Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Hachette Australia, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, Tanya Bretherton, true crime

‘The Husband Poisoner’ by Tanya Bretherton

Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 235 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself as a chronicler of historical true crime. I’ve read a couple of her books now — The Suitcase Baby (2018) and  The Killing Streets (2020) — and found them interesting and well written.

In this new book, The Husband Poisoner, she turns her forensic lens towards women who killed in post-World War II Sydney using poison as their “weapon” of choice.

The title is a bit of a misnomer though because the cases that feature in this book aren’t solely focused on women who killed their husbands. Caroline Grills, for instance, did away with her stepmother, a family friend, her brother and his wife!

The thallium wave

Written narrative non-fiction style, Bretherton weaves her true crime tales with sociological insights and shows how poisoning was “fashionable” in the 1950s because it was undetectable. The poison used, thallium,  had no smell and was tasteless, so could be added to meals or a cup of tea and the person who consumed it would be none the wiser. And it was readily available as an over-the-counter poison designed to kill rats.

Between March 1952 and April 1953, ten deaths and forty-six hospital admissions [in Sydney] were attributed to thallium. It was an alarming statistic given exposure to thallium could only be traced to one source — the product known as Thall-Rat.

The author focuses on two specific NSW cases — Yvonne Fletcher, who poisoned two husbands, one after the other, and the aforementioned Caroline Grills —  before turning her attention towards the two police detectives who made a name for themselves solving these problematic crimes.

I say “problematic” because detecting the use of poison was difficult, and murders could be “made to look like something else entirely” so that “no one even realised that a crime had been committed”. For example, poor Yvonne Fletcher’s first husband died an agonising death that stretched over years — doctors put his poor health down to various issues, including “nervous tension and anxiety”, but no one suspected his wife was adding rat poison to his food!

The inclusion of old recipes at the end of each chapter, such as split pea soup and jam roly-poly (which come from the author’s own family cookbook), hammers home the point that this crime was wholly domestic and more often than not carried out by women, who, during the 1950s, spent their lives in the kitchen. This made it even easier for a disgruntled woman to get rid of a family member in such a deadly but seemingly innocuous manner.

Police corruption

If I was to fault the book in any way it is the creative element in which conversations and feelings are “invented” in the interests of telling a good story. This is the journalist in me kicking back against this style of writing which tends to blur fact and fiction. But I understand why the author has taken this approach: it makes the narrative more compelling and it’s easier to identify (and empathise) with characters.

The segue into the police investigation near the end of the book feels slightly clunky, too, almost as if it has been added as an afterthought. That said, it’s an intriguing look at the way in which NSW Detectives Fergusson and Krahe pinpointed the role of thallium in various murders and worked out an approach to catch the killers. Such an approach, while effective, was not without its own set of ethical problems. The pair were later recognised as “key figures in the institutionalised corruption of the NSW police force from the 1940s through to the 1970s”.

The detectives postulated that thallium killing was different to other kinds of killing. It was not violent, at least in the traditional sense. Thallium murderers did not usually seek to strike one devastating blow; it was not liked taking aim and firing a weapon into lethal target zones like the brain or the heart. Thallium killers were capable of patiently exploiting the poison’s manifold secrets. Thallium was a slow burn, and killing with it required a certain kind of disposition: deceitful. In turn, efforts to catch these criminals required a certain kind of investigation: deceitful.

The Husband Poisoner is a riveting expose of the darker side of Australian life after the Second World War.  As well as looking at a series of disturbing murders, it puts things into context by providing a fascinating account of post-war social change. It’s by turns macabre and sinister, eye-opening and, dare I say it, blackly comic.

Shelleyrae at Book’d Out has reviewed this one too.

About the author¹:  Tanya Bretherton has a PhD in sociology with special interests in narrative life history and social history. She has published in the academic and public sphere for 20 years and worked as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney for 15 years. Dr Bretherton’s specialty is converting detailed research into thought-provoking works which are accessible to a general readership. Currently she works as a freelance researcher and writer. Her first book, The Suitcase Baby, was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award, the Danger Prize and the Waverley Library ‘Nib’ Award. Her second book The Suicide Bride was shortlisted for the Danger Prize and in 2020 she won the Danger Prize for The Killing Streets.  (1. Source: Hachette Australia website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK and US it is available in ebook format only.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans 
This book is about Dulcie Bodsworth, a community-minded wife and mother, who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. A talented cook and caterer, her poison of choice was arsenic.

This is my 7th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 5th book for #AWW2021.  

Author, Book review, Caroline Goode, London, Non-fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Honour: Achieving Justice for Banaz Mahmod’ by Caroline Goode

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Oneworld; 240 pages; 2020.

My first case as DCI did not start with a body. There was no post-mortem, not even a crime scene. Everything about the investigation was upside down, it was like working in reverse. We didn’t know who or what we were looking for. Unlike most murders, we didn’t even know if this one had happened.

These are the words of Caroline Goode, the newly promoted Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) in charge of one of the most challenging investigations the London-based Metropolitan Police Homicide and Serious Crime Command has led in recent times.

