This is going to sound like one very weird review - but I just can't figure out how to explain the effect of CROOKS LIKE US by Peter Doyle without using words like fascinating, haunting, astounding, beautiful and absolutely and utterly mesmerising.
This book is a fascinating compilation of photographs and stories from the 1920's and 30's (or thereabouts) in Sydney. During this period for some reason, police in Sydney Central Station started taking photos of people who passed through. Many of them are between arrest and charge, and certainly before court or any other proceedings. To go along with the photographs Doyle has, where possible, matched up a little of each person's story - the charge, their ongoing record, or more poignantly - found nothing more about the person whose image becomes even more evocative.
The photographs themselves are simply startling. Stark, frequently surprising, relaxed or guarded, the images of these people are astounding. Standing or seated, usually in a pair of photos, these images show people in facial close-up and then full-length. The clarity of these images is remarkable, and the detail they show, from the faces of the subjects, through to their clothes, accessories, their shoes and their expressions is really something to behold. Many of the photographs are haunting - the past staring the present and future straight in the eye.
There are a few odd names that came to mean more in criminal notoriety - Chow Hayes for example, but in the main these are mostly unknown criminals, involved in all sorts of criminal activities. Conmen, conwomen, thieves, breakers, receivers, perjurers, escapees, pickpockets, drug dealers, drug users, murderers, razor men, tricksters - many of the details of their crimes were tracked down by Doyle - from the sad, and minor through to those starting out on a more dedicated life of crime. Some of the inscriptions are particularly evocative: "O'Donogue's Trainees" as the author puts it, ripe with suggestions. Hazel McGuiness, charged alongside her mother who the police referred to as "the vilest creature I have seen in my whole 20 years experience", got the slightly kinder observation of "she had scarcely had a chance in life, raised as she was in an atmosphere of dope and immorality". Her mother's photograph on one page, the daughter on the following is a particularly poignant juxtaposition.
There are also moments of some humour, possible after this long period of time - including some absolutely hilarious defences or attempts at explaining away the inexplicable. There's also no way you could ever accuse people of political correctness in those days - so many of the nicknames are going to make current-day readers cringe just a little bit.
But what will stay with you is the images of those people - so many of them will have connections reaching forward into the current day, in these faces there is so much stark and real humanity that it's just breathtaking. The insolence of some, the terror in the eyes of others. The fake bravado, the beautiful and the ugly, the sheer madness, the sly, embarrassed, defiant or distressed, the nonchalant and the frightened.
These images, and the stories of the people that go with them will stay with me for a long-time and I know I will be drawn back to the book over and over again. It's a simply breathtaking record of a period of time, and a set of people that calls out across the years in a way that is absolutely and utterly mesmerising.
CROOKS LIKE US was shortlisted in the True Crime section of the 2010 Ned Kelly Awards.