see day’s end. And drab fibro and brick veneer suburban houses, images of uneventful ordinariness that, like the shoes, disclose nothing of the violence investing them. A variation on Hannah Arendt’s observation of the evil in banality comes to mind, but ‘evil’ bespeaks a moral system and in this book the presentation of events is for the most part morally impassive. 

In Suburban Noir Peter Doyle tells us what not to expect from this record; there is no underworld glamour, no moral frame, no explicit didactic objective. This is simply about crime, most of which is obscure and small time: ‘three men sitting in a pub to rob a club manager of the Saturday night pokie takings. Someone falling off a train in the City Circle tunnel. A young mother putting a breadknife between the shoulder blades of her abusive husband … A teenager robbing the milk money in a suburban street … That kind of thing’. Chilling incongruities in the encounter of ordinary objects and spaces with the ‘dark id’ of suburbia: ‘horrors that border on slapstick: a dead woman with a huge dagger thrust through her skull, her body propped against a pile of hessian bags labelled ‘Parramatta’. In his work on the source documents, Doyle writes, ‘I was continually confronted by the grinding tawdriness, futility, the dead-end small-timeyness of everyday crime and mishap’. And the photographs are not simply ‘about’ their often mundane subjects, but the obscurely menacing presence that can be communicated by (in a nod to John Berger?) ‘ways of seeing’. 

These things are there, these things happened. All they disclose is their own presence: the cigarette packet on the bedroom table, the wine bottles on the dresser, the disordered sheets, the askew legs untidily in shot, the white lines on the road trailing into the night, the view into the house through an open window – ‘No details known, Newtown, 1962’ – the shoes, the fibro houses in treeless blocks of sameness. Featureless roads flanked by paddocks, Sydney’s post-war suburban expansion so rapid that infrastructure could scarcely keep up. These are among the haunting images that stay with me after reading this superb book. 

Its core is a series of case studies of violence in suburban Sydney in the two decades following the Second World War. Given particular prominence are the Kingsgrove Slasher and the Graeme Thorne cases, which made national and international news. Both are informed by the serendipitous convergence of Peter Doyle’s sensibility and intellectual history, and the contents of plastic bags and other clutter discovered in a shed behind his cousin’s home in Kingsgrove. The collection was stored by the cousin’s father, police Detective Brian Doyle, who gained a public profile for his work on the ’Slasher’ and the Thorne cases, and rose to become Assistant Commissioner of NSW Police. The collection includes police forensic photographs, case files, and Brian Doyle’s official notebook.

All of these provide the raw materials for Peter Doyle’s narrative, processed by his eye for the outrage behind the ordinary, the chilling and dramatic in the banal, the lessons in and of the inscrutable, much like the stark final words of the poem, ‘Home is so Sad’ by Philip Larkin: ‘That vase’. That carpet. That dresser. Those shoes. It is the eye of a cultural historian honed to deadly sharpness by what seems an apt metaphor (his acknowledgements in Crooks Like Us are presented under the heading ‘Assisting us with our enquiries’): in the archiving and representation of the violence lying in the shadows of the bland suburban landscape, Peter Doyle ‘has form’. Author of four crime novels, he has twice received the Ned Kelly Award and also a Lifetime Achievement Award. Curating exhibitions for the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney has given him access to archival material that incubated a powerful sense of the dark aesthetics of forensic photography, as well as the detail that equips him to make his own drawings from photographs and to design the cryptic, eloquent cover of the book. 

Suburban Noir was preceded by two books based on police archives that, taken together with this, his latest, form a trilogy. It began with the 2000 collection City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948, produced with Caleb Williams, followed by the solo production Crooks Like Us, again drawing on police archives but with more printed commentary and focussing primarily on the 1920s.   

‘Documentary’ crime narratives have a long anglophone literary history. Elizabethan England was particularly rich in the literature of swindlers, pickpockets and petty thieves, as presented in Gamini Salgado’s The Elizabethan Underworld. But it was the sprawling urbanisation of the nineteenth century that provided the shadows, disorientations and alienations that have extended the range of literature of crime. The nineteenth century saw the most rapid physical expansion of the city and its suburbs and their segmentation by class. In 1844, Engels wrote of Manchester:

Owing to the curious lay-out of the town it is quite possible for someone to live for years in Manchester and to travel daily to and from his work without ever seeing a working-class quarter or coming into contact with an artisan.

The number of houses in the outer west London suburbs (Acton, Chiswick, Ealing, Hanwell) increased from fewer than 3000 in 1851 to more than 33,000 by 1911. The northern manufacturing industrial cities like Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham and Liverpool, expanded at the greatest rate, between 1820 and 1850, and some by more than 40 per cent in a decade. 