The case revolved around Banaz Mahmod, a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman living in South London, who disappeared in January 2006. She was reported missing by her boyfriend who was concerned she was not answering his calls.

Later it transpired that Banaz had been murdered in a so-called honour killing because she had brought shame on her family by leaving an abusive forced marriage. After an extensive search by police, her body was found buried in a suitcase at a Birmingham address.

This book, Honour: Achieving Justice for Banaz Mahmod, charts the timeline from Banaz’s initial contact with police where she claimed her life was in danger right through to the convictions and trials of those responsible for her death.

Seeking justice

Written in a no-nonsense, almost “chatty” prose style, it’s a compelling read that showcases the author’s tenacity and determination to get justice for a woman she’d never met.

I cared more about this case than I can put into words. What had happened to a beautiful, innocent young woman was an evil crime, a terrible betrayal and an offence to every value I hold dear. Moreover, it was a murder that had arisen partly out of police failures. In my mind, there was more than one injustice to be redressed here. I had lived and breathed and slept this case. I have never cared about another case this much in my whole professional life. I badly wanted to bring those cowardly killers to justice.

For DCI Goode and her team, just getting the investigation off the ground, when there was no body and no real evidence that a murder had even occurred, was a challenge in itself. But even when the investigation progressed and it became increasingly clear that Banaz’s family did not have her best interests at heart, it became even more challenging, for how do you convince anyone, let alone a jury, that someone’s parents would actively condone and organise the death of a daughter?

The thought of a father killing his own child purely for his own reputation was abhorrent, but the concept of a mother being involved in that was completely anathema. I could not and cannot understand how it can be in a woman’s interests to commit or enable acts of violence against any other woman, least of all her own daughter, in order to perpetuate a patriarchal society that does not benefit women.

Groundbreaking case

From reading this book, it is clear that the Banaz Mahmod case was groundbreaking because it threw a light on a crime not well understood or even recognised in the UK. Goode describes it as a “game changer” and one that exposed a culture she knew little about.

I had spent several years working in Child Protection and seen children sexually, physically, emotionally abused or neglected. Each case was a heartbreaker. But I had never come across this cynical disassociation, this depersonalisation, this hatred. This was a young woman who, just days before, her family had supposedly loved, and the scale of collusion by the rest of the community was astounding.

After Mahmod’s killers were brought to justice, DCI Goode went on to train other police officers in honour-based violence awareness. She was given the Queen’s Police Medal in 2011 and is now retired.

Honour: Achieving Justice for Banaz Mahmod is a good example of a true-life police procedural. It shows the painstaking, time-consuming steps police must take to build up a solid case for the prosecution, how they put pieces of the puzzle together to form a whole, how they live and breath their work to bring people to justice. It shows the inner-most workings of a truly complex murder investigation that spanned the UK and Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s fast-paced, compelling and utterly shocking in places.

The case was turned into an ITV two-part drama series, Honour, starring Keeley Hawes as DCI Goode. It was screened in the UK earlier this year. I believe it’s on 7plus in Australia but am yet to watch it.

Austria, Author, Book review, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, John Leake, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery’ by John Leake

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 240 pages; 2012.

More than a decade ago I read a riveting true crime book by John Leake called The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life, about a murderer in jail who convinced Austria’s literary elite that he was rehabilitated — though he was anything but.

Until recently (when I recommended this book in a  6 Degrees of Separation post), it had never occurred to me to see what else this talented journalist might have written.

A quick perusal of the internet revealed that Leake had written another true crime book, also set in Austria, which he had self-published in 2012 because it was too niche for any mainstream publisher to pick up.

I purchased it on Kindle and found myself immersed in a strange and mysterious story about an enormous cover-up that seemed too unbelievable to be true.

Mystery in the alps

The book focuses on the mysterious disappearance in 1989 of a young Canadian man on holiday in Austria and the subsequent 20-year search his parents conducted in a bid to find out what happened to him.

Duncan MacPherson was a talented professional ice hockey player who had accepted a player-coaching role in Scotland. En route to his new employment, he visited Continental Europe to catch up with friends and do some solo travelling, but after being spotted snowboarding on a beginner slope he was never seen again.

His parents, Lynda and Bob, who were worried about the lack of communication, alerted authorities. Help was not particularly forthcoming. The pair flew to Europe to see what they could unearth themselves, but police and consular staff were unhelpful and dismissive.

When they eventually found Duncan’s car six weeks later at the Stubai Glacier, a popular ski resort near Innsbruck, it was difficult to understand why no one had noticed it; there were no other vehicles around and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

Unfortunately, as Leake’s detailed book reveals, this was the first of many “clues” that were ignored by authorities, which included the ski resort, police, search-and-rescue staff and forensic specialists. Over the next 20 years, Duncan’s parents logged a never-ending succession of blunders, mistakes and concealments that suggested not everyone was being honest with them, which begged the question: what were people trying to hide?

