Non-fiction – paperback; Pan Macmillan Australia; 535 pages; 2008.
I’m quite partial to true crime books, especially those that are well researched, put the crime into context and don’t sensationalise or dumb-down the story. These books get extra kudos if they are told in a novelistic style. Sins of the Brother, first published in 1998 and reprinted seven times since then, ticks all these boxes.
Anyone who lived in Australia in the early 1990s will be familiar with the backpacker murders, when the bodies of seven young tourists, five from overseas and two from Melbourne, were discovered partly buried in the Belanglo State Forest in NSW. It was a particularly callous and brutal series of crimes that had the nation gripped. Because the bodies were not found all at once, but on separate occasions between September 1992 and November 1993, there was a real fear that a serial killer was on the loose and anyone could be his next victim.
The media went into a bit of a frenzy about it at the time but it took three years before anyone was charged and convicted of the crimes. That person was Ivan Milat, who is now serving seven consecutive life sentences, plus 18 years, for seven murders and the attempted murder, false imprisonment and robbery of another backpacker.
This book, which took almost four years to produce, is divided into two parts. The first painstakingly explores the Milat family background from 1902 to 1989. From the outset it’s made clear that Ivan, the son of Croatian immigrants, had a rather poor upbringing, both physically and psychologically. He and his various brothers turned to criminality at a young age. Before long petty crime gave way to crimes of a more serious nature. In 1971, for instance, Milat was charged with the abduction of two women and the rape of one of them, although the charges were later dropped.
The second part of the book focuses on the police investigation and how Milat, after many investigative mistakes and false leads, became the chief suspect. It diligently tells the stories of the individual victims — Brits Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, German couple Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied, fellow German Simone Schmidl, and Victorian couple Deborah Everist and James Gibson — each of whom met their brutal end by shooting or stabbing. And it follows the amazing testimony of Paul Onions, a British backpacker, who escaped Milat’s clutches in January 1990 and then realised, several years later, that the man who pulled a gun on him wasn’t simply after his wallet. It concludes with Milat’s arrest, high-profile court case and subsequent conviction.
At more than 500 pages, a book like this really has to hold the attention. Whittaker and Kennedy do this superbly by telling the story in a detailed, frank and gripping way. It’s not exactly pleasant reading (in some parts it’s literally stomach-churning) but it’s completely fascinating in the same way that passersby are unable to tear their eyes away from a car crash or a bad accident: you know that the events are horrific, that the victims met a unimaginably gruesome death, but you keep looking (or reading) regardless.
I think the most impressive thing about Sins of the Brother is just the sheer amount of detail in it. Given that most of it is based on exclusive interviews with members of the Milat family, key police investigators, witnesses and lawyers, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to sort it into chronological order let alone turn it into something effortlessly readable.
While painting a rather disturbing portrait of Milat, a fastidious loner with a penchant for guns, the book also highlights the possibility that he may not have acted alone. There are serious hints that his younger, wilder brother played a part. “It is a story about murder, but there is no murder in it,” Whittaker and Kennedy write in their authors’ note at the beginning of my edition. “That can only be told when Milat confesses to what went on in the forest, and who, if anybody, was with him.”