Mystery master: David Owen’s detective novels

August 19, 2016 9:00pm

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Hobart writer David Owen, author of the 
<i>Pufferfish </i>detective series. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNEHobart writer David Owen, author of the Pufferfish detective series.

Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

THERE is nothing like discovering a novelist whose books can grab and hold your attention even when your eyes are heavy with sleep and the alarm is set for the morning school/work scramble.

Having just read three David Owen novels in quick succession, I am all set for an interview with the author responsible for my bleary-eyed state.

Not since binge-reading every Raymond Chandler novel I could get my hands on have I been so intent on devouring everything an author has produced.

While Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novels are based in seedy-but-glamorous 1940s Los Angeles, Owen’s elegant police procedurals are set in my backyard.

As I discover when I try to track down Owen’s earlier novels at Salamanca’s Hobart Bookshop, the African-born writer has a fan base here and in the US.

“He has a bit of a cult following,” the shop assistant says as she directs me to the Tasmanian authors section.

“We had a couple from America in the other day asking if we had any second-hand copies of his first novels.”

Those familiar with Owen’s work will know his latest novel 13-Point Plan for a Perfect Murder is the seventh title in the Pufferfish series. The protagonist is Franz Heineken, a gruff Hobart-based detective inspector whose prickly demeanour has earned him the Pufferfish nickname.

David Owen’s latest novel from his Pufferfishdetective series.

That the Netherlands-born character is named after a Dutch beer shows Owen is a writer who does not take himself too seriously.

I buy a copy of the sixthPufferfish, How The Dead See, published in 2011 by Owen’s previous publisher Forty Degrees South.

I doubt I would have picked up this book had I not been looking for it. The bland, glossy cover is not nearly so appealing as the new book, which is a sweet yellow paperback published by Hobart’s Fullers Bookshop in the style of the classic orange Penguin paperback.

On the Tasmanian Arts Guide website, Owen’s portrait shows a very stern middle-aged man and I have heard the former Island magazine editor described as “quite formal”, which makes me fear I am in for a stilted interview.

However, when we meet for coffee at the Mona wine bar Owen is neither frosty nor aloof, his friendliness totally at odds with the Arts Guide photo. It is possible to see why he might be described as formal, but the 59-year-old is welcoming and inquiring. Maybe “gentlemanly” is the correct term. His accent is a curious mixture of South African, English and Aussie.

Owen previously worked as a librarian, including for the CSIRO in Melbourne, but when he and his wife Leisha (also a librarian, who works at the Hobart library) first moved to Tasmania, he stayed home to juggle writing with fatherly duties.

The couple arrived in Hobart from South Africa – via Melbourne and London – in the ’80s. With a Welsh father and Canadian mother, Owen grew up in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), Malawi and Swaziland, where his father worked as a headmaster. “It was probably a lot like growing up in Australia,” Owen says. “After school we would run around in the bush and swim in rivers. We had this extraordinary sense of freedom.”

Owen suggests Mona as our meeting place because it is one of the settings in 13-Point Plan, which has a plot that traverses the Tasmanian landscape – from a fictional polo resort east of Hobart to a Styx Valley marijuana crop and a rough northern-suburbs pub. Another interview location option was Budgie Smuggler’s Takeaway shop in downtown Hobart, which also makes a cameo in the book.

“In some ways it is my homage to my new homeland,” Owen says of his decision to set the Pufferfish novels in Tasmania. “All the reviews I’ve read of these books from interstate and beyond focus on the setting and they’re all really positive about the setting.”

The realism of Owen’s characters and dialogue has also attracted positive reviews. Heineken (aka Pufferfish) is not a Sherlock Holmes-like character who solves every crime with masterful brainpower.

He has a shady past, needs an occasional nap, his boss cannot stand him and his underlings are regularly offended by his brusque ways. “Gloriously curmudgeonly,” a review in The Australian described him.

Heineken’s cynicism and dry humour combined with a grudging empathy make him a believable old-school cop character, although Owen says he is not based on a real person.

David Owen has garnered a cult following for his Pufferfish detective series. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

“Having said that, there are readers out there who have said, ‘It’s really good you’ve based your main character on Lupo Prins’,” Owen says, adding that any resemblance between Pufferfish and Prins, a former deputy police commissioner of Tasmania, are purely accidental.

“I didn’t even know him [Prins] let alone that he is Dutch. But he was good enough to launch one of my earlier novels. He came into the bookshop dressed up in all his finery. It was wonderful.”

Like most of us lowly civilians, Owen’s assumptions about police procedures and lingo stem from cop shows, news reports and crime novels. “I was concerned not to mimic the reality of policing in the state,” he says. “It’s a matter of working out what readers are going to accept as pretty close to the truth.”