Painstaking detail

Cold A Long Time covers the entire case in painstaking detail. In true detective style, Leake does an enormous amount of investigative research, interviews experts, local law enforcement and almost everyone he can who is connected with the case, to suggest what happened to Duncan and to explain why his disappearance was covered up — and by whom.

It is a compelling read. It’s shocking in places, not least the appalling ways in which the MacPhersons are treated by almost everyone they meet; their concerns dismissed, played down or simply ignored, their pursuit of justice thwarted at every turn. The one forensic doctor who befriends them and earns their trust turns out to have an agenda that did not have their best interests at heart.

If nothing else, this story, with all its twists and turns and its series of appalling mistakes and concealments, is testament to a mother’s love for her son and her enduring patience, tenacity and courage to uncover the truth about his disappearance. There is heartbreak and frustration and anger and disbelief on almost every page. It’s a book full of emotion and yet it’s written in a clear, detached voice, albeit one that is eloquent and compassionate, one that actually moved me to tears by the time I got to the end.

Cold A Long Time won a Bronze Medal in the True Crime category of the 2012 Independent Publisher Awards. It is an excellent read and one that will stay with me for a long time.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Cho Nam-Joo, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea, Tanya Bretherton, true crime, Viking

Three Quick Reviews: Tanya Bretherton, Cho Nam-ju & Imbi Neeme

Good things come in threes, they say.

Here are three eclectic stories, all focused on women characters and written by women writers, that I have read this year. All are highly recommended.

They include a narrative non-fiction book by Australia’s queen of historical true crime, a best-selling novel from Korea and an award-winning new release set in Western Australia.

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer’  by Tanya Bretherton
Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself in Australia as a writer of historical true crime. I have previously read The Suitcase Baby and have The Suicide Bride in my TBR. The Killing Streets is her latest.

It examines, in painstaking detail, a series of violent murders against women in Sydney in the early 1930s. It took a while for the police to cotton on, but eventually, the cases, in which the women’s bodies were found dumped in public places, were linked together and suddenly the hunt was on for Australia’s first serial killer.

Unfortunately, in their rush to convict someone, the police made many mistakes and got the wrong man: the killings continued regardless.

As well as being a fascinating account of (unreliable) police investigative techniques at the time, this book is also an eye-opening portrait of a misogynistic society in which women were merely the playthings of men and if they went missing or were killed it was their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the “wrong” kinds of clothing, pursuing the “wrong” kind of career or simply belonging to the “wrong” class. This is very much a story of a society in which victim-blaming was king,  where the police were quick to rush to judgement and where media coverage and hearsay had an entire city gripped by fear.

The Killing Streets  is a thoroughly researched and highly readable example of narrative non-fiction that puts a series of Depression-era crimes into a social, historical and economic context. It gets a bit bogged down by detail in places and sometimes the creative elements of the narrative felt overdone, taking away from the reportage of the story, but on the whole this is a good one for true crime fans.

‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’  by Cho Nam-ju
Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 176 pages; 2020. Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang. 

This international bestseller from Korea, first published in 2016 but recently reissued, is a damning portrait of a contemporary society that favours men over women in almost every facet of life.

It tells the story of Kim Ji-Young, who grows up in South Korea and slowly comes to realise that she is at a disadvantage in almost everything she does simply because she was born female. Her younger brother gets special treatment by her parents (extra food and his own room), she’s sexually harassed at school by her male classmates (but is expected to put up with it because that’s just what boys do), she gets overlooked for promotion at work despite being a dedicated and conscientious employee, she’s expected to give up everything for her husband when she marries — you get the idea.

The easy-to-read narrative is dotted with footnotes relating to gender inequality in Korea — for instance, statistical information on the sex ratio imbalance at birth (116.5 boys born to 100 girls in 1990), and the ways in which women do odd jobs on the side to make money as well as raising children, running households and looking after elderly family members — which lends the story real authenticity.

I found Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 a gripping story, easily read in a day, but I’m not sure it told me anything I didn’t already know. For many teenage girls and young women, however, this novel would be the perfect introduction to feminism. It’s an important and powerful read.

‘The Spillby Imbi Neeme
Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Before The Spill was published, Imbi Neeme’s manuscript won the Penguin Literary Prize — and it’s easy to see why. This is a gripping tale of two sisters, Nicole and Samantha, whose lives go separate ways following an incident in their childhood (a car accident on a remote road in Western Australia) and who later struggle to reconcile their differences — in temperament, in outlook and the ways in which they see their divorced parents — as adults.

The story, which is largely set in Perth, is told in such an original and ambitious way — vignettes from the past interweaved with the present day, told in alternate chapters from each sister’s perspective — that it’s hard to believe this is the work of a debut novelist. The writing is assured and the characters flesh-and-blood real.

