My new book “Carl Williams” is on the shelves now. People have asked me why I wrote another book on Carl, having already written Big Shots in 2007. The simplest answer is that I needed to write the definitive account of his life for myself and others. The Carl we saw was a creation of the media that he courted and the movie gangsters that he emulated in his rise as a drug dealer and gangland killer. The underlying character is steadily being lost, particularly after the Underbelly series created an entirely new persona. Underbelly was accurate in many respects, but the Carl we saw there was an avatar of the real man. The objective in the new book was to try to set aside this and drill down to the man that family and friends knew. His deeds are no less shocking but I have tried to impart a sense of where he and his family came from to explain why he reacted as he did when Jason Moran shot him in the stomach in October 1999. Having done that, it’s now time to gently push Carl out to sea for the last time. Here is the introduction to the book which I hope will give you a taste of what the book’s about.
In death, Carl Williams’ cult-hero status has been secured.
Melbourne’s gangland war has become the most widely reported, and dissected, series of crimes in Australia’s history. Millions more people around the world know Carl’s story through having watched the top-rating Underbelly TV series.
In Underbelly, the actor Gyton Grantley portrays Carl as an ordinary man who prevails in a struggle against an evil criminal elite that tries to keep him and his family down. And that is the image that has stuck with Carl’s fans, rather than that of a greedy, slothful coward who acquired a taste for blood.
The phenomenon came full circle when in 2009 Being Carl Williams was named as a finalist in Sydney’s Tropfest short-film festival. In the film, two crooks confuseUnderbelly’s Grantley for the real Carl. They kidnap him and make Grantley participate in an underworld killing. Even the victim is convinced that Carl has managed to escape Barwon Prison to do him in.
In nine years of covering this story as a reporter, I have swung between both views of Carl – as the hero and the coward. We see what we want to see.
In 2003, approaching this story as a journalist, I saw Carl as a product of the state’s failed ‘war on drugs’. He was supplying an unquenchable thirst for narcotics, aided and abetted by corrupt police. Drugs had poisoned society at all levels and the bloody gangland war taking place was a consequence. It was time to examine how the drugs prohibition model had created and enriched the dramatis personae of this story.
I accept that this approach tended to overlook some of the players’ culpability. But, let’s face it, they were killing people we didn’t like. Melbourne crooks are fond of saying : ‘We catch and kill our own.’ On that basis, things ran quite smoothly in the Garden State for a long time. The public didn’t care about the dozens of unsolved underworld murders. It made for great tabloid copy, nothing more.
Melbourne’s gangland war was my first crime-writing assignment, undertaken for The Bulletin magazine and the Nine Network’s Sunday program. From that work emerged a book, Big Shots, which recorded the time I spent with Carl Williams and his cohort as events moved towards their bloody crescendo in 2003–04.
The saturation media coverage of the saga, followed by the screening of Underbelly, and later the frenzy over his death, has turned Carl into an icon. There is a need to reclaim the fact of his life, before the fiction takes over.
In early 2012, a Higher School Certificate student from Sydney contacted me to say she was doing her major artwork on Carl. ‘Silvy’ came all the way to Melbourne with her mother in tow to interview me. She was going to turn Carl’s life into ‘a postmodern work capable of individual interpretation’.
‘The origins of the concept are an interest in exploring the stories and background of individuals who have had a public image created by the media. The public image is often an artificial or superficial façade, and their stories and history are a more complex layering of human emotions,’ Silvy told me earnestly.
Silvy had been only ten when the real Carl went on his murderous rampage, but the Carl portrayed by Gyton Grantley in Underbelly had captured her imagination. The lines between fact and fiction were blurred. The day the real Carl died had been one of the most intense experiences of her young life.
‘I had fifty text messages that day from my friends. We were all in shock that Carl, this person we felt so close to, had been killed. We felt we knew him because we identified with his struggle,’ she said.
‘Carl was just an ordinary person. People can relate. Carl seems like someone living a life that anyone could, but [he] became a rebel and underdog. While I wouldn’t want to be him (too risky), when watching the TV show, I felt as though I was cheering for him.
‘I suppose that the whole story is like watching a reality TV show – we are interested in ordinary people who become famous for simply being on TV. But would I want to be on the show? No way. With Carl’s murder, the story has now finished and like movie stars that have died young, Carl’s image will not age.’
For his critics, this immortality is rather inconvenient. Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt suggested that authorities put Carl’s body on show to counter his folk-hero status.
‘Let’s see that famous “baby face” now. Let’s see what Carl Williams looks like after being bashed to death,’ Bolt wrote.
‘Show the body, as we used to do when a killer was finally dead and we needed to kill his legend, too. The trouble is, Williams is not really dead. Not yet. Not in the way it matters to the rest of us.’
Some people would only believe Carl was dead after they saw him stretched out on a slab, his skull shattered like an eggshell. A grisly post-mortem picture of Carl’s face was duly posted on Twitter. And still he lives on, at least in the virtual world.
On 13 October 2011, what would have been Carl’s forty-first birthday, a female fan posted on one of several Facebook tribute sites.
‘Happy Birthday, have a great day. X’