Author Michael Brissenden talks at Goulburn Library

He’s the familiar face you see on Four Corners.

Or perhaps you remember him as the ABC’s political correspondent in Canberra, or as a foreign correspondent in Moscow, Brussels and the US.

ABC journalist Michael Brissenden has done it all in his 30-year career, except for fiction.

That’s changed with his debut crime fiction novel, The List, a 314-page book written while he actually had time, working on the AM program.

Mr Brissenden spoke about his work at Goulburn Library last Sunday at an event some 35 people attended

He told the gathering that he spent time here as a 16-year-old in 1977, working with the Catholic Mission restoring the old Goulburn Brewery into a halfway house for Kenmore Hospital patients.

“It was actually a formative time in my life,” he said.

“My father had to come up and convince me to go home. Our entertainment on a Friday night was to walk around the pubs in Goulburn and watch the fights because we couldn’t get in.

“Goulburn was a pretty tough but interesting city then but it’s really endured and is going through a bit of a renaissance.”

The local connection also gains a mention in the book, including Supermax and of course, The Paragon cafe, where there’s a “steady crowd of what passes for Goulburn high society along for their Friday night out.” 

Brissenden apologised for the “literary licence,” much to the audience’s amusement.

The List is set in Sydney, Canberra, a Prime Minister’s office, in the field with police operations and inside a fictional counter-terrorism ASIO.

But it starts in Afghanistan where Australian and US soldiers are lured into an an ambush, led by an Australian Jihadi.

One soldier is left alive, for a reason, as it emerges. He returns to Australia, affected physically and mentally by his experiences on six tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. His mission is to find the person and exact revenge.

Suddenly young Muslims on Australia’s terrorism watch list are turning up dead. Federal Police investigator Sidney Allen and his partner, Haifa, realise there’s a serial killer on the loose, targeting the same people as them.

“What sort of dilemma does that throw up for people and what sort of challenge does it present to the intelligence agencies, to the media and politics at the time?” Brissenden asks.

“This is what frustrates everybody because things aren’t quite as black and white as they seem.”

The book was partly shaped by his own experiences. As a foreign correspondent covering the Balkan wars in the 1990s, he said he often encountered young Australians at checkpoints, going to fight in conflicts. They had not been born there but were sent by parents “out of a sense of duty.”

When Brissenden returned from the US, he became the ABC’s defence correspondent, with a focus on national security.

“All the talk was about Australian Jihadis going to fight in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East and what we were going to do,” he said.

“Unlike the others though, we were engaged in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars so the chances the two sides in Australia could meet was possible.

“I’d also heard stories about Australian special forces hunting someone who was targeting their soldiers with IUDs and there was a suggestion the person could have connections with Australia.

“The big issue at the time – and it still is  – is what if these people come back to Australia and the war continues here? That was the premise of the book.”

The author explores our involvement in the conflicts, concerns about terrorism, attempts to prevent it and how it impacts politically, on the media, on police, security agencies and the Muslim community.

All of this has challenged us in a way we’ve never been challenged before, he said. In his time around politics he’d seen politicians using the issue, “at times to suit their advantage.”

Brissenden acknowledged that writing fiction was “liberating,” a form of escape that was not constrained by the factual form of journalism. But it also had to be believable and authentic and to that end, he did a great deal of research around the streets of Sydney’s western suburbs.

“You really have to free your writing up,” he said.

“It’s a different type of discipline and takes time to get your head around.”

Goulburn Jail, “which from the outside looks like a Victorian convalescence home,” earns several mentions. Haifa’s brothers, from whom she tries to distance herself, are incarcerated in Supermax.

Brissenden told the audience he didn’t know how the book would end when he started out but it developed as he wrote. He said he was happy with the result.

Good friend, former ABC foreign correspondent and Tallong man, John Lombard concurred.

“It’s a page turner,” he said.

“It’s a rip-roaring story but challenging as well.”

  • The List is available through Hachette for $29.99.

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