Centre for Stories

Robert Jeffreys

"Setting the novel in the sixties allowed the examination of attitudes to these subjects to be revealed and a reader looking back can appreciate how far we have come, but also understand and, perhaps, see issues we still shroud in bias and misunderstanding."

Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.Robert Jeffreys has worked as an actor, teacher, builder, labourer, cleaner, real estate agent, personal security agent and playwright of the professionally produced stage plays Cox Four, Covert, The Simple Truth, and The Messenger. ABC Radio National featured his radio plays, Covert, which received an AWGIE award, and Bodily Harm. He has also published a poetry anthology, Frame of Mind. Robert’s debut novel, Man at the Window, is the first in the Detective Cardilini series, set in 1960s Western Australia.

Man at the Window – Synopsis
When a boarding master at an exclusive boys’ school is shot dead, it is deemed accidental. A lazy and usually drunk detective is sent to write up the report. Cardilini, unexpectedly, does not cooperate, as he becomes riled by the privileged arrogance of those at the school. He used to have instincts. Perhaps he should follow them now…

With no real evidence he declares the shooting a murder and puts himself on a collision course with the powerful and elite of Perth. As he peels back layers, the school’s dark secrets begin to emerge. But is his dogged pursuit of justice helpful or harmful to those most affected by the man’s death?

Man at the Window is the first in the Detective Cardilini series, set in 1960s Western Australia.Black and white portrait of Robert Jeffreys standing next to a brick wall

Your debut novel, Man at the Window, was enthralling—even though, or perhaps because, I hardly ever read crime. For me this is, in part, due to the fact that you set it in the 1960s. Detective Cardilini’s investigation seems far more trying without the benefice of our technology, and there’s something almost romantic about how intelligent he must be because of this. Was this a part of your decision for the period the novel is set in, and what else informed this decision?

Yes, the need for investigators to puzzle more on motive and possible perpetrators appealed to me; and, as I did more reading of policing during that period, it became apparent the investigation progressed or stalled depending on the intelligence and drive of the detectives in charge.

That research paid off—Cardillini’s drive … well, drives the narrative. But because it’s set in the 1960s we are confronted with issues that, although persist today, are harder to contend with—not only for us, as readers, but for the characters of your novel. Was it difficult to write about intersectional privilege, sexual abuse, mental health, suicide and other emotionally demanding subjects, and how did you manage this?

Writing from the boy’s perspective was very demanding. I knew his voice had to ring true and I spent some time pondering the problem before starting. Through good fortune the initial words I typed I didn’t question—and I just let his voice flow. Those sections of the text have stayed as written. I still find them challenging to read and feel the emotion experienced in writing them.

When writing about the young men taking their own life I was aware of the statistics that reveal it’s not an uncommon and many, many people are forever affected by such a tragedy. Sympathetic to this, I wanted the parents and friends of these boys to reveal their depth of emotion.

Institutions fascinate me, for individuals within them manage to forgo their normal human empathy to easily adopt a sense of loyalty to a doctrine usually associated with money. And hasn’t it been so recently revealed through the banking royal commission, which reminded me of the defence statements during the black and white flickering trials at Nuremberg after WWII.

Setting the novel in the sixties allowed the examination of attitudes to these subjects to be revealed and a reader looking back can appreciate how far we have come, but also understand and, perhaps, see issues we still shroud in bias and misunderstanding.

I think the care you took in writing this novel will be apparent to the reader, and you’re right—the issues that crop up in the sixties in your work are issues we still face today, to an extent, and it’s important to keep writing about them. Let’s talk about how we interpret all of this though—through Cardilini. Although intelligent, we meet him at a complex period of his life that makes him a difficult character to read. Getting to know him is hard, but he grows, albeit slowly, on the reader. This is because he was developed so fully, and he was demanding because of this. Where did you find this man—is he an amalgamation of men you know or knew, or did he form in the recess of your creativity?

