Michael Duffy / Allen & Unwin
With the recent Squizzy, the semi-fictional depiction of Melbourne’s crime world descended into the frankly ridiculous. All the more reason then to be thankful for the unflinching eye of Michael Duffy, applying here in Drive By a brilliant mix of reportage drawn from life observation and the novelist’s dramatic touch, to paint a portrait of crime and its effects – grief, confusion, loss, multiple levels of complicity – amongst Sydney’s contemporary Lebanese community. Duffy brings a wealth of experience and a gravitas to this task: he was for many years a crime reporter and opinion columnist at the Sydney Morning Herald; has written biographies of Tony Abbott and Mark Latham; spent a number of years as the contrarian host of ABC Radio National’s Counterpoint program and most recently has emerged as one of Australia’s leading crime fiction writers with his novels The Tower and The Simple Death, featuring flawed local gumshoe Nicholas Troy, along with Bad, his 2011 non-fiction account of the murder of police informant Terry Falconer. Here Duffy moves his focus to the south-western suburbs of Sydney – long seen by sections of the popular media as a kind of black hole of morality, a no-go area for good white Anglo Aussie Christians – and the Habib family. Lebanese-Australian Muslims, the Habibs seem to have drawn the short straw in life: with eldest son Imad in maximum security, a middle son falling under the spell of fundamentalist preachers and youngest son Rafi up on a murder charge he swears has been trumped up, mechanic John Habib (‘Honest John’ at his Toyota workshop in inner-city Auburn) longs for the simple choices in life – but isn’t getting to make them. When Rafi’s case comes to trial, the novel excels with its tightly observed legal dramas, its portrayal of a persecuted good cop in young Bec Ralston – who has fled Dubbo and had an unhappy time of it in the Navy and, even worse, suspects Rafi might in fact be innocent – and all the seething fear of racial tension boiling over from senior cops. Bad men being bad men – and yet themselves inevitably linked to the Lebanese-Australian criminal world. With its meticulous attention to detail, its social commentary and its sympathy for the deep complexities of everyday human drama – the simple struggle to get by in the world – the novel unfolds not as a standard thriller but more as an HBO-style urban narrative, a la The Wire. In analysing the webbed relationship between crime, traditional family structures and Australia’s ethnic communities, Duffy goes head first into material that many would prefer not touch. But this is material that is real, and needs to be told – it forms a critical part of the contemporary Australian social fabric. Duffy neither stereotypes, sentimentalises nor demonises. He spent hours in Burwood Court, where Lebanese families often congregate to support family members on assorted criminal charges, to assist in the authenticity of his narrative. In our flawed natures reside our truths, and Duffy has provided a voice, and a very Australian glimpse, into a layer of our society most of us know nothing of. Highly recommended.