INTERVIEW: Peter Corris on ‘Mag Dog’ (NewSouth)

Peter Corris considers the case of convicted killer William Cyril ‘Mad Dog’ Moxley in his latest book. He spoke to Paula Grunseit in the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher. (See her review here.)

Mad Dog is told using a combination of facts and fictional reconstructions. Why did you decide on this hybrid form?
Most of the documentation on the case, with the exception of a few letters, was official. There were no interviews with police, family, lawyers, etc. I wanted to bring out the tragedy, which it was, not only for the victims but for Moxley himself, his friends and, in a sense, the legal system, with capital punishment being reintroduced after an eight-year gap. The reconstruction, drawing on hints, tones, remarks, in the official records allowed me to bring a personal and human dimension to the case.

What particular challenges did you encounter when telling this story and how did the writing process differ from your fiction?
After more than 60 books of fiction, many of which involved precisely the same sort of people as in this matter—criminals, police, lawyers, distressed women, etc—I didn’t find it hard to imagine, based on the documents, the words these actors might have used. I had to be careful to ‘stay in period’ but, having written quite a few historical novels, I was used to doing this. As a former academic historian, the social history aspects of the book presented no particular problems to me.

How did your opinion of Moxley change as this book developed?
The public and official hostility to Moxley masked many underlying factors, which helped to explain, though not excuse, his actions. Focussing on these, I believe I reached an understanding of the man which came close, at various points, to sympathy. Moxley’s trial took only two days, brief for even those times. His defence was not vigorous and aspects of his physical and mental health, which today would have carried the possibility of a defence based on ‘diminished responsibility’ played no part at a time when the ability to tell right from wrong was the only test of sanity.

What the last book you read and loved?
The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch (Phoenix). It’s about four 19th-century women who defied convention to experience the exoticism of the East.

BOOK REVIEW: Mad Dog: William Cyril Moxley and the Moorebank Killings (Peter Corris, NewSouth)

William Cyril ‘Mad Dog’ Moxley was hanged at Long Bay Gaol in 1932 for the murder of Frank Barnaby Wilkinson and the rape and murder of Dorothy Ruth Denzel. The brutal crimes and resulting investigation attracted extensive public interest and newspaper coverage. Although registered as ‘an habitual criminal’, Moxley had not previously committed a crime of this nature. Syphilitic and suffering migraines, dizzy spells and blackouts after a gunshot wound to the head, he claimed he could not recall the terrible things he had done. Using archival material to explore the legal, political and police systems of the time, crime writer Peter Corris—best known for his ‘Cliff Hardy’ series—tries to get inside Moxley’s head and reconstruct the Depression-era Sydney of the time. Why did Moxley do it, and if he’d been tried today, would he have been found guilty? As the story unfolds, fact interweaves with fiction as Corris reconstructs scenes full of great dialogue; at times these scenes made me hanker after the novel that Corris decided not to write. This is a fascinating book that will appeal to fans of crime (both true and fiction) and authentic Sydney stories. It is the first in a new series of books from NewSouth that are written by popular crime-fiction authors covering real crimes that have caught their imagination.

Paula Grunseit is a freelance journalist, editor and reviewer. This review first appeared in the September issue of  Bookseller+Publisher magazine.