Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 240 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
You know I like narrative non-fiction, right? And you know I especially love it if it’s about crime? So any wonder when this book, by Australian journalist Martin McKenzie-Murray, was pitched to me that I just had to read it.
A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle is right out of the Helen Garner and Janet Malcolm school of true crime reportage. It looks at the case of Rebecca Ryle, a 19-year-old British immigrant, who was found murdered in the grounds of a primary school opposite her family home in Perth, Western Australia, in 2004, and places that crime in a wider social context. Why did the man who was charged with her murder, 19-year-old James Duggan, do it? And what was the effect on Rebecca’s family and the community at large? How did those closest to her make sense of her loss?
McKenzie-Murray, who was 23 at the time, attended Rebecca’s funeral with his parents. He was from the same suburb (though had moved away and gone to university), but there was a kind of weird “connection” to the crime: his brother knew the young man charged with Rebecca’s murder:
They were both 19, and had once chugged beer in car parks and pulled bongs made with punctured Coke cans. They had once joined house parties swollen with aggression, where one’s personal worth was expressed by a capacity to withstand or commission violence. They had never liked each other. They had, in fact, grown mutually contemptuous. […] “He was a bit loopy. […] I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me.”
After the funeral, McKenzie-Murray, a reporter, scribbled down some thoughts about the crime — “My theory of the killing as a symptom of a broader psychic despair was startlingly pretentious” — but he never followed up the story. But it was always in the background, and eight years later he made attempts to track down Rebecca’s parents, working class English immigrants from Bolton, in a bid to write about the crime.
Initially, they were wary of his motivations, but eventually he won their support and cooperation. (This bit of the book is particularly relevant to journalists wanting to work with victims of crime to tell their stories in an ethical way. McKenzie-Murray name checks Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murder, so clearly knew the pitfalls. I would argue that Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre be required reading also.) The book, I suspect, is all the richer for their involvement, because their forthrightness, honesty and pain shines through. This is particularly so in those first muddled and confusing hours when Rebecca’s body was found (it was just 50 metres from their front door): the reader gets a real sense of their shock and disbelief, the way that their lives and the lives of their two sons, were turned upside down. But it is not a gratuitous read. Nor is it salacious or voyeurestic.
The suburbs of hell
As well as being a police procedural in which McKenzie-Murray takes the reader through the events leading up to the crime and the ways in which it was investigated and brought to court, Murder Without Motive is also a kind of memoir about what it is like to grow up in Perth’s northern suburbs. Interestingly, the suburb to which the Ryles immigrated (and where the author comes from) has the highest concentration of Brits anywhere in the world outside Britain. It is working class but wealthy — there is money here to be made from construction and mining — and everyone lives in big houses, close to the beaches and marinas. To all appearances it is a suburban idyll.
But as McKenzie-Murray explains, it’s also a soulless, often violent, place, where boredom manifests itself in all kinds of horrible ways: drugs, alcoholism, car accidents, suicide. He is especially scathing of the small-minded macho atmosphere in which boys are raised:
I saw negligent fathers preside sullenly over a small kingdom of beer and football, markers on the road to adulthood. These avatars of manhood sat — fat, idle and indifferent — on their suede thrones, covering their apathy with the witless tenets of laissez-faire parenting. Boys will be boys.
And he is contemptuous of the student parties, both in private homes and in local pubs, because of their tribalism, violence, raw sexuality and misognyny, all underpinned by teenage angst and what McKenzie-Murray describes as the “yoke of high school”.
Context of a crime
At times, the book feels like a form of snobbery, but having grown up in rural Australia, where sport, sex and alcohol were the driving forces of teenage social life, I understand where he is coming from. The picture he paints is not a pretty one. And while it may not totally explain why Rebecca’s death occurred — indeed, the murderer himself has never been able to come up with a plausible explanation for why he committed the crime, and police and psychologists are also flummoxed by it —but it does put it in a kind of context. If nothing else, it highlights how that seemingly suburban idyll you see on the outside has a dark undercurrent, a seedy, machismo-driven element, where latent violence can surface in the most abhorrent of ways.
A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle is a compelling, strangely terrifying, read. But it’s also thoughtful, intelligent, forthright — and respectful. McKenzie-Murray set out to “suitably honour” the Ryles’ loss. He achieved it in spades.
This novel is published in the UK, and the Kindle edition is available in the US.
This is my 27th book for #ReadingAustralia2016