First published on 25 Mar 2012. Updated on 10 Apr 2012.
In his first novel, Promise, Gold Coast-based author Tony Cavanaugh introduces the fine folk of Noosa to a sadistic serial killer with a penchant for young blondes. Already being compared to the likes of Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben, the former TV and film producer and writer (credits include Once Were Warriors and Medivac) is being hailed as a huge new voice in Aussie crime fiction. Cavanaugh spoke with Time Out about entering the mind of a killer, terrorising the people of Noosa and two sequels, already in the works.
The novel reads like a kind of LA noir… but in Noosa, of all places. Where did the idea to stick a killer and this fish-out-of-water detective in the Sunshine Coast come from?
The idea sprang from a moment when I was getting breath-tested at the Noosa Police Station early one morning in a highly embarrassing incident where I was picked up from drunk driving after totaling my mother-in-law’s car on the bush track from the Noosa north shore.
You totaled the car?
Yeah, it was a complete write-off. So the idea came in the station. I had been doing a lot of research on psychopathic behavior for a film I’d just made which was about a psychopathic young lady, who murdered a young girl. I was at the police station and when they were getting the machine to read my blood alcohol reading, I said to the officer – because many people on the Sunshine coast have moved from down south like Sydney or Melbourne – “Are you local?” He said, “Nah mate, I moved up from Melbourne,” so I said, “Why? Why did you come here?” and he said, “Cruisy lifestyle mate, its bloody fabulous, cruisy lifestyle.” I just imagined him then when he was in his mid-forties, had a bit of a tummy, getting up in the morning and going down to the beach for a paddle, and that sort of thing. And it just struck me at that moment, what if there was a really nasty serial killer in this world? Because he wasn’t alone, all the cops I’ve come across up here just love their cruisy lifestyle and they wouldn’t be equipped to handle the sort of killer that I’d drawn in the book.
It’s funny, because while you have this very Australian setting, the book itself reads very much like an American crime novel. It’s been compared to Michael Connelly. Were you conscious of wanting to do something that we don’t do that much in this country?
I was conscious that that was what I was doing but it wasn’t a conscious choice on my part – I just wrote it as best or the only way I knew how to. So no it wasn’t a conscious decision to write it like that but I was aware, while I was writing it, that it seemed a little different what I had read. But I’ve always been a huge fan of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, James Cain – I grew up with those authors. And more recently I’ve been devouring Michael Connelly, Robert Crais and Dennis Lehane. I love that genre and I particularly love that last clutch of writers who are just pumping out the most brilliant books.
Having spent a bit of time in Noosa, it almost seems a bit cruel to inflict a Connelly-style killer on these seachangers. Was there something else about Noosa – aside from the fact the police force might struggle with a killer like this – that made it an ideal setting?
The Noosa tourist association is going to be unhappy with me [laughs], but I love it! It’s a beautiful spot. It is weird though. Like the first or second time I was driving up there on the coast highway I turned off and drove inland and hit the water then drove along. There were all these signs along the other side of the water near vast tracks of bushland that read ‘Do not enter, unexploded bombs.’ From the Second World War.
I’m not all the way through the book yet, but it seems like it’s going to get pretty heavy, and pretty dark.
I don’t know if you’re yet up to the part where I write in the voice of the killer…
Well when you get there, that question becomes really relevant. I did write the killer pretty much in the third person but in the editing I changed it across to the first person. But even writing him in the third person, I found it really freaky. And, it's going to sound really cliché, but I literally did have to go and have a shower after I finished writing.
Yeah. I found it really distressing.
And especially because he’s preying on such young girls.
I have a 13-year-old daughter and I don’t want her to read the book. Obviously, I’m very proud and can’t wait for her to see it, but I said to her on the phone, “When you get to the parts with the killer, don’t read them until you’re at least 18.”
It’s funny because on the one hand I knew I had to be truthful to the character when I was writing and I literally got to a point where I said, “Well I’ve got to actually think like a serial killer, I’ve got to think like this guy.” I had to think what he feeds off, and he feeds off preying on and stalking young girls – keeping them, abducting them, torturing them and killing them. It was a weird experience writing that, really weird.
What kind of preparation do you do for that? Is it a matter of pure reading research, are you speaking to officers who have dealt with these kinds of people before?
With the killer, I had done a lot of reading. I read this book called Without Conscience by Robert Hare, whose probably the leading expert in psychopathic behaviour, a Canadian. I’d read that some years ago but I’d also forged a relationship with a guy who had help set up the rape squad in Melbourne and he was sent across to Quantico in the US to train with the FBI for six weeks back in the mid-’80s. He came back and formed his own company and his experience in profiling, his experiences in interviewing these sort of criminals, was really helpful. I touched base with him while I was writing and I sent him the manuscript before it went into Hachette, to be sure that I hadn’t strayed to far into craziness. The rest of it I just made up, quite frankly. Again I had done some reading, but it was my character, a sort of half man/half child (his favourite film is Pocahontas!). He just came from some weird place within me.
Is there more left in you for a sequel… say, in Port Macquarie?
Yeah, I’m about halfway through the next book. It’s called Dead Girl Thing and it’s set on the Gold Coast. It’s also about a girl who goes missing, so the detective [the book's main character, Darian Richards] reluctantly drives down [from Noosa]. And the one after that will be called The Train Rider. It will have the train killer we read about at the beginning of book one seeing all the publicity Darian gets in the papers and going up to the Sunshine Coast to torment him by riding the trains.
Wait: there are trains on the Sunshine Coast?
Yeah there are, they don’t run too bloody regularly. I think there are two services everyday.
I guess that makes the police’s job easy, if they’re looking for a killer who loiters on trains.
Will you ever bring your detective to Sydney?
Probably, I don’t know Sydney very well – it’s the only city I haven’t lived in actually. I love Sydney, it’s one of my favourite cities. And I’m planning to move, I want to be down there by the end of this year an live in Newtown – I think its one of the greatest spots on Earth.
Absolutely, and there's plenty of places for people to get up to mischief.
Yeah, maybe there will be a Newtown serial killer lurking around.
Promise is available Apr 26 through Hachette Australia. RRP$29.99.