These were sites of the unknowable and the illegible, and suburbs meandered shapelessly into the nearby countryside. By 1946, writing of Bromley, an outer suburb of London, fictionalised as Bromstead, H.G. Wells described it as

a maze of exploitation roads that led nowhere … a multitude of uncoordinated fresh starts, each more sweeping and destructive than the last, and none of them ever really worked out to a ripe and satisfactory completion. … It was a sort of progress that had bolted; it was change out of hand, and going at an unprecedented pace nowhere in particular.

Conurbations and their inhabitants became menacing by their very anonymity. John Barton, one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s characters in Mary Barton echoes the anxiety that ‘The face of every one / That passes by me is a mystery’ of Book 7 of Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’: 

… he could not, you cannot read the lot of those who daily pass you by … How do you know the wild romances of their lives; the trials, the temptations they are even now enduring, resisting, sinking under. …  You may pass the criminal, meditating crimes at which you will tomorrow shudder with horror as you read them. … Errands of mercy – errands of sin – did you ever think where all the thousands of people you daily meet are bound? 

This is, to use Doyle’s phrase, the city of shadows, unreadable mysteries. It is the scenario for Dickens’s fogs, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Melville’s inexplicable Bartleby, T.S. Eliot’s ‘unreal’ city, Poe’s illegible ‘Man of the Crowd’. It is the seeding ground of the emerging detective narrative in which it takes the superhuman skill of Sherlock Holmes to ‘read’ people and places.

Doyle is conscious that he writes in a tradition of representing urban space as a site of inscrutable menace involving a complex relationship between ‘visibility and concealment’. Indeed he quotes Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’ as an extended epigraph in Crooks Like Us.  Crime is one of the most thickly populated subjects of both fiction and documentary, and ‘true crime’ a major subgenre. But the tendency is towards a breathless histrionics and florid speculations about what was in the minds of the dramatis personae, a fixation on the more overtly grisly details. Not here. The impassive, generally neutral reportage has the same disturbing flatness as the photographs. It is the familiar, banal detail that becomes grotesque, the horror in the ordinary. There are also analogues for the deployment of photographs to defamiliarize the experience of modernity, as in US photographer Arthur ‘Weegee’ Fellig’s images of New York down-and-outs, and James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ photographs of sharecroppers in Alabama in 1936 (which Doyle acknowledges respectfully). But again, there is a significant difference. Apart from the primary focus on people, Agee and Evans photographed those who, however distressed economically, were willing subjects. No-one in these police photographs, dead or alive, wanted or planned to be caught in that camera. 

But Doyle’s Suburban Noir is an impressive achievement in the field in a number of ways which make it deeply unsettling. First, this is not the ‘noir’ of the distant ‘naked city’ like Chicago or New York, or Chandler’s ‘mean streets’ of Los Angeles, massive conurbations we might work in or visit for entertainment, then hurry home to the suburbs. These are the suburbs, the world we actually live in: the local beach or park, the corner shop, the servo, the pub, the bus seat in a street. The interiors of the fibro houses, those cupboards, wallpaper, furnishings, the venetian blinds, bedspreads, décor, ‘that vase’, are objects and spaces we know. Or thought we knew. We have occupied, dined and socialised in these houses. The sense of place is one of the great strengths in all of Doyle’s work, and it is a recognisable, familiar ‘place’ that has become one of menace and violence signalled by a curtain waving in a window, a backyard Hills Hoist, an unmade bed. Doyle is certainly not the first or the only writer to seek to evoke the darker history of Sydney. Larry Writer’s 2002 Razor: A True Story of Slashers, Gangsters, Prostitutes and Sly Grog is a standout – Doyle gives him generous acknowledgement in his list of those who ‘assisted with enquiries’. 

To me, Suburban Noir stands apart – and above –  in its field, in its tone, point of view, and much of the impact derives from the source material and procedural dryness. Yes, this is an ordinary suburban house or street. But it is a police forensic photograph, with some seedy, horrific suburban trauma attached to it. In one of the few departures from neutral reportage of ‘what is there’, he connects up his project with the broader motifs of night and light that pervaded the culture of the 1950s and 1960s and the representation of society in novels, film, and, I would add, radio – ‘This is Randy Stone and I cover the Night Beat’.  He writes: 

That most prehistoric configuration – the pool of light and relative safety surrounded by threat – is inverted. There’s never anything good in the light-blasted foreground. That flash of light might totally control the foreground, but it produces whole new edge-zones and new types of half-shadow between the near and the dead black far. There will be action, comings, goings and bystanding in that mysterious middle.

One of the most striking insights in Doyle’s work is his recognition of the links between these police photographic records and other art forms of modernity. He compares the work of police forensic photographers to that of abstract expressionists, but ‘more uncompromising, more relentlessly nihilist’. He credits the police photographers as masters of this noir, in a discussion that discloses not just the deeply informed meditation on cultural history that underpins his work, but also his knowledge of forensic photography and its technology of the time. Apart from having defined a literary sub-genre single-handed, this includes the best writing I have ever read on the strangely blank yet meaningful ambience of Australian suburbia.