5 June 2024

Award-winning author Michael Brissenden to discuss new crime novel inspired by 2020 South Coast bushfires

| Kellie O'Brien
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Michael Brissenden Corrimal

Michael Brissenden will promote his latest book Smoke at Corrimal Library in June. Photo: Mike Bowers.

The devastating 2020 Black Summer bushfires on the South Coast sparked the idea for award-winning Australian journalist and crime fiction author Michael Brissenden’s latest novel, Smoke.

During an author talk at the Corrimal Library on 26 June, Michael will discuss the book which tells how in the wake of a devastating wildfire that ravages the town of Jasper in the Californian Sierras, a grim discovery unfolds within the charred remains of a shed.

Initially dismissed as a tragic accident, the apparent open-and-shut case takes a chilling turn upon closer inspection – revealing the victim was deliberately locked in.

Michael, an ABC journalist and foreign correspondent who has covered many bushfires during his career, said the inspiration for the novel came from personally having a family home in a small village on the South Coast that was close to the Currowan bushfires in 2020.

His village was lucky. Others weren’t.

“I was watching the fire on the apps and talking to people down there,” he said.

“We didn’t have any family there at that time luckily, but our neighbours were there.”

He said he saw how traumatised people were by the fires, in particular the Currowan fires, which lasted for weeks and threatened lives and destroyed property.

“It just occurred to me, what a great setting for an opportunistic crime,” he said.

“What if somebody committed a murder under the cover of a wildfire or a bushfire, and people thought, ‘Well, the person died in the fire’?

“Then they discover that actually it was murder, and a person had used the fire as cover.

“So that’s where it started.”

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He said he didn’t want to write about a specific town or place, so instead made up a town.

“I thought this gives me an opportunity to talk about a whole lot of things that concern people living in small communities about the changing climate and about how that’s impacting on towns,” he said.

Michael said once the story spilled into development corruption and police corruption, it gave him his starting point.

However, just as he began to write, the rain started to fall and continued to do so for months.

“It was also not feeling right to be writing about Australia, and then it started burning in California,” he said.

With his agent based in California, the question was posed as to whether that could be the location, leading him to travel to California and spend three weeks speaking to police and residents.

“I’ve spent a lot of time covering corrupt conduct,” he said.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of cops in my time, and I’ve been very close to first responders.

“In California, there are a remarkable number of parallels with the experience here in Australia, but the one big difference is the police experience.”

He said in NSW there was one police service. In California, there was “something like 75 different police jurisdictions”.

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“I had to work out how this protagonist, who was under investigation under an LAPD internal affairs investigation, could be put on furlough and go back to her hometown and still work as a police officer,” he said.

However, there were parallels between the two countries too.

“One was the experience of Indigenous people and how their forest management practices and fire management has been ignored for a long time,” he said.

“Now people are starting to recognise that, actually, a lot of the things the Indigenous people have been doing over the centuries have managed the fires in a way that we need to learn from.

“That was a very interesting parallel with the same thing happening there.”

With Michael’s previous books The List and Dead Letters politically based crime novels, he admits he didn’t intentionally set out to write crime, but is happy to now sit in that genre.

“It’s a great place to be, particularly at the moment, because it’s going through a bit of a renaissance,” he said.

With Smoke part of what many are now dubbing the ‘cli-fi’ meets ‘cri-fi’ genre in reference to climate and crime intertwined, Michael said it was difficult to write stories about people living in fragile environments and not talk about the climate.

Tickets are now available for the Author Talk at Corrimal Library on 26 June from 6 to 7 pm with wine and cheese served. He will also be part of the Kiama Readers’ Festival from 19 to 20 July.

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