Alan Carter is the author of the Cato Kwong series of police thrillers and Marlborough Man all published by Fremantle Press. He has also been a documentary film director. He is originally from Sunderland, UK and emigrated to Australia in 1991. He now divides his time between NZ and Fremantle in Western Australia and is a full-time writer.
I want to start with Marlborough Man, your stand-alone set in New Zealand because I think it might take us back to your origins in Sunderland. This is a bit long winded, but bear with me. The main character is a cop in hiding. The crims you describe in the UK that are after him, they’re terrifying because I know there are people like that out there. They are real not caricatures. Do you have first-hand knowledge of these types? What was your upbringing like in Sunderland?
THEY’RE A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO SCRATCH TOO DEEP TO FIND SUCH PEOPLE IN THE UNDERBELLY OF ANY CITY. I WAS BROUGHT UP IN FULWELL, NEAR THE OLD ROKER PARK FOOTBALL GROUND. MY DAD WAS A WELDER IN THE SHIPYARDS AND MY MAM WAS A WAGES CLERK. I WENT TO THE LOCAL COMPREHENSIVE (NAMED IN THE BOOK) AND WENT TO THE MATCH STANDING IN THE ROKER END SHARING MANY YEARS OF DISAPPOINTMENTS WITH EVERYBODY ELSE.
They remind me of the gangsters in The Long Good Friday or Mona Lisa? Is that a fair comparison?
THEY ARE AND I HAVE TO ADMIT ALSO TO BEING INSPIRED BY GRAHAM HURLEY’S PORTSMOUTH GANGSTERS – ORDINARY, OFTEN FUNNY BLOKES, BUT SCARY AS HELL WHEN CROSSED.
In Marlborough Man, we often get what Nick really thinks first and then what he says, which are different things. It’s a nice device. Do you do that yourself, think something awful but say the politically correct thing?
ALL THE TIME, I MUST ADMIT. I HAVE A SIMILAR CHARACTER IN MY AUSTRALIA-SET CATO KWONG SERIES – DI MICK HUTCHENS – THE BAD ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER.
Where did the main character, Nick come from?
HE’S A SUNDERLAND-BORN CITY LAD WHO FINDS HIMSELF UP A REMOTE DEAD-END VALLEY AT THE OTHER END OF THE WORLD AND WONDERING HOW THE ‘F**K’ HE GOT THERE. I DON’T KNOW REALLY.
Without trying to give away the plot, there’s a scene where Nick and his two Maori ‘mates’ get into some trouble with a German hit man. Did you think you had gone too far with this plot point? Were you nervous about how it would be received? It’s out there.
DO YOU MEAN THE RUSSIAN ASSASSIN? NO, I WASN’T NERVOUS AT ALL ABOUT HOW IT MIGHT BE RECEIVED. HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED BBCs RIVER MONSTERS? THEY GO ON ABOUT THE LONGFIN EEL, AND YE IT IS SCARY. I HAD GREAT FUN WRITING IT.
Nick has an affair and his wife seems to take it remarkably well? Have you had any female feedback on that?
NOBODY HAS COMPLAINED SO FAR. I’VE HAD A LOT OF FEEDBACK THAT BOTH VANESSA AND LATIFA ARE GREAT, STRONG, FEMALE CHARACTERS, THAT NICK CAN BE A DICKHEAD BUT SUCH IS LIFE. I THINK THE LESSON IS THAT THE IMAGE OF THE LONESOME COWBOY RIDING OUT AGAINST EVIL IS OFTEN A MYTH AND THEY TEND TO BE HARD TO LIVE WITH AND DIE ALONE OF CANCER.
Were you a rugby union fan before you started living in New Zealand? Because I assume you have no choice now?
I TRY TO AVOID GETTING IN TO CONVERSATIONS ABOUT IT BECAUSE THAT WOULD BETRAY MY IGNORANCE BUT I HAVE TO ADMIT TO BEING AN ALL-BLACKS FAN FROM WAY BACK. THE HAKA IS COOL AND I HAVE A GREAT MEMORY OF A WORLD CUP GAME WITH JONAH LOMU RUNNING U THE WING WITH HALF A DOZEN ENGLISHMEN HANGING OFF HIM LIKE THEY WEREN’T EVEN THERE.
If we can talk now about Cato Kwong. You have just released the fourth book in the series. The obvious question is where did he come from? Because, the series begins with a Chinese-Australian cop in outback WA as part of a squad that investigates livestock theft before I must say getting a whole lot grittier and dirtier.
AT THE TIME I WAS LIVING IN HOPETOUN ON THE SOUTH COAST OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA, POPULATION 1000. HE WAS INSPIRED PARTLY AS A RESULT OF MY DOCUMENTARY WORK – I’D BEEN INVOLVED IN ONE OF THOSE COP OBSERVATION SERIES WORKING BOTH WITH THE STOCK SQUAD AND WITH URBAN AND SUBURBAN COPS AMONG WHOM WAS A CHINESE-AUSTRALIAN OFFICER WHOSE COLLEAGUES NICKNAMED HIM ‘CATO’. IT IMMEDIATELY MARKED HIM AS AN OUTSIDER AND WHEN IT CAME TO DEVELOPING A LITERARY HERO HE CAME TO MIND.
