Crime meets history in David Whish-Wilson’s new book The Coves


David Whish-Wilson is known for his contemporary crime fiction, but for his latest adventure he’s taking readers back in time to the crime-ridden underworld of 1840s San Francisco.

After the brutal murder of his father, 12-year-old protagonist Samuel Bellamy leaves Australia in search of his mother – his last remaining relative – who may or may not be in the molly-houses of San Francisco. There he falls in with a group of ex-convicts called the Sydney Coves. Whish-Wilson said he was inspired to write the story after learning about this real-life group of former Australian convicts who seized control of the city during the gold rush period.

‘When I started researching, I found that there wasn’t much written about this strange band of Australian migrant criminals who’d had such a significant impact upon gold rush California,’ Whish-Wilson said. As his research continued, he found out why: ‘The Australian criminals of San Francisco were so reviled that they were largely expunged from history!’

Hence violent and opportunistic 1840s San Francisco became the backdrop for Whish-Wilson’s new story. He said writing the story from a twelve-year-old’s point of view gave him an opportunity to look at the world differently.

‘Narratively, I also think the child protagonist has an interesting perspective. He …  sees things that adults, with their jaded familiarity, might not see – through fresh eyes, if you like. Sam is expected to observe and learn, and is able to pass through all of the different strata of society and to describe them clearly,’ said Whish-Wilson.

Writing historical crime fiction wasn’t an easy task, though. Whish-Wilson spent several weeks in the San Francisco Public Library and Historical Society archives to make sure he had all the details correct in his fictional world.

‘I love the kind of research that writing a book like The Coves requires. It’s a bit like detective work. One piece of information leads to another,’ said Whish-Wilson.

‘I hit the archives and read everything I could find about San Francisco in those early years. I interviewed local historians and storytellers, all of whom were eager to help, aware that the Australian contribution to early San Francisco’s history is sadly under-researched and largely unacknowledged.’

The Coves is now available to buy online and in all good bookstores.


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