A cover of Robert Jeffrey's book 'Man at the Window'

Cardilini is an amalgamation of troubled, driven men from reading and observation. They are not easy men to warm to. Cardilini challenged the patience of readers more than I had intended but I’m very thankful they saw enough there to persist with him. I liked him from the start because I knew what was really at the heart of the man. I felt creating the perfect detective was cheating the reader and I felt with Cardilini the reader would be guessing until the end.

I was certainly guessing until the end. And at the end you raise an interesting moral conundrum—which Cardilini must attend—which is very compelling. What drove you to write about this in particular—about the pitfalls of our legal system, and vigilante justice that responds to this?

It’s difficult to identify a particular instance or event. I think readers not unlike myself are constantly questioning the rationale behind our justice system. And I wonder if we have created a monster in the legal system that has shifted greatly from the original precepts. Also, I believe, as humans, we have an innate sense of justice, of what is right and what is wrong, and the idea of readers deciding for themselves the justice of Cardilini’s actions appealed to me.

It appealed to me, as a reader, and had me reflecting deeply on the matter. A number of things, in fact, gave me reason to pause, so tell me about your process for writing this? Your work follows Cardilini, primarily, with the majority of the rest of the novel dedicated to a young boy. How did you write this and piece it together?

Piecing it together was difficult and I’m still not sure if I got it right. I needed the boy’s voice at intervals to remind me of what was really at stake, of who was left hurting and who we, as a society, should be protecting. Too long with the process of investigation had me wanting to get back to what I saw and felt was the heart of the book: the boy’s voice.

It felt right to me, and the boy’s voice was loudest in the end, so I think you got it right. Besides being well pieced together, it’s also very well written. There is a great deal of attention to detail especially. Was this something you had to sew into the story because we’re following a detective during an investigation, or did this occur organically for you?

I like to see my characters in an environment, I like them responding to their environment. I was trying to thread the environment through the narrative on an emotional level but also wanting to engage the reader with the character’s physical world.

Interesting—perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle. Either way, you achieved what you set out to do. What was your experience during this period? Publishing Man at the Window, I mean—from when you started writing this novel to the point it made it onto bookshelves in bookstores?

That was an amazing journey. In 2015, I decided I would write ‘my novel’; it took all of that year. The following year, 2016, it was tied up in a competition so I decided to write the second in the series. All the while I would be walking pass the local Dymocks bookshop imagining it sitting on the shelves. I had no reason to believe it even possible but the momentum to do this never wavered.

In 2017 Man at the Window was released from the competition regulations—which it didn’t win—and I started to send it out. Three months later I received the first email from a publisher showing interest, and shortly after that interest from another publisher. After much work, I received a contract.

Well, I was beside myself, and vacuumed the house. It was such a joy and now, seeing the book on the Dymocks shelves, it’s like a dream.

That’s really lovely—and to boot the books seems to be well-received by readers. Besides, I imagine, working as an especially great vacuum-er, you have a full resume. Actor, teacher, builder, labourer, cleaner, real estate agent, personal security agent and playwright. Did you always know you wanted to write? What advice might you offer to writers struggling to find their feet immediately?

I always wrote. I have a hoard of stage plays and novels sitting on various memory devices. I read long ago, and I’m sorry I don’t know the person’s name to attribute this to for it has served me well, ‘Writing is about putting your bottom on a chair.’ From that action, all the rest can follow. Lots of writing and rewriting, then publishing is about persistence. Finding your feet is when you stop writing to please others and you trust yourself enough to write what you must write.

I’m sure I’ve heard that quote before; and heard many say that you simply have to write to be a writer—as simple as it sounds, it’s very difficult. And you must be spending quite a lot of time with your bottom on the chair, because Man at the Window is the first in a series of novels starring Cardilini. Will we see any other characters returning and what else can we expect in these upcoming works?

Yes, characters return and new characters are introduced. I hope my writing will continue to engage readers in moral dilemmas, interesting characters and an emotional journey along with complex deducing.

You can purchase Man at the Window from Allen & Unwin.Jay Anderson is a professional writer and editor, with a background in Literary and Cultural Studies. He’s currently completing an Honours of creative writing at Curtin University—where he is the Chief Editor of the campus’ student publication, Grok Magazine.