If you believe the tourist brochures and the travel agents, Australia is a land of perpetual sunshine filled with happy-go-lucky people — and for the most part they’re right. It is a beautiful country and the people are laid back and happy. However, like any society, there is a darker element — no jokes about convicts, please!
I have a penchant for books that revolve around true crime, especially if they are well researched and are written in a narrative style — what I would call narrative non-fiction. Over the years I’ve read several books like this from Australia, so thought I’d put together a little list in case you were looking for something a bit different to try for ANZ Literature Month. Most of these books should be available in the UK and the US/Canada in Kindle format — or try your library.
The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):
In 1997, Joe Cinque, a young engineer living in Canberra, died in his own bed of a massive overdose of Rohypnol and heroin. His girlfriend, Anu Singh, and her best friend, Madhavi Rao, were charged with his murder. In this book, Helen Garner follows the twists and turns of Singh’s and then Rao’s criminal trials as they unfold. Later, she befriends Joe Cinque’s family in order to tell his side of the story. It’s a profoundly moving piece of narrative non-fiction.
On Friday November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, a 36-year-old aboriginal man living on Palm Island was arrested for swearing at a white police officer. He was thrown into the back of a divisional van and transported to the police station where he was put in a cell. Just 45-minutes after his arrest, Doomadgee was found dead, a black eye the only tell-tale sign of violence. Hooper examines the case as it progresses through the court system and in telling the real life story of the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody, she also reveals the dark underbelly of Australia.
Between 1995 and 2004 there were 34 underworld killings in Melbourne, Australia. Rule and Silvester don’t pull their punches — they make it exceedingly clear throughout the 288 pages that make up this book that they do not have any sympathy whatsoever for the criminals. But by the same token they don’t necessarily hold the Victoria Police in great esteem either, a much-maligned force that has been accused, at one time or another, of being reactionary, trigger-happy and corrupt. At times the book feels slightly tabloid, but as an account of a criminal world few of us would ever dare imagine it is an important, eye-opening read.
Between September 1992 and November 1993 the bodies of seven young tourists, five from overseas and two from Melbourne, were discovered partly buried in the Belanglo State Forest in NSW in what became known as the “backpacker murders”. Ivan Milat was eventually arrested and charged with the crimes. He is now serving seven consecutive life sentences, plus 18 years. The book, one of the best of the genre I have ever read, painstakingly explores Milat’s background and the resultant police investigation. It reads like a top-notch thriller but never sensationalises the crimes. Indeed, it is a superb piece of storytelling characterised by meticulous detail. The book is difficult to find (even in Australia), but worth the effort.
On April 28, 1996, a lone gunman opened fire at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania, killing 35 innocent people and wounding 23 others. Martin Bryant, a 28-year-old man and social outcast, pleaded guilty and was given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole. In this book, the authors — two highly experienced journalists — look behind the crime to examine Bryant’s life in the search for clues as to why he committed it and whether it could have been prevented. As a piece of narrative non-fiction, the book is well written, fast-paced and rich in detail. The authors are able to demonstrate how a series of events, in combination with Bryant’s mental and social problems, lead to that fateful day — and their case is a convincing one.
Have any of these books piqued your interest, or have you read any of them? Do you know any other true crime books from Australia worth reading?