In its portrayal of alcoholism, Neeme shies away from stereotypes or cliches, presenting the disease and its impact on others in all its messy, complicated detail. She does much the same for the relationship between sisters, for Nicole and Samantha are tied together forever but love and loathe each other in myriad different ways. There is jealousy and anger, hurt and regret, misunderstanding and confusion on almost every page. Yet this is not a maudlin story. There are many laughs and witty asides — often at the expense of stepmothers that come into their lives at various times —  dotted throughout.

I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of this tricky and tangled family. It will be very interesting to see what Imbi Neeme comes up with next…

I read ‘The Killing Streets’ and ‘The Spill’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. They form my 10th & 11th books for #AWW2020.
Australia, Author, Book review, Dan Box, Non-fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, true crime

‘Bowraville’ by Dan Box

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 336 pages; 2019.

Bowraville is a small country town inland from the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Around 15 per cent of the population is Aboriginal. In a five-month period, from late 1990 to early 1991, three children were murdered. All were indigenous Australians. All had disappeared after parties in the town. All were linked to a white man suspected of the crime, but no one was ever convicted.

This book, Bowraville by Dan Box, charts what happened when a homicide detective who had been working on the case contacted Dan to suggest he pursue the murders. It was more than two decades after the fact and the victims had seemingly been forgotten by law enforcement and the justice system. Their families still mourned for them and were desperate for the perpetrator, whom they believed to live among them, to be held to account.

In May 2016, Box, a crime reporter with The Australian newspaper, hosted a five-part podcast about the Bowraville murders. I have not listened to that podcast (you can find it on Apple podcasts here) but my understanding is that the book builds on his examination of the crimes and brings the case up to date. The serial killing remains unsolved after 25 years.

Three missing children

The victims, all living in houses about 100m apart, were:

  • Colleen Walker-Craig, 16, who disappeared on 13 September 1990. Her body has never been found, but articles of her clothing were discovered weighed down by rocks in the Nambucca River.
  • Evelyn Greenup, four, who went missing three weeks later, on 4 October. Her skeletal remains were found in bushland in April 1991.
  • Clinton Speedy-Duroux, 16, who was last seen on the morning of 1 February 1991. His remains were found in bushland on 18 February.

Dan spends times with the victims’ families to determine the circumstances of their disappearances. He speaks to police and lawyers and finds many glaring omissions in the criminal investigation. Police initially claimed that the missing children had just “gone walkabout” and didn’t follow up leads until bodies were found.

As part of his investigation, Dan also secures an interview with the main suspect, a labourer living in Bowraville, who was arrested for the murder of Speedy-Duroux but later acquitted by a Supreme Court jury in 1994. The same suspect was also charged with the murder of Greenup at a later date but, again, he was acquitted in a separate court case in 2006. No one has ever been charged or convicted of all three crimes together.

Dan’s tenacious reporting and investigation did result in changes being made to double jeopardy legislation — the principle that no one should face trial for the same crime twice — in NSW. This opened the way for the man acquitted of Speedy-Duroux and Greenup’s murder to go on retrial if “fresh and compelling evidence” was uncovered.

It’s not a plot spoiler to say a retrial was not granted, even though Dan’s interview with the suspect unveiled evidence that had never been admitted in court before.

Fight for justice

Reading Bowraville was an eye-opening experience. It covers a lot of ground and occasionally gets bogged down in soporific detail, but it is a confronting portrait of a deeply divided society, a town where black people are pitted against white, where racial prejudice has infused generations and left a legacy of hate and violence.

The book’s major achievement is the way in which it clearly demonstrates that black justice and white justice in modern Australia are two different things. Three children living in the same street were murdered in a short space of time, but no one in authority seemed to take the crimes seriously and few Australians have even heard about the murders. The suggestion is that if the children were white, it would be all over the media. Having read this compelling book, it is hard to argue otherwise.

As well as an illuminating examination of the tenacity required to seek and fight for justice, Bowraville is also an interesting look at what happens when a journalist becomes part of the story. “I have changed from being a reporter about this case to being a campaigner, joining with the police and childrens’ families in calling for the murders to go back to court,” Dan writes. Later he adds: “That’s what I am now. Not a reporter, not a campaigner. A witness.”

Bowraville is a gripping true-crime tale, but it’s also a disturbing look at the failings of the Australian justice system and Australian society as a whole.

This is my 16th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought this book when it was first published last July and began reading it in December but put it aside, with only half of it read, when things at work got a bit hectic. I picked it up again earlier this month to finish the last 150+ pages.

2019 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Bri Lee, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back’ by Bri Lee

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 358 pages; 2018.

Even before I was mid-way through Bri Lee’s debut book, Eggshell Skull, I knew it was going to be the best non-fiction title I’d read all year — and that’s saying something seeing as I’d not long finished Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist, which I thought was extraordinarily good.

A memoir about working in the Australian judicial system for the first time might not sound terribly exciting, but Bri Lee’s narrative is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a really well constructed book that marries the personal with the political.

It not only provides a fierce and unflinching look at how the law, the legal system and society as a whole is biased against women, especially in matters relating to domestic violence and sexual abuse, it also provides a peek into Bri’s battles with body image and eating disorders stemming from her own dark secret.

