Uncovering the darkness behind the mask: Dinuka McKenzie

What attracts me to crime fiction is the opportunity to grapple with the potential for darkness that exists in every human being.

Crime fiction is all about uncovering what lies beneath the masks we all wear. We like to think of ourselves as different from criminals, but actually in the main it’s a matter of circumstance and degree.

In Australia most of us live privileged lives in a politically stable country with a relatively high standard of living and universal social services. The majority of us have never been tested by circumstances of real need, where our day-to-day survival is forced to scrape against our moral code. We assume that when history taps us on the back, we’ll bring the best versions of ourselves to the table, but in reality, who knows?

If asked, the majority of us would declare ourselves to be fundamentally good. Yet I think we are all capable of casual cruelty, to act in our own self-interests, to look away, and to favour our own tribe over others. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all make these kinds of calculations every day, in our purchasing decisions, in our social groups, and who we choose to exclude in our social interactions.

Crime fiction is about finding the particular pressure point – whether man-made or otherwise – that can turn a person. To work out how a person can get to the place they find themselves in. To make the reader ask themselves, how would I react in that situation? If circumstances, were different that could have been me.

In my debut novel, The Torrent (HarperCollins Australia, 2022), I explore the lives and lies of ordinary people. The decisions made in situations of stress or the actions of a single moment that can turn the trajectory of a person’s life compelling them down a particular path, and the repercussions that can ripple through a community, affecting individuals, friends, and family of both the victim and perpetrators.

We are taught to fear the monster out there. What I find compelling and possibly more chilling is the monster hiding in plain sight in our homes, in our trusted institutions, and in our social circles. He/ They seemed like such a nice/ quiet man/ family. The cliché interview grab, from a shocked neighbour when a particularly horrific crime is revealed to have been occurring behind closed doors. The reality is, these are people who walk amongst us and who we have established relationships with, however tangentially. We chat with them at school pick up, grab our daily coffee from them, and in some cases go home to them.

In delving into the darkness that hides behind the mask of ordinary lives, we get to see ourselves: the good, the bad, and the unending layers of grey in between.

The Torrent won the HarperCollins Australia 2020 Banjo Award. For more info about Dinuka McKenzie, click here.