Her after-midnight arrival at the party had been theatrical, arm-in-arm with two wide-shouldered men whose suits and menace cowed the pretend bohemians, musos and would-be wide-boys there. She stood out amid the laid-back vibes crowd, not just for the excess eye make-up, super-cool attitude and "slut chic" outfit but also for her compressed energy and insouciant charisma. And for last-wording a disagreement with a suitor by emptying a bottle of Jim Beam over his ardour.
I'd like to claim I recognized something special in her that night, but I can't. I just thought she was slightly mad, bad and dangerous - like so many other suburban girls then flirting with the wild side. "Sallie-Anne always wanted to be a star," her sister Debra notes in this book. "If she couldn't make it in the straight world she was determined to make it in the underworld." Which she did, in her own fashion. But she also made her mark in the over world, at a time when Sydney preferred ignorant bliss in overlooking its undercurrent of sleaze.
It's difficult today to credit just how corrupt the city was then, when a cartel of bent cops and violent crims ran roughshod over the law. Silence was bought or achieved by intimidation, dissidents "disappeared", the proprieties were maintained via a selectively compromised judiciary and through political hypocrisy. So when a woman quickly discredited as a drug-addicted prostitute started to make accusations in the early 80s about corrupt cops and murderous conspiracies, it was more convenient to write off her claims as delusional. After a well-publicised TV appearance on 60 Minutes, she became a dead woman walking. Everyone knew it, not least Huckstepp. The only wonder was it took five years before the inevitable hit took her out when she was 32.
By rights, that should have covered up the problem, especially after legal investigation followed its due, if inconclusive process. But something about her story, the tart with heart and foolhardy courage, stuck; it became an urban myth, part of city folklore. Surprisingly perhaps, before this there has been no concerted literary investigation of her life and death. John Dale's crime novels Dark Angel and The Dogs Are Barking established noire-ishly impressive credentials. Solid research, understated intimacy with the urban drama, an unsentimental sympathy for Mean Street humanness. His father, as it happens, was a policeman who became a prosecutor. And in A Dangerous Life, the son uses that meld of dogged pursuit, attention to detail and intuitive leaps of imagination that distinguishes the good detective. Perhaps it's genetic. It's certainly effective.
His forensic faction is a case study in how to give plausible novelistic flesh to non fiction bones. Mailer did it well in The Executioner's Song, Berendt less successfully in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The key is discretion, in ensuring that conjecture and colour seamlessly integrate with fact so that credibility is not compromised, that the true story is culled from the tall stories.
The main fictional impetus is a narrator, who may or may not be the author but who is the adhesive for a scrapbook of scattered evidence. His is a subtle presence, a man who drops tidbits of teasing biography yet who remains essentially anonymous. His role, however, is vital. He provides a uniting centre for the tale's linear fluctuations. And through his resolute blood-hounding, he delivers coherence to a welter of conflicting projections, conjecture, self-interested histories, interviews (Dale spoke to more than 90 witnesses), court transcripts, inquest and autopsy reports and police statements.
A Dangerous Life took nearly six years in its research and writing, including months of skirmishing with the Australian Federal Police over the release of documents. The author also received abusive calls and police warnings to drop the project. His excavations left him with a contradictory weave to untangle: on the one hand, a deluge of documentation and legalese, on the other supreme silence from key witnesses, misdirection and hagiography. It's to his credit that from this paper and anecdote trail he has fashioned an embracing and engrossing story. It's a story that marries deft psychological analysis with biography, trial transcripts with PI bravado, and the complex histories of the likes of Neddy Smith, Warren Richards and Roger Rogerson with police procedural.
And while its cast of colourful identities make it an elemental Sydney story - Huckstepp's personal territory was largely constrained to the wealthy aspirations of the city's Eastern Suburbs and the flash flesh-pots of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst - it has valuable resonances for everyone.
Sallie-Anne Krivoshow came from a dysfunctional if relatively well-off Jewish family, but early pubescence and emotional neglect derailed her. In many ways she was an archetypal victim. She had, however, self-belief, intelligence and drive, plus total self-absorption, rat cunning and uptown ambition. Along with a fatal disrespect for self-preservation and chutzpah enough after the inquest into the shooting down of her lover to confront gangster Neddy Smith in a hotel full of his cronies and call him a dog, the underworld's most serious slur.
From a slightly stuttering start, Dale quickly settles into stripping away onion layers of secrets - personal and communal - with surgical precision. The risk of failure was real here, given the book's ambition and structure, yet he has herded a multitude of disparate sources and elusive characters into riveting cohesion. His taut language, eye for the telling detail and adroit irony are strengths. As is his ability not to be seduced by sensationalism and sentimentality. His restraint in trusting the reader to discern inference and make connections is admirable. The result is a significant, original work that challenges as much as it reveals.
This article was first published in The Weekend
Copyright © Murray Waldren 2000