What are the classic noir locations? Chinatown, Los Angeles. Postwar Vienna, Austria. Geraldton, Western Australia?
Maybe so if author Noel Mealey has his way. His books Murder and Redemption is a crime thriller with darkly comic undertones that might be WA’s answer to the gumshoe, dime store thrillers that made writers like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler famous.
Though Queensland-born, former engineer Mealey has a background that makes him uniquely qualified to write about Murder and Redemption’s country WA locations, all of which feel startlingly authentic. “Back in 1971 I spent time in Paraburdoo and Port Hedland,” the writer says, “In those days Paraburdoo was just a landing strip and Port Hedland was just a small mining port. We’d land at Paraburdoo and have to wait under the wing of the plane for someone to come and pick us up because there were no buildings.
“I did research into these areas and the local industry, but I’ve lived in small towns most of my life, so I got to know how people live, work and think in small communities and I think you can translate that anywhere.”
The dark, at times brutal novel starts with jaded but dedicated Geraldton cop Syd Fielding overhearing a blood-curdling scream while on a fishing trips with friends. What they don’t realise is that a young, foreign shipworker is being fed to a crocodile nearby for his part in a crime that unravels into a grand conspiracy of smuggling, drugs and racketeering.
As Fielding, with the assistance and sometimes the hindrance of a colourful cast of characters, scratches deeper under the surface, his quest takes him from huge shipping ports to a Geraldton brothel hidden behind a milk bar, the fine houses of Russian criminal gangs, Bindoon and New Norcia. Every word feels as authentic as if Mealey had lived in the area and been in mining, shipping and criminal enterprise all his life. As a piece of fiction, Murder and Redemption is – perhaps unwittingly – educational.
“I tried to write something a little different to a crime thriller,” says Mealey when The West asks if noir was the tone he was going for. “It’s not really a detective story or a blood and guts crime story, I just tried to write interesting characters.”
And Mealey has. Surrounding Syd is his best friend Ivan, a Russian from his school days at the brutal Christian Brothers School at Bindoon. There’s also his sometime lover, a local sophisticate, and characters that orbit all three in ever-expanding circles of intrigue. In classic genre tradition, Syd finds he might not be able to trust a single one of them.
So it’s surprising to learn Murder and Redemption started out not just a film script but a broad comedy. “It was black comedy mixed with slapstick and I really enjoyed writing it, but it’s not easy to market a film script in Australia. So I decided I’d write a book rather than a film script.
“I dropped the slapstick and wrote quite a different story, but from the start I wanted a thriller with tragedy and comedy, and I had a character in mind. I used to work with a guy in Melbourne who became one of the characters, he was my boss and also a crook – he spent five years in jail for bribery and corruption. His entire life was a black comedy.
“I wanted to build the story around him so it contained the black humour I was after, and he set the tone for the book. The humour and tragedy of life and the other characters just flowed.”
With a sequel already written and in production at his publisher, Mealey might have a one-man noir factory on his hands. Though he cites Elmore Leonard, Lee Childs and Nelson DeMille as influential authors, he shares a very small stage in Australia with only a few names when it come the stylings of the genre.
And with the WA-set Red Dog and TV crime like the Underbelly series so successful, it might be time to dust off the original version of the script and take another look.