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.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Thea Astley

‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley

Multiple-effects-of-rainshadow

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 296 pages; 1996.

Long before Chloe Hooper wrote her extraordinary non-fiction book The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island (2010), Australian novelist Thea Astley penned The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996), also set on Palm Island and based on a similar violent incident.

A fictionalised account of a true story

Palm Island, off the coast of Far North Queensland, was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house aboriginals as a kind of punitive mission. In 1930, the white superintendent, grieving over the death of his wife in childbirth, went on a drink-and-drug-fuelled rampage and set fire to many of the buildings. He used dynamite to blow up his own home, killing his two children inside, and after fleeing the island temporarily, was gunned down upon his return. (You can read more about him and the incident in his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.)

For the purposes of this novelisation, Astley changes the name of the island to Doebin and invents a cast of characters who were present at the time. The book uses multiple voices in self-contained chapters to tell the story of events leading up to the fateful rampage and its aftermath. Most of the voices are third person, but the opening — and very engaging — first chapter is told in the first person.

All of the characters are white, except for Manny Cooktown, an aboriginal man, whose story is told in brief excerpts — written in dialect — between each chapter.

Everything is not as it seems

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow is a wonderful metaphor for race relations in Australia, specifically between 1918 and 1957, although it could also be argued that it remains relevant today.

In its depiction of violence in the tropics, it also reveals that appearances can be deceptive. The island may look like paradise, the superintendent may seem fair-minded, the priest well-meaning, the doctor caring, aboriginals subservient, but there’s more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. Here’s how Mrs Curthoys, a fine upstanding woman who arrives on the island to run the boarding house, describes Doebin:

If you happened upon this island, sails bellied and straining to a landfall, as you balanced on deck with your eyes gummed to this mountain humped above riffled reef waters, you would be enchanted by that necklace of white beaches, foliage growing almost to the sea in a density of plaited vine, aerial roots, leathery green leaves and palms waving casual welcome feathers. Now and again, as the boat rocked, an enchanting white-wall glimpse, the glare of a roof, the spurious domesticity of a cooking fire. God love us, you might say as Father Donellan said that morning of our one and only Mass, what a paradise of a place!

But then she later goes on to describe it as “a rubbish tip for government guilt” filled with aboriginal men white society doesn’t know how to deal with, pregnant women, unmarried mothers, runaways, alcoholics and the old.

Lessons of the past

Astley throws light on a subject many would rather forget and the book’s power comes from the realisation that history has a habit of repeating.

And as much as I was gripped by the characters, most of whom are deeply flawed and full of their own self-importance, and the exploration of Australian society, both before and after the Second World War, the structure of the novel didn’t work for me. It felt too disjointed and, as ever when there are multiple voices, I tended to favour particular characters over others.

But there’s no doubt that Astley can write. Her sentences are often breathtaking — and that’s not just because they are occasionally very long — while her insights into the human heart are hugely perceptive.

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow won The Age Book of the Year in 1996 and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1997. Sadly, it appears to be out of print in the UK, although you can order second-hand copies via online book sellers. My thanks to Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers for providing the generous gift voucher last Christmas which allowed me to buy this handsome Penguin Modern Classics edition direct from Australia.

Australia, Author, Book review, Chloe Hooper, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, Vintage

‘The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper

TheTallMan

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 272 pages; 2010.

In late April this year I read Chloe Hooper’s extraordinary non-fiction book, The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island, and found it deeply disturbing in a way I could not quite put my finger on. Over the weeks to follow I tried to review it but kept hitting a wall; I could just not formulate my thoughts in any coherent way.

Since then, I’ve thought about it on and off, wondering why I was having so much trouble writing about the book. It was only when Simon, from Savidge Reads, asked me whether I’d read it yet (he’d seen the thumbnail picture in my “Reviews coming soon” menu bar) that I had to confess I couldn’t bring myself to review it because it made me feel horribly ashamed to be Australian. And that, my friends, is the stumbling block I hadn’t realised when I first struggled to review this book some three months ago.

In telling the real life story of the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody, Hooper reveals the dark underbelly — where black man is pitted against white man, and vice versa — of my homeland. It is not a pleasant read, nor even a satisfying one (particularly as the conclusion of the subsequent court case left much to be desired), but it’s certainly a thought-provoking book that sheds light on some painful paradoxes in modern day Australia.