Cato took a while to grow on me in Prime Cut, in fact I was getting a bit frustrated with it all and then suddenly, the pace quickened and things starting happening all over the place. Did you plan the book or do you write by the seat of your pants?
THAT WAS MY FIRST BOOK AND I BELIEVED THAT IF I WAS GOING TO BE A PROPER WRITER I SHOULD PLAN SO I GOT A WHITEBOARD, WROTE NAMES ON IT, ARROWS, PLOT POINTS THE LOT. THEN IGNORED IT AND GOT ON WITH WRITING. I STILL DIDN’T KNOW WHO’D DONE IT OR WHY BY ABOUT 2/3 THE WAY THROUGH. I PLAN A LITTLE BIT MORE THESE DAYS BUT I STILL ENJOY THE SURPRISES ALONG THE WAY.
You’re a documentary maker so I would think you love the research part of writing. Is that a fair call? The stuff about the Chinese working in the mines. Do you have any first-hand knowledge of ‘immigrant workers’ like this getting ripped off on wages and conditions etc?
AT THE TIME THERE WAS PLENTY OF EVIDENCE OF EXPLOITATION OF FOREIGN WORKERS IN THE MINING BOOM – LUCKILY NONE ACTUALLY IN HOPETOUN BECAUSE THEY ALL KNEW WHERE I LIVED. RESEARCH IS GOOD AND USEFUL BUT I STILL ENJOY THE FREEDOM OF PLAUSIBLE ARTISTIC LICENCE. FOR BOOK 2 – GETTING WARMER – I NEEDED TO GET A LOOK AROUND THE LOCAL HIGH SECURITY PRISON. AS A DOCO MAKER THIS HAD BEEN OFF-LIMITS, AS A CRIME FICTION WRITER? SURE, THEY SAID. HOW DOES NEXT WEEK SUIT?
Cato seems like a city cop to me and I’m reading Bad Seed at the moment and he does seem more at ease in his surroundings in Fremantle and Perth that Hopetoun. Can you talk about that?
HOPETOUN FOR ME AT THE TIME WAS A BIT LIKE MARLBOROUGH NZ WAS LATER. FISH OUT OF WATER TERRITORY. BEAUTIFUL, TERRIFYING, BAFFLING, TOUGH AND INSPIRING. BUT PUTTING YOUR HERO OR HEROINE OUT OF THEIR COMFORT ZONE IS A CLASSIC FOR RATCHETING UP THE STORY.
I think that Cato’s boss, Hutchens, might be my favourite character. He’s old school and crafty but a dirty mongrel too. And the reader knows he fitted up someone for a murder and that he drew Cato into it as well. I’m not sure the two of them are mates but they work well together. Thoughts on this and the dynamic between the two?
HE’S MY FAVOURITE CHARACTER TOO AND DEVELOPS OVER THE SERIES – BY THE TIME WE GET TO HEAVEN SENT HE’S FACING RETIREMENT BUT IT’S STILL POSSIBLE TO TEACH AN OLD MONGREL NEW TRICKS. BUT, YES, HE SAYS ALL THE BAD THINGS WE’RE THINKING, USES AND ABUSES CATO, AND WHINES WHEN HE FINDS HIMSELF UP SHIT CREEK NEEDING CATO TO PADDLE HIM OUT. STILL CATO WILL MISS HIM WHEN HE’S GONE.
Veering away from Cato Kwong to something more personal. Why did you emigrate to Australia? And why did you choose Fremantle to live?
I THINK I JUST HIT THAT THIRTY-SOMETHING TROUGH IN LIFE AND WAS READY FOR A BIG CHANGE. WA WAS WHERE MY BROTHER LIVED SO IT WAS FIRST STOP. BUT NO REGRETS AND NO LOOKING BACK. I MET MY WIFE IN AUSTRALIA, HAVE GROWN A FAMILY, AND BOTH THE FILM AND BOOK WORLD HAVE WELCOMED ME. THAT PLUS GREAT BEACHES – WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
I lived in WA for a while. All over the place from Broome right down to Norseman. Terrific, amazing place and Coral Bay is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I am however more interested in whether, like everyone else in WA, you want to secede from Australia?
WHY DO YOU THINK I MOVED TO NZ? THE POLITICAL CULTURE OF AUSTRALIA IS PRETTY TOXIC, UGLY AND DYSFUNCTIONAL AND IT’S LONG OVERDUE FOR A CHANGE OF HEART. FOR ALL THAT THERE ARE MANY MANY ORDINARY PEOPLE IN AUSTRALIA WHO ARE DECENT PEOPLE AND I TRY TO FOCUS ON THAT.