It’s an amazingly courageous, compelling and eye-opening memoir.

Never look for justice

Bri starts her story with a seemingly innocuous anecdote from her childhood — about going to get a pie for lunch with her policeman dad, when the pair stumble upon a physical fight between a man and a woman — that sets the scene for pretty much the rest of the book. The woman, Bri explains, did not want to press charges even though she’d been brutally shoved, verbally abused and quite clearly terrified.

On another occasion, her father, who spends long hours in court prosecuting domestic violence cases, suggests…

…that I was to ‘get a man drunk’ before I married him because some men ‘become very nasty’, and you wouldn’t be able to tell until they drank.

Later, he advises that Bri should “never look for justice”, a catchphrase he often repeats, and which rubs against her decision to study law.

A bright student, she manages to win herself a coveted first job as a judge’s associate, travelling to towns in regional Queensland and the larger metropolitan area of Brisbane as part of the Queensland District Court circuit. It’s a confronting experience — the legal system is slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic. But it’s also alarmingly predictable.

Back in my office I prepared us for the coming trials. The bulk of the court list was child sex offences, and when I remarked on this to Judge he agreed and we commiserated. “Unfortunately it’s the bread and butter of the District Court”, he said, “but sometimes you get a good bit of old-fashioned violence.”

The sheer number of sexual abuse and rape cases begins to weigh on Bri, as does the difficulty associated with getting guilty verdicts, either because many cases are “he said, she said” scenarios so there’s lack of evidence, or juries are loaded with straight white males who tend to believe what straight white male defendants say.

Eventually all these cases, listening to the victims in court and seeing the alleged perpetrators walk free triggers something that Bri can’t control: her own memory of being sexually molested by a trusted childhood friend a decade earlier.

A case of one’s own

The first half of this book is largely about Bri’s working life on the District Court, the second about the court case she brings against the man who assaulted her when she was a schoolgirl. It’s a compelling account of what it is like to be on both sides of the courtroom and shows how difficult it can be to challenge an accuser, even when you know the law and the legal system inside out — imagine if you’re poorly educated or have never stepped foot in a courtroom.

It’s told with an unflinching honesty, often painful, but there’s humour here, too. And despite the seemingly never-ending examples of misogyny and abhorrent behaviour by men against women littered throughout the book’s 350-plus pages, this isn’t a man-hating story for Bri has strong male role models in her life — a caring father, a devoted boyfriend, a respectful and empathetic boss — whom she champions and adores.

What makes Eggshell Skull — the title comes from a legal “rule” in which a defendant must “take their victim as they find them” (more on that here) — so powerful is the sheer number of examples that Bri outlines of the very real dangers that some men pose to women (and girls of all ages). It’s like a contagion that has spread throughout our society; it’s so ingrained it feels like there’s nothing we can do to change it — except perhaps to educate our sons to respect women, rather than educating our daughters to change their behaviour (wear different clothes, don’t walk home alone, don’t get drunk) to avoid being raped.

Eggshell Skull is both harrowing and hopeful. It made me angry, it made me want to cry. Mostly it unsettled and unnerved me. Reading it was an almost visceral experience, and I am forever changed having turned these pages.

Please note that the book does, at times, provide excruciating, but never gratuitous, detail of some horrendous cases, but Bri holds back on outlining the specifics of her own abuse — probably as an act of self care.

Finally, Eggshell Skull — which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize — does not appear to be published outside of Australia, but UK-based readers can order it from the Book Depository.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: True crime meets memoir in this book in which a law student interning on a death penalty case involving a paedophile is reminded about her own secret past in which she was sexually abused by a family member.

This is my 10th book for #AWW2019, which means I have completed the challenge for this year already! However, I will keep reading books by Australian women writers and tally up my final total at year’s end.

Australia, Author, Book lists, Book review, Chip Cheek, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Mulholland Books, Non-fiction, Publisher, Rob Hunter, Sabine Durrant, Setting, true crime, USA, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3 page-turning reads by Chip Cheek, Sabine Durrant and Rob Hunter

Looking for a quick read, something that’s compelling and difficult to put down?

Here’s three — a literary novel, a psychological thriller and a true crime story — that I’ve read recently that may well fit the bill.

‘Cape May’ by Chip Cheek

Fiction – hardcover; W&N; 272 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

This stylish and accomplished debut novel is a brilliant evocation of 1950s America (one of my favourite settings) and is highly reminiscent of Richard Yates in tone and theme with a smattering of F. Scott Fitzgerald thrown in for good measure.

It tells the story of a young couple, Henry and Effie, on honeymoon in Cape May, a seaside resort at the tip of southern New Jersey. It’s out of season and the couple appear to have the entire town and beach to themselves, but then they notice lights on in a house just down the street and find themselves drawn into the strange world of a trio of intriguing characters: Clara, a socialite; Max, her wealthy playboy lover; and Alma, Max’s aloof and pretty half-sister. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, the newly married couple experience life lived on a whole new level — with numerous sailing trips, glamorous dinner parties and all-night drunken revelry — but this heady time comes at a cost, for seduction, betrayal and heartbreak await.

