In Perth, Western Australia in 1975 Ruby Devine, brothel madam and mother of three, is shot and killed in her car by the side of a highway. Some months later there has been no arrest and, some would argue, no proper investigation to speak of. Superintendent Frank Swann of the WA Police has accused his fellow officers of the crime and its subsequent cover up. Although his accusations have led to the establishment of a Royal Commission (the highest form of official enquiry possible in Australia) Swann’s life and the lives of his family are at real risk. In fact his oldest daughter has disappeared and Swann is fairly sure she is dead at the hands of the same cops who killed Ruby. Unfortunately he doesn’t have enough evidence, or enough living witnesses, to put them away.
Living my middle-class existence I have, with a few exceptions more notable for their rarity than their drama, gone through my 43 years without knowingly encountering much in the way of real criminality. It is only when I read a book like this, which blurs the boundaries between crime fact and crime fiction in a sobering way, that I am reminded of my level of blissful ignorance. In LINE OF SIGHT Whish-Wilson has created a story based on the real murder of Shirley Finn who was a Perth brothel madam and whose murder remains unsolved to this day. He has deftly depicted the layers of criminality and corruption at all levels of the society he portrays and, far more importantly, he has made me believe it all. There’s the palpable fear displayed by the informants and prostitutes that Swann asks desperately for details of their encounters with corrupt cops. And the not-so-subtle atmosphere of menace that Justice Partridge, flown in from Melbourne to oversee the Royal Commission, endures when dealing with the Police Minister and other authority figures. And there are the things that Frank Swann sees and knows but cannot prove. All of this produces a very real sense that people with power and little morality are very comfortable with how much abuse of their power they can get away with.
I don’t know enough about the real case to know how many liberties Whish-Wilson has taken to create this fictional version of her story but it does seem clear that Shirley Finn and her family didn’t have a policeman like Frank Swann on their side. He is the ultimate hero, not because he knows all the answers or can fight off bad guys with a single blow (he doesn’t and he can’t) but because he doesn’t sit idly by when he sees the corruption around him. He does the sorts of things that we’d all like to think we’d do in similar circumstances but which, history tells us, most people don’t. His working class background and tough present circumstances are juxtaposed nicely with those of Justice Partridge whose more privileged background has, perhaps, not prepared him for this kind of battle. It is interesting to see how finds his own strength from watching the way Swann handles himself in the trying circumstances.
LINE OF SIGHT captures its time period and its setting beautifully. The language, the cultural and political references, the policing methods, the isolationist stance that Western Australians had (still have?) are all ably shown in a myriad of small ways and I really did feel transported back in time. There are many scenes of utter desperation and despair in the book but these are, for the most part, balanced out by the inclusion of Swann’s perseverance and Partridge’s slowly dawning strength to provide a really satisfying and highly recommended read. I only hope it prompts someone somewhere to come forward with information that might provide answers for Shirley Finn’s family.
LINE OF SIGHT has been reviewed at Aust Crime Fiction and Crime Down Under
My rating: 4/5 stars
Author website: http://www.davidwhish-wilson.com/
Publisher: Viking 
Length: 250 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: provided by the author for review