If nothing else, The Tall Man reveals how Australia is not one nation united but a series of regions diametrically opposed to one another. I’m not necessarily referring to white versus black, but to the cultural gap between those that live in the North (the tropics and sub-tropics) and those that live in the South (mainly NSW and Victoria). (I have lived on both sides of the North/South divide, and can testify that the two opposing “cultures” do very much exist. Early in this book, Hooper meets a Northern cabbie who says he can detect a Southerner easily, because “they’re fuckwits”. Charming.)

Of course there are other divisions too, between the cities and the outback, between the West coast and the eastern seaboard, between Tasmania and the mainland. But the division which Hooper’s book really hones in on is the one between the haves and the have nots, and never is this more apparent than in Aboriginal communities which often become “impoverished ghettos of alcoholism, petrol sniffing, brutality, arrests and early deaths”.

Palm Island — don’t let the idyllic-sounding name fool you — is one of those places. Situated off the Far North Queensland coast, it was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house Aboriginals. This was all thanks to the 1897 Aboriginal Protection Act, which made all Aboriginals in Queensland, whether full blood or “half-castes”, as wards of the state. The Palm Island Mission became the dumping ground for these people, somewhere they could be looked after and controlled. But, as Hooper points out, it’s isolation meant that it became “increasingly authoritarian — a kind of tropical gulag”.

When Aboriginals were granted equal rights in 1967, it remained a segregated community, and today it is not much different. Home to 2,500 people, Palm Island is one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia. The only white faces in the street belong to the teachers, nurses and police who work there. (When Hooper arrives for the first time she feels “incandescently white”.) But it’s a long way from anywhere: two hours by ferry from Townsville, on the mainland, or a 15-minute flight on a small, chartered plane.

For those who don’t know the case on which the book is based, let me provide a short thumbnail portrait. On Friday November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, a 36-year-old aboriginal man living on Palm Island is arrested for swearing at a white police officer. He is thrown into the back of a divisional van and transported to the police station. There’s a scuffle and a punch thrown when he is escorted from the van to his cell. Later, just 45-minutes after his arrest, Doomadgee is found dead, a black eye the only tell-tale sign of violence.

The police claim Doomadgee tripped on a step and that he must have died of an unseen head injury arising from that accident. But the autopsy revealed that he had four broken ribs, a ruptured portal vein and a liver almost cleaved in two, injuries consistent with a serious car accident. As Hooper states, “his internal injuries were so severe that even with instant medical attention he would not have survived”.

A second pathology report discovered further bruising on Doomadgee’s right eye and eyelid, his forehead, the back of his head, the upper part of his back, along the right side of his jaw and on his right and left hands, suggesting he had been kicked while lying down.

Of course, police deny any wrongdoing, and so an inquest is held. The man responsible for policing the island is the “tall man” of the title: Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, who has won much respect for being a firm and fair cop. But did Hurley snap that day and lose his temper?

Hooper sketches an interesting portrait of a man, just 36 years old and in charge of six white policeman and an Aboriginal liaison officer, who had risen fast up the ranks because he’d been happy to be stationed in remote areas, or as Hooper puts it:

He had become a creature of the Deep North, a specialist in places on the edges of so-called civilisation, Aboriginal communities and frontier towns in Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria, places were the streets, the days shimmered as if you were in a kind of fever — all of it, with its edge of menace, like some brilliant hallucination.

It seems completely at odds with Hurley’s character as a fine, upstanding and highly respected policeman for him to be blamed for Doomadgee’s death. The island had more than its fair share of problems (according to this wikipedia entry there is “an extreme level of theft, domestic violence, sexual assaults against children and abject drunkenness” brought about by “boredom, aimlessness, lack of education, absence of role models and a complete loss of self-worth”), but by all accounts Hurley had won the respect of the locals.

But following Doomadgee’s “unexplained” death, the police were obviously worried about the outfall in the local community — fifteen extra cops were brought in. When news broke about the first autopsy a riot ensued; the police station was burned to the ground. Hooper describes it in such a way you feel for the officers, trapped behind a barricade, fearing for their lives. One cop called Command, begging the Army to be flown in to rescue them.

The early chapters explain the circumstances of Doomadgee’s death and give us an insight into Hurley’s reputation; Hooper then turns to tracing the convoluted justice system — the investigation, the inquest, the submissions, the findings, the trial, the verdict — which Doomadgee’s family find themselves caught up in. The court room scenes are particularly tense and emotional. The games played by lawyers, by police, by those seeking to protect Hurley’s reputation at all costs do not go unnoticed by Hooper’s perceptive eye. This is court-room drama writ large. It’s deeply affecting without being sentimental.

