Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Review: Big Shots, Adam Shand (2007) ...

I didn't know what to expect when I bought this study by an old school mate. Was it going to be a grizzly, hard-bitten look at the Melbourne gangland killings? If I thought this I would have been disappointed. Big Shots is far more nuanced and less sensational.

Using the time-honoured literary journalistic technique of total immersion, and placing himself as a character in the drama, Shand uncovers a softer side of mafia-style life, where drug barons, hit men, standover men and the women in their lives attempt to maximise profits at the same time as minimising the likelihood of death. It's a sad world.

It's saddest when Shand is showing how his subjects strive to fight off the inevitable hit. Because the way they lead their lives makes such an outcome almost certain. Once a young man is drawn into the sexy arena of crime, quick money, fast friends and neverending suspicion - the land outside the law next to which ordinary citizens live their lives - it becomes a matter of when, not if, someone will try to kill them.

Shand's main players are Carl Williams and Andrew Veniamin, a couple of hard boys from Melbourne's Western suburbs who begin to make a lot of money by manufacturing and distributing amphetamines. In the process of chronicling their adventures Shand also comes into contact with dozens of other hard men on both sides of the law.

Possibly the high point on Shand's narrative occurs when he attends a funeral in the suburb of Sunshine. The setting is a Greek Orthodox church. The cast includes family members of Andrew Veniamin, who has just been killed, as well as friends and 'associates'. Sitting there in a pew, Shand notices that a lot of people are starting to give him some strange looks. Unnerved, he leaves the building. The drama continues outside, on the street.

Having engaged himself in the lives of the hard men, Shand has become a player, as this episode dramatically demonstrates. You can't just observe something without influencing it.

What we don't get a lot of - because these criminals don't choose to show Shand - is much detail on the processes involved in manufacturing and distributing drugs. Like Hunter S. Thompson in his famous expose of a California chapter of the Hell's Angels, we only see what the hard men choose to show Shand.

In this sense, the book is a disappointment. Nevertheless there is more here than just a bunch of unpleasant men and women badmouthing each other and killing. The killings are the easiest parts for Shand to describe: they're on the public record. What Shand does well that might not have been done well by a less-skilled reporter is show the internal dynamic of fear behind the bravado of the high-toned words we'd expect thugs and gangsters to use in their daily lives. There is a softer side to them and it's by way of this aspect of these individuals that we are allowed to sympathise with them.

Because they are more than just criminals. They are people who have aspirations and dreams, like Roberta Williams with her kids attending a private school and a sign on the door asking visitors to remove their shoes before entering the house.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I wonder which old school mate Dean is...I think I know, but won't reveal for national security reasons. But what a balanced, well analysed critique. He seems to have actually read it! Might I direct you to his new offering The Skull? It's a must for young coppers (and young at heart).

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks for the boost. If there's a new work it's already on my to-read list. Cheers!