I’m also noticing in Bad Seed some of the Fremantle local scene coming up. The café strip that everyone loves. I think Gino’s is my favourite café there. Do you have a favourite café, thing, whatever about Fremantle? It reminds me a bit of Bondi and St Kilda, in that it’s a village feel by the ocean. Let rip with your thoughts on Freo and why you think it’s a good setting for novels.
FREMANTLE IS A FASCINATING PLACE. AN OLD PORT WITH A HISTORY RUNNING THROUGH THE MIGRATION WAVES, COLONIAL TIMES, AND PRE-EUROPEAN SETTLEMENT. IT’S A FUNKY TOURIST MECCA NOW BUT UNDERNEATH THAT FACADE IS AN UNDERBELLY OF GRIME. GREAT SETTING FOR CRIME FICTION.
Tell us about your inspirations? What crime fiction authors inspire you? Who do you read? Also, what you read more widely, literary fiction, non-fiction? Who did you read when you were a kid in Sunderland?
I’M A GREAT ADMIRER OF IAN RANKIN, JAMES LEE BURKE, AND I REALLY ENJOYED GRAHAM HURLEY’S PORTSMOUTH SERIES. I ALSO LIKE THE WORK OF MALLA NUNN AND QIU XIAOLONG. BASICALLY, ANY CRIME NOVEL THAT SITS SQUARELY IN AND TELLS ME SOMETHING ABOUT A PARTICULAR SOCIETY AT A PARTICULAR TIME. I TEND TO READ MAINLY CRIME BUT I’M INVOLVED IN A BOOK CLUB AND THEY KEEP ME HOEST BY MAKING ME READ OTHER STUFF NOW AND AGAIN. IN SUNDERLAND I GREW UP READING FIRSTLY THE FAMOUS FIVE, THEN ALISTAIR MACLEAN, THEN POST-PUBERTY I GOT ALL STUDENTY FOR A WHILE AND READ A LOT OF GUNTER GRASS.
I like the different personalities that make up your novels. From Cato Kwong, the Chinese-Australian cop to the Aboriginal character in Bad Seed who speaks five languages and is working as a spook in China, making visiting cops uneasy. Hutchens is a down to earth Australian cop and Lara the one-time man-eater is starting to settle down. Did you plan all this or did it happen organically (whatever that is)?
THEY ALL JUST KIND OF CAME TOGETHER AFTER HOURS OF STARING BLANKLY INTO SPACE. I’M WORKING ON THE FIFTH CATO NOVEL NOW AND REPRISING THE ABORIGINAL SPOOK, RORY DRISCOLL, WHO RETURNS FOR A POST-COLONIAL ADVENTURE WITH CATO IN TIMOR L’ESTE.
I think you’re about the same vintage as me so a few light-hearted questions in one. Martin Peters, Peter Osgood or Charlie George or someone else? Not sure if you’re a cricket fan but if you are. Dennis Lillee, John Snow or Richard Hadley? Do you have an AFL team or can you take it or leave it?
CHARLIE GEORGE STANDS OUT. HE WAS PLAYING IN THE TEAM SUNDERLAND BEAT EN ROUTE TO THE 1973 FA CUP VICTORY. HAVE I MENTIONED THAT AT ALL? DENNIS LILLEE IS THE ONLY ONE OF THOSE I REMEMBER, AND HE’S A WA=BASED SANDGROPER. I SUPPORTED THE DOCKERS FOR A WHILE BUT THEY’RE AS FRUSTRATING TO FOLLOW AS SUNDERLAND.
You write ‘hard crime’ books but there’s also a sense of humour in all your books. A world-weary sense of humour. Is that a fair call?
GALLOWS HUMOUR IS A STAPLE OF CRIME, IT HELPS LIGHTEN THE DARK, AND DARKEN THE LIGHT.
Can we expect to see another book featuring, Nick, the cop from Marlborough Man. I would be happy to read it.
YES, I’VE COMPLETED THE FIRST DRAFT OF THE SEQUEL WORKING TITLE ‘DOOM CREEK’ WHICH FEATURES DOOMSDAY PREPPERS, A GOLD RUSH ON NICK’S BELOVED WAKAMARINA RIVER, AND MORE HI-JINKS IN THE HIGH COUNTRY.
Finally, your new Cato Kwong thriller, Heaven Sent, has just been released. What can readers expect?
IN THE LATEST BOOK I’VE FINALLY DEIGNED FOR CATO TO BE HAPPY FOR A WHILE WITH A NEW WIFE AND BUB BUT THERE’S A KILLER OUT THERE TARGETTING THE HOMELESS AND THINGS ARE ABOUT TO GET VERY STICKY INDEED.
Sean O’Leary is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. His novella ‘Drifting’ is available online @ https://www.busybird.com.au/books/our-books/drifting/
Alan Carter’s latest Cato Kwong thriller has just been released through Fremantle Press @ https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/heaven-sent