One of the best things about true crime books like RAZOR by Larry Writer is the way that they can inform your understanding of current day events. When you hear the news of Gangland wars gone crazy (you realise that's happening again), blood in the streets (again), crime gone mad (again), notorious gangsters plying the media (again), the end of the world as we know it (again)...
The story of RAZOR is the story of gangland crime leaders Kate Leigh and Matilda (Tilly) Devine, and the sly grog shops and brothels run by each of them respectively in 1920's and 30's Sydney. The title of the book comes from the gangs that terrorised Sydney, the cut-throat razor being the weapon of choice for most of them. For many years Darlinghurst was referred to, amongst other things, as Razorhurst. It was a wild, dangerous, violent, poor and largely deprived place with gangs on the side of both Leigh and Devine, and gangs up against both women trying to claim their own piece of the action.
One of the things that RAZOR does really well is outline to the reader the time and the circumstances that created the powerbases for both of these women. The instigation of 6.00pm closing of hotels set up a world in which sly grog shops were ripe for making money, and it wasn't long before sly grog and drugs were closely connected. Leigh wasn't the only sly-grogger in Sydney, but she did run some of the better establishments. Some classy, some very basic, the standard of the alcohol she sold was high. Leigh could be dangerous and she could be a friend and supporter to many of her clients. She engendered a sense of loyalty in the bad boys that supported her, and in much of her clientele through gestures of generosity - letting somebody down on their luck sleep on her premises, her children's Christmas parties, and other small gestures that make you think of this woman did a good line in benevolent crook. Which she obviously wasn't, although it would seem that she was generally more liked than her great foe - Tilly Devine.
Tilly worked as a prostitute in England before marrying Australian soldier Jim Devine there and coming to Australia when he was demobbed. They were a formidable pair, Tilly working as a prostitute until she realised that it might be illegal for a man to live off the immoral earnings of a prostitute, but it wasn't for a woman, at which point she started to build her empire of brothels. Jim operated as a protector for Tilly and her girls, and he also ran his own illegal activities on the side. He was a violent and dangerous character in his own right. As similar as both Tilly and Leigh might have been, Tilly seems to have been a slightly different kettle of fish - ruthless, with a vicious streak, Tilly was the ultimate party girl who ended up with nowhere near as many supporters or as much understanding.
Published to tie in with the UNDERBELLY TV series based on the book, RAZOR takes you through the lives, loves, fights, jail terms, and wars of these two women, and many of the other characters from the same time period in Sydney. And it really does remind you that there are some things that simply do not change. The underworld's modus operandi might have changed a bit and the tools of the trade moved on, but the motivation remains the same. RAZOR gives you a really good feeling for what was going on in 1920's and 30's Sydney, it also gives you a real feeling for how these two women got where they got, how they operated, and how they ended.