Compulsively readable, with great characters and snappy dialogue, Cape May begins as a sweet story of new love before it morphs into a seedy and sexually explicit tale of lust, desire and hedonism. It’s certainly not for the prudish, but as a fast-paced entertaining read — perfect for the beach or holiday — they don’t come much better than this. My only criticism, apart from the over-done sex scenes, is that the ending, charting the lives of Henry and Effie long after the honeymoon is over, feels slightly tacked on, but nonetheless this is a terrific page-turning read!

‘Under Your Skin’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – paperback; Mulholland Books; 320 pages; 2014.

Tautly written psychological thrillers featuring morally dubious characters don’t come much better than the ones penned by London-based writer Sabine Durrant. This is the third Durrant I’ve read (you can see previous ones here) and it certainly won’t be the last.

In Under Your Skin breakfast TV presenter Gaby Mortimer finds the body of a murdered woman lying in bushes when she is out on one of her early morning runs across Clapham Common. She does the right thing and calls the police, but later she is arrested for the crime, setting into motion a whole chain of events, which results in Gaby being hounded by the press, losing her job and then being ostracised by all who know her.

Written in the first person, present tense, the narrative moves along at a cracking pace as Gaby, a happily married middle-class working mother, tries to defend her innocence alone while her hedge fund husband heads abroad unaware of his wife’s predicament. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot and half the fun is guessing the would-be murderer — is it Gaby’s live-in nanny, her long-time stalker or one of the journalists she befriends to tell her side of the story? The denouement is suitably unexpected and shocking, making for a terrific end to a truly compelling read.

‘Day 9 at Wooreen: Kidnapped with nine Children — A True Account of the Crime that Shocked Australia’ by Rob Hunter

Non-fiction – paperback; CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 234 pages; 2018.

In 1977, not far from the small Australian town I grew up in, an entire primary school — one teacher and nine students — were kidnapped at gun point from Wooreen in South Gippsland. The kidnapper, Edwin John Eastwood, had escaped prison and carried out a similar kidnapping (of another remote one-teacher school) some five years earlier.

This audacious and shocking crime is told from the point of view of the teacher, Rob Hunter, who was nine days into his first job after finishing university. It’s a gripping and carefully written account of what would be a terrifying experience for anyone, let alone a “green” teacher with nine youngsters under his care.

Though the story is very much focused on the frightening minute-by-minute events of the two-day ordeal, Hunter weaves in his thoughts about what it is like to survive a traumatic event and how it shaped the rest of his life. He now travels to schools teaching students how to cope with their own hurts and traumas (you can read about that here).

For me, reading this book answered a lot of questions about exactly what happened and where —all the places mentioned here are totally familiar to me. And though I went to secondary school with several of the survivors, what happened to them was never something openly discussed. This book also made me realise what it must have been like for my own dad who was a teacher at a one-teacher school around the time of Eastwood’s first kidnapping: every sound of a strange car door slamming outside must have sent the safety radar into overdrive!

My copy of Day 9 at Wooreen is self-published, but I believe the book has been picked up by Wilkinson Publishing in Australia and is due for reprinting soon, but you may be able to pick up a copy via Amazon.

You can find out more about the Wooreen kidnappings via this short YouTube clip:

 

Have you read any page-turning reads lately?

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Maryrose Cuskelly, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust’ by Maryrose Cuskelly

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2018.

Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust by Maryrose Cuskelly is a deeply contemplative and gripping analysis of a small-town murder in Australia written very much in the vein of Helen Garner’s true-crime style (think Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief).

It focuses on the brutal killing of Peter Lockhart, 78, his second wife Mary, 75, and her son Greg Holmes, 48, at the hands of their neighbour, 64-year-old Ian Jamieson, in rural Wedderburn, in Central Victoria, 215km north-west of Melbourne in October 2014.

Holmes was stabbed more than 25 times on his rural property, which bordered Jamieson’s, while the Lockharts, who lived across the road, were shot multiple times, at close range.

When Jamieson called the emergency services to report his deeds, he told the operator that it was too late for an ambulance because all three were dead. He then phoned a friend, Wally Meddings, and asked him to look after his wife, Janice, “because the police are coming to take me in and I’ll never see the light of day again”. He then phoned his friend Anna McMerrin, telling her:

I’m just ringing to let you know [that I’ve killed my neighbours] and I want you to look after Janice for me. Five years I’ve been putting up with shit from those bastards and I just snapped.

What does it take to provoke a murder?

Cuskelly considers what might have driven Jamieson to carry out such an act. She interviews friends, from both sides of the story, nearby residents and other locals to get a feel, not only for what Jamieson was like as a person, but to find out the impact of the murders on such a small and close-knit community.

What could be behind the rumours I heard that at least some of those living in the community viewed the killings, in particular the murder of Peter Lockhart, as an understandable reaction to extreme provocation? How could anyone, apart from the most callous individual, describe the killing of another person as a favour?

