The old Chandler dictum was there for me when I decided upon police whistleblower Frank Swann as the central character of Line of Sight – ‘down the mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean: who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’ The old -school hard-boiled noirish central character seemed like a perfect fit for a story about a man trying against the odds to work his way through the subterfuge, the dissembling and intimidation of his colleagues as they tried to shut him down.

Of course, the question of who is there to ‘guard the guardians’ is as old as civil society itself, although clearly it wasn’t something given much priority back in the days before Corruption watchdogs and their like, and is still highly problematic – something made clear in Simon Illingsworth’s Filthy Rat. The police force is a prickly institution, highly sensitive to criticism, and its union is active and motivated. Just as an example, please do check out the long, rather sinister list of court actions thrown at local writer Avon Lovell in the 1980’s, when he exposed what he termed ‘The Mickelberg Stitch’ – on his website under ‘list of actions’ –

But what about when this criticism comes from within, rather than without? From someone who is witness not only to the slings and scams but subject to the retribution that follows when he/she doesn’t want to go along with it?

In general, I find whistleblowers interesting characters, tragic characters. Terry Eagleton describes well in his book Holy Terror the fascination we all have with tragic characters, as we watch from our safe seats a life slowly unravel, even when we poignantly identify the same fatal flaws within ourselves, within our individual or collective natures (or, as Michael Meehan describes in his recent book Below the Styx – ‘we love tragedy because of the way it works us up to unfamiliar heights, as we become Macbeth, Lear, Manfred, Othello, peering beyond the real holes in our lives that yawn and deepen all around us. We want the reassurance of sad endings to the lives of others, sad stories of the death of other people’s kings. Where, once the dying is over, the dead can rise, dust themselves down and grin into the lights…’)

While none of us are getting out of here alive, of course, something that probably explains in large part our fascination for tragedy, and indeed schadenfreude, this vicarious witnessing of the tragic fate of others is all very well, for us, even those of us in the cheap seats, but what about those who live it, day by day, those on the ‘front-line’ as Simon Illingsworth, the author of Filthy Rat would probably put it?

The police whistleblowers that I’m familiar with in Western Australia all spoke out against their colleagues (and suffered the tragic consequences) in instances where they felt their corrupt colleagues were guilty of the worst crimes (Superintendent Spike Daniels and Inspector Graham Lee spoke up about the involvement of certain detectives in the murder of Shirley Finn, detective sergeant Frank Scott about some of his detective peers consorting with Mr Asia heroin traffickers, Tony Lewandowski because of the shame he felt for his part in the deliberate fitting-up of the Mickelburgs, even though he felt that, as I understand it, they were genuinely guilty.)

Simon Illingsworth, probably Victoria’s highest profile recent whistleblower, mainly due to his appearance on ABC’s Australian Story, originally blew the whistle on a colleague because he genuinely thought his senior partner was going to kidnap and murder someone. There’s no need to go into detail about the consequences he suffered because of his actions, except to say that like other police whistleblowers I’ve met he was immediately the object of distrust and disdain, was physically threatened and indeed bashed, was continually overlooked for promotion, was exposed to unnecessary danger on the job, and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, leaving the police force on health grounds.

Like the other whistleblowers I’m familiar with, it’s made clear in Filthy Rat that Simon Illingsworth was driven initially by a keen understanding of just how far, or how elastic his perception of what he could tolerate, internally, might be, and still feel  himself free (something philosopher Hannah Arendt has characterised as absolutely necessary to some, few people [because we all imagine ourselves good, after all, until we are tested], not a matter of automatic conscience, in other words, but more a matter of understanding precisely what we might be able to live with afterwards, as a product of imagining ourselves explicitly, and knowing ourselves deeply.) Or, in Illingsworth’s more direct words – ‘a large proportion of our community is made up of spineless jellyfish. These poor insipid souls never know who they are, or what they stand for…they just go with the flow.’

Filthy Rat, as you would expect, is written engagingly, and is surprisingly full of humour. Rarely does Illingsworth stray for too long into bitterness and self-pity. His stubbornness and pride carry him through, and the book is full of fascinating detail regarding the day to day life of a policeman working under extraordinary conditions – exposed to more than the usual danger because nobody is watching his back.