He admits he is a little surprised to find himself writing about police, given the mistrust he had of authority as a youngster. At university in South Africa Owen gained a criminal record for protesting against apartheid. “It was a legally based system of racism enforced on the streets. It was just appalling,” he says. “We grew up with a very native dislike and fear of the police, which is all the more ironic now that I’m writing very much from the perspective of police.”

Owen reveals he trawled through the White Pages to ensure he did not offend Tasmanians with his choice of villain names, which seems polite in the extreme. But he does not shy away from the darker elements of Tasmanian history and society.

His writing is dotted with a subtle social commentary that is both perceptive and forgiving of his adoptive home. The dialogue between characters is peppered with snappy one-liners, word plays, snippets of historical fact and pieces of trivia.

“Clearly, it’s a work of fiction but I’m trying to give it a realism that comes out of that sort of dialogue,” Owen says. “And the setting is very real. I’m not trying to gild the lily.”

By day, Owen is the official secretary of Government House in Hobart, making him the right-hand man to Governor Kate Warner. Having previously profiled Warner for TasWeekend, I am aware she is a passionate reader of fiction, but Owen manages to deflect the question of whether Her Excellency has read his work.

He is at pains to keep his day job separate from his writing, which he does at night or during annual leave. He wrote the bulk of 13-Point Plan during a month-long summer break.

Peter Rozovsky is a Philadelphia-based newspaper sub-editor who writes the popular literary blog Detectives Beyond Borders and introduces US readers to international crime-fiction through regular radio appearances.

“I had never come across a crime-fiction protagonist like Franz Heineken,” Rozovsky tells TasWeekend of the character he first encountered a decade ago.

“One finds solitary, damaged fictional detectives by the score, but Pufferfish was solitary without self-pity. He delighted in his own prickliness. He was funny. Pufferfish may be a distant cousin of Philip Marlowe [Raymond Chandler’s protagonist]. They both clash with authority. But Pufferfish is nowhere near as neurotic or haunted or disappointed as the typical American hard-boiled detective.”

Rozovsky loves travel, of both the actual and armchair variety, and therefore enjoys books such as Owen’s with detailed descriptions of land and streetscapes.

David Owen, right, with late brother Jess, sister Pauline and a companion at Lake Malawi, circa 1959, says his African childhood gave him a great sense of freedom. Picture: SUPPLIED

“I probably knew little about Tasmania before I read the books, other than the Warner Bros cartoon character called the Tasmanian Devil,” he says.

“That’s why I especially enjoyed Owen’s description of Tasmanian devils as a plot point in the new book. From his description, the animal’s eating habits are quite similar to those of its cartoon counterpart.”

A special bottle of wine has been rolling around in a drawer at Owen’s home for about eight years, a memento from his days on the set of a feature film based on his unconventional love story Bitters End.

The cast and crew of the movie Hurrah became regulars at the vineyard in the Murray Darling region of Victoria. Owen, who wrote the screenplay, took a bottle home and although he suspects the cabernet sauvignon is well past its best, he has not been able to bring himself to open it.

Bitters End was my first literary novel so I always thought that when I wrote another one I would open the wine,” Owen says. “This new one [13-Point Plan] is close to it, so I might have to open it now.”

The stories are just great and it is something we can direct tourists to when they come in

While Owen’s Pufferfish series looks at murder through the sardonic eyes of a slightly jaded cop, Bitters End explores death and personal tragedy from the viewpoint of a grieving lover. Published in 1993, it is gripping and evocative, with spot-on dialogue and well-honed first-person narrative. It is, as Owen suggests, much more ambitious and accomplished than his comparatively light-hearted detective novels.

It deserves a wide readership, but Bitters End is no longer in print.

Hurrah had only a tiny release before the distribution company went out of business. Apart from small entries on the Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia, it is as though the film was never made. Owen is pragmatic and philosophical about what appears to be a lost opportunity.

“Apparently most feature films that are made are hardly seen or not released at all,” he says. “I feel very privileged to have had all these books published full stop.”

Later, when I speak with Fullers Bookshop’s Clive Tilsley, he says thePufferfish series – rebadged the Pufferfish Tasmanian Mystery series – is Fullers’ first foray into fiction publishing.

While 13-Point Plan was launched last month, the next book, Romeo’s Gun, is due out in November. Both will have an initial print run of 1500 and will also be distributed as e-books.

“We’re calling it Tasmanian pulp,” Tilsley says. “The stories are just great and it is something we can direct tourists to when they come in.”

The cover artwork of 13-Point Plan is by Tasmanian painter Robert O’Connor, and Tilsley intends to continue the local art theme for the next covers, which will include a re-release of Owen’s first four outof- printPufferfish novels.

The pufferfish-handcuff logo on the front is by the elder of Owen and Leisha’s two sons, Hilton, who is an artist represented by Hobart’s Handmark Gallery. Their younger son is about to finish a medicine degree at the University of Tasmania.

Although Owen is thrilled about the deal with Fullers and the planned re-release of his earlier novels, the first of which was published in the mid-’90s, he is nervous about some stylistic discrepancies.