One theory posited that there was a feud involving the use of a track between the properties. Jamieson claimed whenever Lockhart or Holmes drove along the track it kicked up dust that settled in his rainwater tanks and soiled his clean washing on the line. He asked them not to do it, but they ignored him. He suggested that they did it deliberately to get a rise out of  him.

But over the two-and-a-half years that it took Cuskelly to research this book she learned that it wasn’t quite as cut and dried as that.

As she charts the court proceedings in which Jamieson kept changing his mind as to whether to plead guilty or not, sacking his legal representatives in the process and acting petulantly in front of the judge, Cuskelly befriends the victim’s families and discovers there’s always two sides to every story.

The story behind the headlines

This is a book that looks behind the headlines to discover how violence and masculinity and small town rivalries can collide with horrendous and long-term consequences. It takes what appears on the surface to be a simple story about a man “snapping” and shows how it is far more complex than that.

Written in elegant prose, free from sensation and sentiment, Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust takes the reader on an astonishing, often emotional, journey that shows the full sweep of human qualities, both good and bad, and highlights how we all have the potential inside of us to carry out brutal acts for which there is no going back.

It’s also an illuminating examination of the convoluted judicial process and how brave and determined the victims of crime (or, in this case, the families of the murder victims) must be to seek justice.

This is a fascinating book, one that has left an impact as I suspect it does on anyone who chooses to read it.

You can read more detail about the actual crime in this piece published in WHO magazine last year.

This is my 1st book for #AWW2019 — I plan to read a minimum of ten books by Australian women this year as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge (note, you don’t need to be Australian to take part; everyone is welcome to participate). Please note ‘Wedderburn’ doesn’t seem to be published outside of Australia (I bought mine in Melbourne during my recent trip), though the audio book is available on Audible and you can order the paperback direct from Australia via Book Depository if you can stomach the expense.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Harper Collins, Hazel Baron, Janet Fife-Yeomans, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans

My Mother, A Serial Killer

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 228 pages; 2018.

Hazel Baron was nine when she first suspected her mother was a murderer.

So begins My Mother, A Serial Killer, by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans, which tells the real life story of an Australian woman who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. She only came to justice after her eldest daughter, Hazel Baron, turned her into police.

Dulcie Bodsworth was a community-minded wife and mother, who was well respected as a talented cook and caterer. But underneath her likeable exterior lurked a manipulative and conniving individual.

In 1950, when her second husband, Ted, a former railway ganger now crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, was holed up in hospital in rural Victoria, Dulcie took up with Harry, a man 19 years her junior “to help with the kids” (there were four children, including Hazel, the co-writer of this book). Circumstances were dire (this was before the welfare state) and the family were living in two old army tents on the NSW side of the Murray River, opposite the town of Mildura.

On the night that Ted was discharged from hospital, Dulcie put the kids to bed with warm milk (a rare, and memorable, treat) and Aspro tablets, to help them go to sleep after such an exciting day.

Hazel’s mum shook her awake the next morning. The flap to the tent was ajar, the shaft of light showing that her dad’s bed was empty. Dulcie was bending over her, her face all teary: ‘Hazel, Hazel. Your father’s gone. He wasn’t here when I woke up. I think he fell in the river and drowned last night.’
[…] On the banks of the river, Ted’s faithful dog, Toby, howled into the morning air.

A few days later Ted’s body was found upstream. An inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death.

But Hazel wasn’t so sure. Why had her mother taken her and her siblings out of school immediately after her father’s disappearance? Why were they not allowed to talk to the police? Why had Dulcie told the police that Harry was Ted’s brother but then later claimed he was her brother? And what were Dulcie and Harry arguing about all the time? When she heard them talking about “getting our story right”, what did they mean?

On the run

In the years that followed, Dulcie and Harry dragged their young family from one town to another, mainly in a bid to avoid Ted’s relatives.

By 1955, they were living on a sheep station, outside Wilcannia in north-western NSW, where Dulcie took a job as housekeeper. Her second victim was the manager of that station, Sam Overton, whom she killed by putting arsenic on his lamb chops.

She wanted him out of the way in the mistaken belief that Harry would then be able to take over the farm. His death was attributed to natural causes — acute gastroenteritis and inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall.

Her third victim was Tommy Tegenza, the town drunk, whom Dulcie had befriended. At the time Dulcie had the lease to operate the dining room in one of the three hotels in Wilcannia.

She knew Tommy had £600 and managed to convince him to leave it to her in his will. She staged an accidental fire in his room — a shed out the back of the hotel — and he was burned alive. In a weird twist of fate, the money from his will did not go to Dulcie, but helped cover his enormous bar bill.

Brought to justice

As well as looking at Dulcie’s complicated, shambolic and often impoverished life — from her first marriage to her third — and examining in great detail how she went about killing three men who simply got in her way, My Mother, A Serial Killer also charts how she was brought to justice.

