“Being a cop, doing forensics, high-speed chases. Coming across headless bodies. People on fire. Electrocutions. Necklaces made from severed penises. Cramming thermometers into dead people’s arses. All of that, absolutely all of it . . . is 10 times easier than having kids.”
That’s the considered opinion of John Verhoeven, who was a cop and then a forensics specialist in 1980s Sydney. The recipient of that lurid advice was his son, Paul, who persuaded his dad to share his gritty tales of life in the NSW Police Force in a book, Loose Units, whose success quickly spawned a true-crime podcast.
Now there’s a second book, Electric Blue, that delves into John’s adventures in forensics, a role that Paul describes as “this weird mix of CSI and Sherlock Holmes”.
Here, Paul reflects on what he’s learned from his hero cop dad and how the collaboration kindled a special father/son bond.
My dad was a cop in the 1980s. It was a great time for hair and fashion and music. But Sydney in the 1980s was an absolute hell-scape. It was the Wild West of policing. Dad joined the police force on a whim after he’d just turned 21. He spent his career in general duties and then forensics, basically just running after the scariest shit you could find, like the most challenging cases.
I think part of the reason he was driven toward forensics and away from detective work is because he didn’t have that hard, frankly nasty edge that most detectives had in the ’80s. This was the period where Roger Rogerson was running around, and I think Dad took a look at that and realised that he wasn’t built that way. What he wanted to do was help people. My impression is that he’s a lot gentler than many of the men who were on the force at the time..
Hearing my dad talk about a lot of the stuff he went through, it’s very evident that he hasn’t actually dealt with it psychologically, or even thought about it that much since it happened. You know when one bad thing happens to you and it’s all you can think about, and for your brain it’s just like a black dot in the middle of white canvas. Well, because there was so much weird, bad stuff in my dad’s brain it’s like it’s all got stuck in the doorway and none of it can fit through. Because Dad was constantly running towards that next big case, he never really had a chance to stew until now. How can you sit there and steep and marinate in your PTSD and your grief if you’re too busy, because you’ve got to go to the next traumatizing event?
One of the pivotal cases in Electric Blue involved Dad being called to Ku-ring-gai National Park in Sydney one night, by two detectives, to uncover a body. It was a victim with no hands and no head. Dad deduced that it was actually someone killed by “Mr Asia”, who was one of the predominant heroin importers in the late ’70s, early ’80s. That case went very, very badly for Dad, because the other detectives were from out of area. He wasn’t meant to be there.
The thing about forensics is, you are basically reducing components of a real-world trauma into puzzle pieces to put together. There’s a very Sherlock Holmes-esque flavor to it Dad would have to wander into a scene of auto-erotic asphyxiation and figure out what happened. In one case a teenager got trapped in a metal vat at a cereal factory and got boiled alive and Dad had to come in and deal with that. Again, it’s utterly horrifying. But I think if you’re someone who wants to solve problems, the higher the stakes in a problems, the better.
When I approached him to write the first book, I said to my dad, “Look, I’m never going to become a cop, but I’d like to understand what it was like for you to go through that.” And it’s become this insane, beautiful, collaborative, father-son thing. Dad and I technically work together four or five hours a week, with the podcast and the books and stuff, and it’s changed our relationship so much. I really highly recommend, if your parents have done anything even remotely interesting, grab them and start getting them to tell their stories. If I hadn’t taken that chance, I think I’d be kicking myself, because it’s really enriched both of our lives.
I’ve also discovered that we have a lot more in common than I thought. I always thought I took after my mum, and I do, in terms of my optimism and my energy levels. But chemically and emotionally, I think, I basically am my dad.
Dads are just people who are older. It’s not like you hit a certain age and just accrue wisdom. It’s not like having kids makes you smarter or better. Some people are just always who they are. My dad is just a person trying to figure things out like everyone else.
Electric Blue is out on August 18. Pre-order it here