“I have it on really good authority that a few years ago a copy of the very first Pufferfish called Pig’s Head was for sale in a bookshop in Boston for $400, so I know people are really keen to get them,” Owen says.

“But I haven’t read them since they were published. The character’s voice will have changed so I’m nervous to go back and say, ‘Oh God, he [Heineken] doesn’t talk like that anymore’. Do you leave it intact or fiddle with it? A lot of people would think it would be sacrilege to change anything.”

The devoted writer at work at the ironing board in London in 1983. Picture: SUPPLIED

Owen is facing another conundrum. In Romeo’s Gun, he brings back a character who was killed off in an earlier book. Considering readers’ memories are not infallible, this could have gone unnoticed, had Tilsley not been intent on re-releasing the earliest novels.

“In the first four books, Pufferfish has an informant. He was killed in the fourth book but he’s very much alive in this next one. So how am I going to un-kill my informant?” Owen laughs. “Any ideas?”

The only suggestion I can think of is to read Stephen King’s Misery, in which a writer is held captive by a crazed fan who forces him to “un-kill” a central character in one of his books. “Sorry, that’s probably not very helpful,” I say, but Owen politely promises to read it. He is an avid reader of crime and fiction generally, but King’s horror-thrillers have never been on his radar.

We descend the circular staircase to Mona’s bottom gallery and walk past the wonderfully wordy waterfall that is Julius Popp’s artwork Bit.Fall. On the mezzanine level above us is a man known as Tattoo Tim. In 2006, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye tattooed Tim’s back and sold it as an artwork to a German collector, who will keep the tattooed skin when Tim dies. In the meantime, Tim spends hours on display in Mona and also holds weekly talks. “Sherbet, that’s weird,” Owen says as we move to escape Tim’s unsettling, immobile gaze.

Delvoye’s work is meant to challenge perceptions of art, something with which Owen has been preoccupied since his first agonising experiences with the world of publishing in the ’80s. In fact, it was his musings on the subjectivity of artistic – and novelistic – taste that inspired Owen to create a detective character in the first place.

He had early success with British publisher Bloomsbury accepting two novellas about apartheid in South Africa, but Bitters End, which was his first full-length novel, was initially rejected. The editors wanted him to rewrite the ending to effectively make it more conventional, something he was not prepared to do.

“I was really quite upset about this [rejection of the novel], thinking about how everyone is really subjective in how they approach things,” Owen says. “That led me to write a manuscript about our perceptions of art and I came up with the idea of a detective. If something goes wrong, a detective is not going to subjectively investigate it, they’ll bury their personal prejudices.”

His initial idea of a plot in which the clues to a murder are hidden in an unfinished artwork eventually evolved to become How the Dead See, which is about the suspicious death of a troubled actor.

Bitters End was eventually published by Picador, while veteran Melbourne publisher Louise Adler commissioned the first four Pufferfish for Mandarin Publishing. However, when Mandarin was taken over by Random House, the new publishers were unenthusiastic about the crime series and 12 years passed before Warren Boyles from Forty Degrees South magazine persuaded Owen to write another two Pufferfish under his masthead.

Although Heineken would reject being called an arts buff, Owen finds ways of weaving his personal obsessions with art and literature into his books. In 13-Point Plan, there is a fictional scenario in which Mona has borrowed the famous Italian Baroque painting Judith Slaying Holofernesby Artemisia Gentileschi from Italy’s Uffizi Gallery, the painting’s revenge theme alluding to a possible motive.

Owen has never met Mona owner David Walsh, but follows his writing and interviews with interest. “I find him totally intriguing,” Owen says of Walsh, who recently received a French knighthood for his contribution to the arts and who made his money by inventing complex gambling systems.

“He obviously has a ferocious intellect and ability to compute and then [there’s] the juxtaposition of that with this amazing artistic sensibility. The fact that those two facets of his personality have clashed and this is what comes out [gesturing at the Mona artwork] is completely wonderful. It’s like he’s been his own agent of the arts.”

I can think of no better character for a future Pufferfish mystery than a millionaire gambler known for obsessions with sex, death and art, but Owen rules out a character based on Walsh. “I would never go near that,” he says, his overt politeness again coming to the fore.

Owen has been in talks over the years with Film Victoria and Screen Tasmania to develop the Pufferfish series for TV, something Tilsley says would greatly broaden Owen’s readership. The producer of Hurrah is among those interested in a Pufferfish adaptation.

Although he has 14 published books to his name, including a nonfiction series about endangered animals, Owen is realistic about his chances of finding fame. “I don’t expect it to go gangbusters,” Owen says. “It’s never been my lot in life to be a bestselling author.”

Like critics such as Rozovsky, I hope he is proved wrong.

For more great lifestyle reads, pick up a copy of TasWeekend in your Saturday Mercury.

 

Source : The Mercury

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