If there is anything positive to come out of this terrible story it is Hooper’s own tale about her developing friendship with Doomadgee’s family. Effectively she is “adopted” by his sisters, accepted as one of their own. When you realise that Hooper, “like most middle-class suburbanites, grew up without ever seeing an Aborigine, except on the news”, this seems the perfect example of how it is possible for two races to get along with each other in the most extreme and distressing of circumstances.

The Tall Man is not your average “true crime” book. It’s a sociological, psychological, legal and political drama. In telling the story of the first police officer to be tried for an Aboriginal death in custody, Hooper also tells a peculiar Australian story of a nation divided. We may never know what really happened in that police station, but we know that the destructive forces of white settlement will continue to impact on its native inhabitants and that Palm Island will remain a paradox in the sun. My feelings about the book are summed up nicely by Hooper’s last line:

I had wanted to know more about my country and now I did – now I knew more than I wanted to.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon Lewis, Sort Of Books

‘Bad Traffic’ by Simon Lewis

BadTraffic

Fiction – paperback; Sort Of Books; 372 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year Bad Traffic was named as one of 50 books that publishers felt deserved a wider audience. This week, mid-way through the book, I discovered that that list had been whittled down to 10 books to talk about and Bad Traffic had made the cut. I’m not in the least surprised. This is a brilliant edge-of-your-seat thriller and one that presents the English countryside in a dark and disturbing new light.

Set in modern day Britain, the book is about a Chinese policeman, Inspector Jian, prowling the mean streets of rural Norfolk looking for the gangster he believes has murdered his daughter. He is accompanied by an illegal immigrant, Ding Ming, who was smuggled into the country in the back of a lorry with his wife as part of a human trafficking operation. Now forcibly separated from his wife — she has been made to “pick flowers” in an unspecified location — a young and naive Ding Ming finds himself on the run from his captors.

Together the Chinese duo make for a hapless pair of vigilantes. Jian, who does not speak English, finds everything about Britain rather sinister and foreboding, and regards the local police force with much suspicion. Despite his own police badge, he becomes a kind of foreign outlaw, with just one goal in mind: to deal out his own form of justice regardless of the consequences.

Meanwhile, Ding Ming, struggles to come to terms with the fact that he’s been sold a lie. He had thought coming to England would allow him to earn a lot of money to help his struggling family at home — after he had paid the exorbitant fee to his smugglers first — but now realises he has been caught up in a corrupt system run by corrupt men.

And while Jian is hell bent on finding Black Fort, the man at the head of the smuggling ring, Ding Ming wants to keep his distance from him. This tension between the two characters makes the narrative work on a new level, because, as a reader, you’re not sure which man to support and cheer on.

At times the plot strays into comedic territory as one or the other deals with an unfamiliar culture. For example, Ding Ming is especially scared of anyone in uniform, believing English police trade body parts of criminals for organ donation, until Jian points out that one set of uniforms belongs to an automobile roadside rescue firm and there’s nothing to be frightened of.

I also enjoyed this exchange between the pair while travelling by car along a motorway. Jian begins by asking, “What are you looking at?”:

“Cows.”
“Where?”
“They’re all over. You spot one and then you see lots, like mushrooms. I don’t like them. They look selfish.”
“What are you talking about?”
“One of those cows has more land than a Chinese family. It’s disgusting. And another thing. I look out and all I see are cow fields. Where are the vegetables? And where are the factories and the mines? It doesn’t add up.”
“The fields and factories and mines are in other countries.”
“They’re cow people.”
“What are you talking about now?”
“They’re like their big stupid cows. Their life is the easiest it is possible to imagine: they wander around their lovely park all day  going munch munch munch. Nothing to worry about, just munching the stupid grass all day long in a lovely big field. And people like me, we are the rats. We live in the ditch and eat shit and watch out for the hawks, and our life is bitterness and struggle, and we’re terrified all the time.”
“Rats don’t eat shit.”

Ultimately, Bad Traffic is a brilliantly paced and well constructed story that speeds along at a terrific pace. It has plenty of thrills and spills throughout, but underpinning it all is a quietly disturbing and shocking expose on an issue I’ve not ever read about in contemporary fiction — that of human trafficking and the terrible fate so many desperate people find themselves in. This is great entertainment, but there’s a dark moral to this story and one that leaves a deep impression long after the heart-hammering conclusion has been reached. This is definitely a story that deserves a wider audience — read it if you get a chance.