26 September 2023

Public Enemies

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Mark Dapin, Allen & Unwin, $32.99.

Public Enemies unearths a few fascinating and informative insights into some of Australia’s most notorious armed robbers. Men like Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox and Ray Denning were household names as armed robbers were at the top of the criminal food chain in the Australia of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

These infamous Australians were once Australian Public Enemies Number One and Two. Both were handsome, charismatic bandits who refused to bow to authority. They were classified as ‘intractable’ in prison, and both escaped. Cox was the only man to escape from Katingal, Australia’s only ‘escape-proof’ jail. Soon after he broke out, he tried to break in again and rescue his mates.

Their story is one of violence and crime, but it is also about the unimaginable horrors that young boys faced when condemned to ‘institutions’ in the 1960s, and the terrible conditions in Australian jails at that time. These were the hells where a whole generation of armed robbers was forged.

Journalist and author, Dapin brings his brilliant research skills and distinctive, powerful narrative style to a book that explores the life of these notorious yet respected public enemies and the criminal world they inhabited. From armed robberies, shootings and bashings to prison floggings and jail breaks, this is the gritty reality behind the headlines.

Sorting fact from fiction, Dapin uses various sources including personal records, news reports, legal documents and interviews to present an inclusive and practical portrait of Denning and Cox.

He looks at their difficult childhoods marked by indigence and rejection, teenage years spent in and out of appallingly abusive reformatory schools and their criminal behaviour, resulting in various terms of imprisonment (and repeated escapes) throughout adulthood. Of the two men, Denning was clearly the more colourful character.

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