‘Sins of the Brother: The definitive story of Ivan Milat and the backpacker murders’ by Mark Whittaker and Les Kennedy

SinsoftheBrother

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.”

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28 thoughts on “‘Sins of the Brother: The definitive story of Ivan Milat and the backpacker murders’ by Mark Whittaker and Les Kennedy

  1. This sounds like an interesting book. I’ll try to track it down at the library.
    But also, I discovered one of your posts through Google concerning Markus Zusak starting a blog. (Yeah, it was kind of/a little bit from 2007.) Do you have any idea what the URL is or where I can find it?
    Thanks, in advance, so much.

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  2. I’ve wanted to read this book since you mentioned it in one of the comments. It sounds very much like something I’d enjoy. But I can’t find it at the Book Depository. Is it available outside of Australia at all?

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  3. This sounds like a really interesting book. I have an interest in true crime (its all because I wanted to be a criminal profiler) and find they can be really hit and miss. The best yet for me has to be In Cold Blood, this sounds like it could be in the same league. I might see if I can get The Converted One to get me this for my birthday maybe.

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  4. If you like In Cold Blood I urge you to read The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer, a non-fiction book about convicted murderer and Deathrow prisoner Gary Gilmore. I read it 15 years ago and still think about it.
    The Milat book, as far as Im aware, is only available in Australia. Just point the Converted One to an aussie book site and he should be able to source it.

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  5. I was living in Melbourne at the time, I remember this case… this probably sounds morbid, and I don’t know if there will ever be a book, but I want to read a true crime account of the Port Arthur Massacre… just to see why…

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  6. Theres a new book out about Martin Bryant, the chap who carried out the Port Arthur massacre, which is called Born or Bred? I considered buying it when I was in Oz, but I couldnt bare the cover image of Bryant staring out at me. The publishers really ought to consider redesigning it because Im sure Im not the only one who feels the same way. You can find out about the book here: http://www.angusrobertson.com.au/book/born-or-bred-martin-bryant-the-making-of-a-mass-murderer/1326670/

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  7. Thanks for letting me know! Wasn’t aware of it. You are right, I don’t like the cover… I think the cover for Columbine by David Cullen was done quite well (about the Columbine High School shooting).

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  8. Simon, we might be kindred spirits (Andrea from Canongate here).
    I remember this case from when I was at Uni in Perth (the Aussie one). I’d really like to read this – is it a hefty book, Kim? If it isn’t too heavy, I might be able to prevail upon one of my Autralia-based friends to get me a copy!

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  9. I didn’t know you’d lived in Perth, Andrea! I want to visit Perth on my next trip back home, as I’ve never been there before.
    The book is certainly chunky, but it’s not especially heavy. My copy weighs in at 455g, so under half-a-kilo. I’m sure that costs a lot to post though…

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  10. Have you read the Columbine book? I admit to picking it up a lot in book stores and then putting it down, because I’m not sure I could read so many pages about such a distressing event.

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  11. Yes I’d read Columbine – there are some things I didn’t quite like with his writing/word choice, and it was interesting to read some “reviews” on amazon which prompted me to read another book mentioned in those reviews try to get a different side of the story. I don’t know if we’d ever really know what the motives were since we could all just speculate, but this book did include information I didn’t know at the time (e.g. the role of the media). I was actually in the US at the time as an exchange student, but I’d forgotten a lot of it… I’d give it 4 out of 5.

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  12. Yup. I lived there for about 3.5 years back in the 90s. No one I know from Uni still lives there, though. Perth is pretty quiet, but it’s really beautiful down south. Fremantle is my favourite place!
    (And my birthday’s on Australia Day. How brilliant is that, I got a public holiday?! Haha.)

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  13. I am a bit of a true crime reader myself.
    For you and Christa both Kimbofo – I read Born or Bred last year and I would recommend it to true crime afficionados. I thought it a worthwhile read about the Port Arthur killings…
    I also read Dave Cullen’s Columbine last year and it placed in my top ten of the year. I thought it a very good book.
    I don’t know why I haven’t read Sins of the Brothers yet (seeing I lived in Sydney while it was going on and all) – I needed to hear that it wasn’t a poorly written expose from a reliable source – so thanks Kim, I will be onto a copy in due course now!

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  14. Thanks for the heads up about Born or Bred… I really should have bought it when I saw it. Maybe I will wait for the small format paperback to come out and then order it online.
    It sounds like I really ought to read Columbine, too… Next time I see it in a shop I’m just going to have to purchase it!

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  15. I just finished reading SOTB. I wanted to see what other info was out there on Ivan. I have always thought Ivan was innocent, there’s plenty of info out there to support this – including the Firm (Friends of Ivan Robert Milat).
    However, Ivan sadly comes from a family capable of extreme violence, of all criminal activities imaginable. I was unaware how much of his life he spent in the lock up till I read this book. He’s certainly capable of committing the murders.
    Ivan was many things to many people. Comments like “he couldn’t have done it, he’s a great bloke… he’s so nice it couldn’t be him’ to ‘Ivan is capable of cutting your head off with one blow”.
    All the evidence against Ivan is circumstantial, he maintains he didn’t do it. I’m confused by the title as I’m not sure which brother the author thinks is the sinner!!!!!!

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  16. richard milat was with ivan for at least two murders on a night when phil polglase was asleep on boris milats couch.The drifter was awakened by the two cowards he saw blood on a sword that ivan was carrying and asked whether it was goats blood.Ivan replied nah human. Phil polglase was sent like a lamb to slaughter when police had him wear a wire in an effort to entrap richard. Phil was almost certainly killed later, though police say he died naturally. ivan exerts influence from behind bars and i believe had more than one accomplice, a woman was with him in another attemted abduction and there was a man i think named jock.there are a lot of these sickoes out there and they rarely get caught, just missing people cause the cops are fighting a stupid war on drugs and their own egos.

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  17. phil was staying at davidjohn milats place on the easter weekend when the two british girls were killed not boriss.jock pittaway was likely an earlier accomplice in other murders that milat was never charged with.

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  18. I assume you don’t mean this particular book by this team of writers, but a new one? As far as I know there hasn’t been a new non-fiction book on Milat, but there has been a part fiction/part non-fiction book called Innocent Until Proven, published in 2010, which I believe is going to be turned into a film. See here: http://innocentuntilproven.com.au/

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