Peter Doyle is the genuine article, a crime writer with a terse, muscular prose style and a feel for the swirling underworld of post World War II Sydney. Take a moment early in his debut, Get Rich Quick, by way of example. Billy Glasheen finds a body in the water and notes that, “The bullet had gone right through his American-made toupee. It was one of those rugs you can wear in the water. Pity he couldn’t do a testimonial – they couldn’t even shoot the fucking thing off.” Doyle is a three time honoree at the Ned Kelly Awards for outstanding Australian crime writing, most recently in a Lifetime Achievement capacity. Americans would do well to mind future outcomes from the ceremony, if Get Rich Quick is any guide. Doyle gives us 1950s Sydney in all its grit and glory, the rush of postwar opportunity of various stripes, and perhaps most winningly, the rise of American popular music. The abiding mystery here is that Get Rich Quick didn’t get a chance with readers in the U.S. sooner. It was originally published in 1996, but there’s no evidence of a U.S. release prior to Dark Passage’s 2011 edition. One cause might be the prevalence of Australian slang in the text, but that’s a dubious claim; Dark Passage offers a glossary to help readers over that hurdle, and in fairness, it’s not a particularly daunting one.
It’s continually surprising that Get Rich Quick is Doyle’s debut. The degree of confidence on display suggests a far more seasoned author. He eschews the conventional, single-caper/single-crime narrative for a three-part structure centered on a single small-time criminal, the aforementioned Billy Glasheen. To Doyle’s credit, Get Rich Quick not only doesn’t suffer from this fracturing of focus, it thrives on it. The structure allows Doyle to check in on Sydney in 1952, ’55 and ’57, a choice which also means access to a racetrack scheme, a jewel heist and a tour with Little Richard. And while each of the three parts is tightly structured, the cumulative effect is wide open.
That may sound surprising, the suggestion of energy and an organic feel in a crime novel with a historical setting, but Doyle doesn’t treat the setting with anything less than urgency. Even his casual mentions of Sputnik and the emerging civil-rights struggles in America feel like an appropriate counterpoint to the shifting landscape of 1950’s Australia. We also get Glasheen’s observations on navigating life on the margins. “Whoever first said that the best way to deal with a bully is to punch him soundly in the nose was a prize goose and obviously had never come across a real bully,” he observes, “The way to deal with a bully is to piss off. Bit sometimes you can’t run, or can’t run fast enough…” Sometimes Billy Glasheen can’t run fast enough, but he’s crafty. He doesn’t favor gunplay or brute force unless left no choice. In fact he seems less committed to criminal enterprise than survival and, even if temporary, prosperity in the face of inhospitable conditions.
In fact Get Rich Quick function as a sort of bildungsroman for Billy Glasheen as well. The schemes we see him involved in grow gradually more sophisticated and, perhaps naturally, nearer respectability. His work as a driver and advance man on Little Richard’s tour is on the borderline of proper employment. Well, as close to the borderline as a man like Billy can get; he still procures drugs for the talent and works toward a plan to fence stolen jewelry. He’s also forced to consider some of his reasoning when he faces men like Laurie, who he double-crosses in the horse racing plot. Laurie spends his time in prison in search of answers for why people do the things they do, gamblers in particular. He confronts Billy with his conclusions:
“I read a bit in the bay. I read about the monks in the Middle Ages, the magicians and head shrinkers in the Arab lands and in India, and the blokes who turned lead into gold. You know what drove them on, Billy?”
“Lead into gold might do it.”
“No. The gold was just a trophy for them, like a certificate of attainment. It wasn’t their main aim.”
“What was it then?”
“They studied hard. They looked at the stars, they manipulated numbers, they cooked up chemicals, they fasted in deserts. They searched nature for signs. Why?”
“To understand the hidden order of things, to know the mind of God.”
“This is very fucking deep, Laurie.”
“What does your punter do? He studies forms, gathers every piece of knowledge he can – track times, jockeys’ records, trainers’ records, owners’ records. he’s like a detective. Or a scholar. And if the tea lady’s son-in-law’s cousin’s friend knows someone who lives in the same street as the owner, then whatever they reckon is added to the punter’s store of knowledge…You know why people bet repeatedly?…Because they hardly ever win.”
It’s a dense and searching passage, somehow reminiscent of the episode of Flitcraft and the falling beams in The Maltese Falcon. But it’s the energy driving Get Rich Quick that keeps the pages turning. Doyle’s choice to put Glasheen on tour with Little Richard could easily feel more gimmicky than earned. That worry bubbles to the surface briefly, when Doyle writes, “Rock ’n’ roll music had broken in Australia in 1955, first with the release of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ then later with Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’” He quickly dispels that worry. Doyle draws a bead on the shoestring quality behind those early tours, and the sense that while the promoter might be as much charlatan as anything else, but that an ear for something new might make up for those shortcomings. More remarkable, though, is Doyle’s ability to channel the atmosphere of the shows from the era, the electricity and anticipation. On one occasion, Billy is uneasy about the makeup of the crowd:
“Jumping Jesus, look at that!”
Eddie said “What, man?”
“The crowd! There’s thousands of them. If they turn on a blue…”
“Aw, don’t worry, man, rock ’n’ roll crowds don’t fight each other, not when the music’s playing. I’ve seen it like this plenty of times. They’ll be a good crowd.”
Eddie’s prediction holds, each and every time:
But Richard and the band really tore it up. They played harder and faster than anything I’d ever heard or seen. A lot wilder even than on Little Richard’s records. Charlie belted the shit out of his drum kit. The crowd went troppo.
The second show was the same, but the crowd was even more into it. At the end of Richard’s set the band kept playing, roaring, while Richard ran off stage and then came back on with an armful of booklets, which he threw into the crowd. Fights broke out as the kids all tried to get a booklet.
The booklets turn out to be religious pamphlets, part of Little Richard’s ongoing series of threats to turn his back on the music business and spread the gospel instead. It foreshadows his 1958 Little Richard Evangelical Team, but in the context of Get Rich Quick, it feels mad and unpredictable.
The one abiding shame is that Peter Doyle’s body of work isn’t larger. He’s written three novels, the most recent of which, The Devil’s Jump, appeared in 2001, and which is also available from Dark Passage. He has produced several books of nonfiction since, but he hasn’t brought back Billy Glasheen. Someday, perhaps, but until then, Get Rich Quick is a tense, propulsive introduction to a writer too few American readers know.
– John McIntyre
* Dark Passage will present two more books by Doyle in 2014, one which follows City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948 and Crooks Like Us, and a new book, a novel. Maybe then American readers will sit up and take proper notice.