THE Sydney Coves were former Australian convicts who ruled San Francisco with vicious depravity during the 1849 Gold Rush.
The gang was quick to seize control of a town that was full of corrupt politicians and under the grip of gold fever.
South Fremantle author David Whish-Wilson brings the little-known story of the gang to life in his latest book The Coves, an intriguing blend of history and crime fiction.
Whish-Wilson says an off-the-cuff remark by a Perth colleague sparked an interest in the story, so he flew to San Francisco and scoured the streets for clues, but didn’t find any.
“Which made me even more curious.”
A visit to the San Francisco library yielded literary gold and an enthusiastic librarian, “Who almost hugged me saying, ‘Finally someone came to research the Coves’.”
You can almost smell the stench of unwashed bodies, blood and gore in this no-holds-barred coming-of-age tale.
There’s plenty of violence and poverty; all seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Australian Sam Bellamy, who only has his dog for company.
His father and brothers were murdered by Aborigines, and Bellamy is searching for his mother who disappeared years ago.
The opening chapter sets the tone for the gore-fest to come, as the youngster uses his wits to survive a bloody mutiny during the voyage from Australia to America.
Whish-Wilson brings his characters alive, and Bellamy is tough, but never depraved, as he learns to become one of the Coves in order to survive.
Some of the book’s characters are based on real people, including Woofty Doofty and Yankee Sullivan, an escaped convict who became an American boxing champion.
The leader of the Coves, Thomas Keane, is an amalgam of two of the gang’s real-life bosses.
Keane has the remnants of a conscience, and rules with an iron fist and a large gun from their San Fran HQ, dubbed Sydney Town.
Whish-Wilson, sporting a pilgrim-style ginger beard, has oodles of life experience to draw on: aged 18 he headed overseas working as a barman, actor, street seller, labourer, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and as a guinea pig in a drug-trial.
These days he co-ordinates the creative writing program at Curtin University and writes crime novels. The Coves is published by Fremantle Press and is available at all good remaining bookstores.
by JENNY D’ANGER