Morality questioned

If you thought that the Australian Government’s drastic actions had banished the problem of asylum seekers it is time to think again. Not only have Australian artists, playwrights, musicians and novelists, such as Tom Keneally (The Tyrant’s Novel) and Sandy McCutcheon (The Haha Man) adopted the theme locally, but concern for refugees is now inspiring creative works worldwide. The latest novelists to focus on detention centres and the ways that they challenge us for a compassionate response include crime writers Ian Rankin, Garry Disher and Alexander McCall Smith.

Rankin is the master Scottish storyteller who created Detective Inspector John Rebus. Few readers in the English speaking world would not have heard of Rebus, who is among the most credible crime fighters of the last two decades. His adventures evoke the architecture and the characters of Edinburgh. Some 15 stories draw on local history to make these tales unique to the city of Scottish thinkers, warriors and artists. Set in Darkness for example, involves the site for the new Scottish Parliament, rising above the town in an old castle, and mired in political intrigue and corruption.

Rebus’ compassionate response to the plight of asylum seekers is remarkable considering that his outlook is generally cynical. Partly because he needs a shell to protect himself from the terrible sights he witnesses, and partly because he sees more corruption than idealism in those supposedly working for justice, Rebus has a hard comment about everything. When an immigrant is found murdered in the Knoxland housing estate, the police erect a portable office but are met with racist views on the aliens. When local residents try to burn the office using newspapers, Rebus comments sarcastically that he is amazed that ‘someone in Knoxland actually reads’. When a police car has a carton of eggs smashed on its windscreen, he expresses surprise that someone in Knoxland buys fresh food.

Some critics dismiss the crime genre as an unworthy literary form. Certainly there is variable writing in crime novels, which include a range of styles from the hard-boiled to the soft-boiled; from the forensic to the police procedural; from the thriller to the comic. But it is possible to distinguish good writing from bad, and to identify novelists with serious intent. An example of crime writing adapting to contemporary trends was the way that female authors took a feminist perspective on crime and detection in the early 1990s. By subverting the masculinist norms of the genre, such as the prevalence of violent heroes and the depiction of women as passive victims or prizes, writers such as Marele Day, Jean Bedford, Kerry Greenwood and Claire McNab produced works that are thought provoking as well as entertaining. Their heroines represented the move by women into the public sphere of bureaucracies, parliaments and the media. Their adventures showed that reactionary forces were deliberately shrinking that sphere in order to control women’s newly-found independence.

Rankin has previously dealt with serious themes such as child pornography and paedophilia. In Fleshmarket Close, he juggles several stories. While investigating the murder of the immigrant, a Turkish Kurd who was trying to re-establish himself as a journalist, Rebus helps colleague, D.S. Siobhan Clarke, search for a missing girl whose sister committed suicide after being sexually assaulted, and explores the discovery of two skeletons buried in the cellar of a bar. By expanding on the themes of racism and xenophobia, Rankin ensures that his crime stories are a legitimate literary vehicle.

Rebus is shocked by conditions inside the Whitemire detention facility. He remembers the building from when it was a prison in the 1970s, and is unconvinced when the administrator attempts to distinguish it from other places of incarceration. ‘Those new buildings you saw as you came in—specially constructed family units. TVs and a cafeteria, table tennis and snack machines …’ Rebus interrupts: ‘And which of those don’t you get in a prison?’ In a familiar pattern, the administrator admits that Whitemire is owned by an American firm that runs privatised prisons in the USA and Britain.

Rebus has come to Whitemire because the wife and children of the murdered Kurd are incarcerated there. The administrator denies that he hid the connection. He shrugs off Rebus’ question about suicides: ‘Comes with the territory’. During another visit, Rebus witnesses a death in custody. Given the lack of hanging points, the man must have been extremely desperate. Later, as connections between former inmates of Whitemire and a slavery racket are established, the administrator slashes his wrists with the glass from a family photograph.

When the murdered man’s wife goes to identify her husband’s body, her children refuse to leave her. Rebus routinely visits mortuaries in the line of duty but he has not seen children around bodies before. This upsets him enough for a colleague to ask what is bothering him. He replies, ‘I just think they deserve a childhood, that’s all’. He buys toys and takes them to Whitemire where a guard insists they will be checked. Rebus is appalled: ‘You think there are drugs hidden inside the doll?’ The guard agrees it is silly and guarantees that the children will get the toys. The two men share a look as Rebus realises that this guard is actually humane. He asks, ‘How do you stand it here?’ The guard replies, ‘Would you rather have the place staffed by people different from me? God knows there are enough of them …’ Here Rankin is again realistic. Whitemire is an important employer and in times of high unemployment, people cannot put principles before the pay packet.