Hazel, who got married against her mother’s wishes and became a nurse, had been suspicious of Dulcie ever since her father’s death. When she finally went to police (because she was frightened that her mother had turned her malicious and deadly attention toward’s Hazel’s own husband), her whole life got turned upside down. She had to go into hiding.

The investigation was not straight forward. But eventually this mundane-looking middle-aged mother was charged with three murders and sent to prison. She served thirteen and a half years and later became a consultant on the TV series Prisoner (or Cell Block H, as it was known in the UK). One of the characters, Lizzie Birdsworth, is based on Dulcie.

My Mother, A Serial Killer is a heart-rending account of a daughter’s anguish, but it’s also a tribute to her courage, tenacity and honesty — all written in a forthright style, with only the bare minimum of tabloid flourishes. It’s one of those amazing stories that seems too outlandish to be true. I found it completely fascinating.

You can read an abstract of his book on the News.com.au website and listen to Janet Fife-Yeoman’s talk about the book on the Nightlife podcast. It is available in the UK in Kindle edition only.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2018

Anja Reich-Osang, Author, Book review, Germany, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text, true crime

‘The Scholl Case: The Deadly End of a Marriage’ by Anja Reich-Osang

The Scholl Case

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 224 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Imogen Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A quiet, slow-moving and devastating examination of a 50-year marriage that ends in murder, Anja Reich-Osang’s The Scholl Case is a true crime book with a difference.

That’s because it doesn’t examine the crime, nor the resultant trial, in too much detail. What it does do is build up a thorough portrait of two wildly different individuals — including their troubled childhoods, their early struggles as a couple and their later success as social climbers —  whose life together wasn’t always as it seemed.

Brigitte Scholl was in her 60s and ran a well-regarded beauty salon in Ludwigsfelde, a small town to the south of Berlin. In late 2011 she disappeared while out walking her beloved dog in the woods near her home. A few days later Brigitte’s husband and adult son found her body in the woods. She had been strangled to death and was lying partially covered by moss in a shallow grave, her dog dead beside her.

Brigitte’s husband, Heinrich — once the most successful mayor in East Germany, a man who had done so much to create a thriving town after the fall of the Berlin Wall — was arrested and charged with her murder. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment.

Story of two people in a strange marriage

The book is based largely on observations made during an eight-month trial and extensive interviews with friends, relations and business colleagues of both Brigitte and Heinrich. The author also interviewed Heinrich after the trial was over and used letters and articles he had written about his life as material for the book.

What emerges is a painstaking portrait of a marriage between two people that might have looked idyllic from the outside but was actually quite troubled behind closed doors.

Heinrich had risen from humble roots (and a cold, unloving household) to become a successful local politician. To his constituents, he gave the impression of a decisive man always in charge, but at home he was hen-pecked and bullied.

Brigitte, who also came from a humble background and had suffered multiple tragedies in her life (including the suicide of her mother and, later, her sister), was regarded as something of a local beauty. She was well liked by the women of the town, many of whom were clients in her salon. But she was known to have a cruel streak.

A Swiss business partner of her husband was asked out of the blue whether he smoked; she’d noticed he had such yellow teeth. A local councillor was warmly advised to get the nape of his neck shaved. Her remarks were poison—small, well-measured injections, with which she could silence an entire table. Most of all, she liked to make a spectacle of her husband. If they had friends round and the men wanted to watch football, she would say that Heiner had to wash the car first. She’d get him to cut the hedge, and if she wasn’t satisfied with the result, she’d have the gardener in to redo it the next day. Customers overheard her ordering him to mow the lawn— ‘and that means now, not this evening.’

But Heinrich was no angel. When he retired he moved out of the family home and took up with a Thai prostitute. Together they lived in an apartment in Berlin, but she bled him dry and took up with someone else behind his back. Later, with his life and reputation in near ruin, Heinrich moved back in with Brigitte, who made him sleep in the basement with all his belongings.

To the outside world their marriage was back on, but it was clearly just a pretense. Brigitte was murdered just a little while later.

Compelling story but drags in places

As much as I love true crime books that use the devices of the novel to tell the story, I have to admit this one gets a bit bogged down in places. It’s a good read — compelling and well written in clear, concise prose — but it does tend towards the soporific. The picture of Heinrich’s life is so detailed that I’m not sure it adds terribly much to the overall story.

What I did find interesting was the trial itself (in Germany, criminal offences are tried by a judge, or panel of judges, not by a jury) and it was fascinating to find out how Heinrich’s behaviour changed in the immediate aftermath of the murder, which suggested he was either covering his tracks or befuddled by grief.

A lot of the evidence was circumstantial and witnesses were often confused or changed their story. Despite Heinrich’s son turning against him, Heinrich has always protested his innocence. Even the author, who takes great pains to keep herself out of the story, lets slip her own doubt at the very end of the book:

Is this an ice-cold murderer and a liar speaking? Or is it a madman? Or a victim of the justice system? Heinrich Scholl makes for a very convincing innocent.

The Scholl Case was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2017.