5 books, Book lists

5 true crime books from Australia

5-books-200pixIf 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):


Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner (2010)

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.


The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper (2010)

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.


Leadbelly’ by Andrew Rule and John Silvester (2005)

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.


Sins of the Brother: The definitive story of Ivan Milat and the backpacker murders’ by Mark Whittaker and Les Kennedy (2008)

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.


Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer’ by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro (2010)

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?

Australia, Author, Book review, Non-fiction, Pan Macmillan Australia, Publisher, Setting, true crime

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


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.”