Review of Sydney Noir
‘Sydney Noir: The Golden Years’
Michael Duffy and Nick Hordern
Can a crime era be described as golden? That depends on your point of view, I suppose. If you’re a criminal or a corrupt cop, the description might, or might not, be apt. Hence ‘Sydney Noir’ is subtitled “The Golden Years” with more than a modicum of irony.
This compelling, well-researched and finely written book focuses on the Sydney underworld from 1966 to 1972. Good times to be a crim, apparently.
These “golden years” saw the replacement of illegal gambling as the main source of criminal revenue by the much more lucrative and pernicious drug trade, which, unlike illegal SP bookmaking, the public did not tolerate.
In this deeply revisionist history, Michael Duffy and Nick Hordern make a number of controversial claims. These include stating that pornography was decriminalised in the 1970s and arguing that evidence points to the conclusion that Robert (previously Robin) Askin, the controversial Liberal Party premier of NSW from 1965 to 1975, may not have been corrupt. It is, they conclude, “An Open Question”.
As Duffy and Hordern concede, first-person accounts of the Sydney underworld by crooks and cops and those who acted as go-betweens are hard to find. A notable exception is the detailed record of interviews conducted by NSW and Queensland Police in 1971 with prostitute and brothel madam Shirley Brifman, who died in extremely suspicious circumstances at a police safe house in Brisbane in March 1972. It seems to me likely that what police ruled was a “drug overdose” may have been a case of murder.
As it happens, Brifman’s lover, and possible betrayer, was the violent, heavy-drinking NSW Detective Sergeant Fred Krahe. Brifman was also sexually involved with a Queensland detective, Glen Hallahan. Indeed the high-powered triangular relationship between Brifman, Krahe and Hallahan became, as the authors explain, “the nexus between police corruption in Sydney and Brisbane in the later 1960s”.
There are some evocative black and white photos in ‘Sydney Noir’, including pictures of leading Sydney criminals Lennie McPherson (widely known as “Mr Big”) and of McPherson’s close associate Stan (“The Man”) Smith, plus another of premier Askin drinking with the still influential, retired Detective Inspector Ray Kelly. The latter was known as “The Gunner” because of the number of people he had killed in Sydney.
Duffy and Hordern also write in impressive detail about the “colourful” underworld boss Abe (“Mr Sin”) Saffron; the notorious criminal recidivist Darcy Dugan; the convicted murderer John (“Chow”) Hayes; the powerful Frederick (“Paddles”) Anderson and “The Prince of Punters”, Perce Galea. The authors are particularly revealingly about George Freeman – who, they convincingly claim, was “possibly the most able and successful of Sydney’s criminals” at the time.
‘Sydney Noir’ also features a detailed expose of the NSW Police Commissioner at the time, Norman (“The Foreman”) Allen. In charge of an often dodgy police force from 1962 to 1972, Allen was, like premier Askin, a leading Mason.
Interspersed with these mini-biographies are juicy details of the intense activities of thousands of American soldiers on seven-day “rest and recreation” leave from the war in Vietnam. They were, as the authors put it, “busy turning Kings Cross into one big party”, with the criminals who ran Kings Cross profiting hugely from their fun and games.
Towards the end of this fascinating account of Sydney’s underworld, Duffy and Hordern note that “in a period when it was almost impossible to have been a major Australian politician and not have one’s life written up, no biography has ever been published of Robert Askin”.
This biographical lacunae also applies to Australia’s arguably most incompetent and untrustworthy prime minister, William McMahon, who was Liberal Party PM from March 1971 to December 1972 – a period covered in detail in this impressive book.
But there is a fine recent PhD thesis, about the 1965-1975 Askin government, by Paul Loughnan, whose help in writing ‘Sydney Noir’ Duffy and Hordern acknowledge. It is available online from the University of New England. It is also a fascinating read.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books.
The Age & The Sydney Morning Herald, June 17-18 2017, spectrum, Books, pp 18-19.