Outside Whitemire sits a lone woman keeping a vigil. Rebus befriends her and tips her off about what he has seen. They dine together, but Rankin, ever the realist, ensures that the gulf between their worlds remains unbridgeable. Clarke has seen the desperation of people who work there and quarrels with the vigil woman, whom she accuses of being able to afford the moral high ground. Of course,
governments know the situation and exploit the vulnerability of those on the outside as well as those within these prisons.

Closer to home, Garry Disher, one of Australia’s most under-rated writers, detects a note of hypocrisy in the economic justification for detention centres. Disher has created D.I. Hal Challis who works on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. His cases usually involve both uniform and detective branches and are in the police procedural mould. In Kittyhawk Down, an unidentified body has turned up in the ocean and Challis suspects a major crime connection. Others suspect some asylum seekers who have escaped the local detention centre in an old navy barracks. Disher skilfully draws together several themes, including local politics, petty crime, Challis’ love of restoring aircraft and his troubled relationships. His wife is in prison for conspiring to murder him and regularly attempts self harm. He has a developing relationship with local journalist Tessa Kane, but professional considerations add to Challis’ apparent lack of enthusiasm for deeper involvement.

Kane and Challis’ closest colleague D.S. Ellen Destry are among the few locals to resist the hysteria over asylum seekers. Two Malaysian students have been assaulted and their head coverings torn off. Graffiti has been sprayed around urging: ‘Bomb Muslims back to the stone age’. To Ellen, however, the inmates appeared starved and ‘psychologically frail’. The centre was welcomed by the Chamber of Commerce, but in reality it provides only half a dozen jobs for locals while lining the pockets of an American corrections company and stirring up local bigots. If job creation were the aim, then it is likely that more support staff would be required if asylum seekers were allowed to live in the community.

Another accomplished crime writer, Alexander McCall Smith, has branched out from his Mma Ramotswe series to explore the polite world of Edinburgh. Mma Ramotswe is the highly moral head of Botswana’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but his new sleuth is Isabel Dalhousie, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. Dalhousie is at the theatre when a young man falls to his death, and decides to conduct her own investigation into the circumstances. Although asylum seekers do not appear in The Sunday Philosophy Club, Isabel offers some important insights into morality. Especially applicable to the incarceration of women and children who have fled oppressive regimes is the idea of a ‘moral imagination’.

‘Morality depended on understanding the feelings of others. If one had no imagination—and there were such people—then one would not be able to empathise with them. The pain, the suffering, and the unhappiness of others would not seem real, because it would not be perceived.’

Indeed, even when she is dealing with possible suspects, she notes the importance of being ‘well-mannered’: ‘international law, after all, was simply a system of manners writ large’. She argues that ‘good manners depended on paying moral attention to others; it required one to treat them with complete moral seriousness, to understand their feelings and their needs … to treat them with respect’.

One problem with politicians is that they read too many biographies that reinforce their ideas of self-importance. They might develop more open minds if they relaxed and read some works of imagination.

There are many reasons that we should change our policy on asylum seekers. While it might sound a selfish priority, one of the most compelling is that detention of children damages us. Locking people away without benefit of legal proceedings makes us jailers and incarcerators; threatens human rights and dignity; and shows that we make our ethical decisions without reference to principle. We seem to do it only because we can. According to the Children Out of Detention website (, some 113 children will spend this Christmas in Australian detention centres. The Immigration Department website has advice on how to send gifts to them. However, Fleshmarket Close, Kittyhawk Down and The Sunday Philosophy Club would be very appropriate Christmas presents for anyone who still endorses mandatory detention. 

Fleshmarket Close, Ian Rankin. Orion, 2004. isbn 0 752 85113 6, rrp $55
Kittyhawk Down, Garry Disher. Allen and Unwin, 2003. isbn 0 186 508981 8, rrp $19.95
The Sunday Philosophy Club, Alexander McCall Smith. Penguin, 2004. isbn 0 316 72956 6, rrp $29.95

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. His opinion pieces and reviews have appeared in numerous journals including Australian Financial Review, Australian Quarterly, Australian Book Review, Online Opinion, Online Catholics, the Journal of Australian Studies, New Matilda and Drawing Board: Australian Review of Public Affairs.



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