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.  

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Phosphorescence’ to ‘The Media and the Massacre’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate)!

Because I’m in the throes of hosting Southern Cross Crime Month on this blog, I thought I’d try to stick to a theme… every book in my chain is true crime. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my full review.

This month, the starting book is…

Phosphorescence’ by Julia Baird (2020)
I haven’t yet read this book about finding internal happiness and appreciating the wonder of life, even though I bought it not long after it was released based on the fact that it just looked gorgeous and was a rare hardcover (most books in Australia only ever get published in paperback format).

Another book I bought, albeit many years ago, because I liked its hardcover treatment was…

‘Swamp: Who Murdered Margaret Clement?’ by Richard Shears (2008)
This large-format hardcover, which features beautiful endpapers and sepia photographs, is about the mysterious disappearance in 1954 of Margaret Clement, an eccentric recluse living in rural South Gippsland (the part of the world where I was raised), who was better known as the “lady of the swamp”. She was once a beautiful, rich socialite who was well-educated and well-travelled, but in old age was living in abject poverty in the decrepit mansion built by her father, a Scottish immigrant, who had become one of Australia’s richest men.

Another book about a Scottish immigrant in Australia fallen on hard times is…

‘The Suitcase Baby’ by Tanya Bretherton (2018)
This is the true story of Sarah Boyd, an impoverished Scottish immigrant, convicted of the murder of her three-week-old baby in Sydney in 1923. The book looks at why Boyd did what she did and asks whether her trial and subsequent punishment was fair.

Another book that looks at the fair (or otherwise) treatment of a historical crime case is…

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
Regular readers of this blog will know this isn’t the first time I’ve included this book in a Six Degrees chain, but it’s one of those true life stories that has stayed with me and often pops into mind. Eugenia Falleni scandalised Australia in 1917 when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him!

Another book about a female murderer is…

My Mother, A Serial Killer

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
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. She only came to justice after her eldest daughter, Hazel Baron, turned her into police. 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. She was clearly a very troubled individual.

Another true crime book about a troubled individual is…

‘Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Serial Killer’ by Robert Wainwright and Paolo Totaro (2010)
In the story of the world’s worst massacre (at the time) by a lone gunman, the authors of this controversial book try to come up with a theory as to why Martin Bryant carried out the atrocity for which he was responsible: the murder of 35 people at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania on April 28, 1996. This tragedy had huge repercussions on the Australian psyche, gun control and media reportage.

Another book about the Port Arthur massacre is …

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard (2016)
This book explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects in the context of the Port Arthur massacre. Its main focus is on the best-selling Born or Bred? (referenced above) and the ethical and legal dilemmas it posed to its authors, two respected broadsheet journalists, who were later sued by the murder’s mother, Carleen Bryant, after she withdrew her support for the book.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about finding happiness within ourselves to the complex relationship between journalists and their subjects, via a string of true crime books from Australia.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2020

22 books by women: completing the 2020 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

For the fifth year in a row, I signed up to do the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2020. My aim was to read 20 books; I ended up reading 22.

Here is a list of all the books I read; all are fiction bar two. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review) and I have tried, where possible, to provide information on availability outside of Australia, but note this is subject to change:


‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards (2016)
Indigenous memoir about life in the Great Sandy Desert at a time when the arrival of Europeans and their vast cattle stations changed everything.
Memoir. Only published in Australia. You can order direct from the publisher http://www.magabala.com

‘The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer’ by Tanya Bretherton (2020)
Narrative non-fiction that examines, in painstaking detail, a series of violent murders against women in Sydney in the early 1930s.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia, but can be ordered via Amazon.co.uk

‘Lucky Ticket’ by Joey Bui (2019)
This wide and varied short story collection is written with an eye for the outsider and often championing the underdog or the unseen.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘Second Sight’ by Aoife Clifford (2020)
Well-plotted psychological crime thriller set in a small Australian coastal town still coming to terms with a fatal bushfire two years earlier.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Dolores’ by Lauren Aimee Curtis (2020)
A perfectly paced novella about a teenage girl who hides her pregnancy from the Spanish nuns who take her in.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Red Can Origami’ by Madelaine Dickie (2019)
Brilliant, politically motivated novel set in Australia’s tropical north about mining and the repercussions it has on local indigenous communities and the environment in general.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest (2018)
A near-perfect novel about a woman coming to terms with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis by taking a long train journey home for the first time in more than 40 years.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle (2020)
Moving story about a young woman coming to terms with a sexual assault that happened in her past. It is quick-paced but has an emotional depth, and the language, at times, is rich and lyrical.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Survivors’ by Jane Harper (2020)
Set on the windswept Tasmanian coast, this is a relatively mediocre murder mystery focussed on two women who lost their lives more than a decade apart.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets. Hardcover due for publication in UK on 21 January.

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones (2020)
Tale of two orphaned sisters raised in the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie by their grandparents in the 1980s. As adults, they fall out but try to come to terms with their shared history.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘The House of Youssef’ by Yumna Kassab (2019)
This tantalising short story collection revolves around Lebanese immigrants living in the western suburbs of Sydney, offering insights into home and family life by people often caught between two cultures.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘The Hunter’ by Julia Leigh (1999)
A disquieting book about a mystery man’s secret mission to find the last remaining Tasmian tiger, which died out in the 1930s but has recently been spotted in the wild. Hypnotic and suspenseful.
Fiction. Out of print. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
Dr Doolittle, eat your heart out! In this wholly original dystopian tale anyone who succumbs to a new flu virus can suddenly understand what animals are saying — and it’s not very nice!
Fiction. Widely available

‘The Spill’ by Imbi Neeme (2020)
Tale of two sisters whose lives go separate ways following an incident in their childhood that has lifelong repercussions for their entire family. Adultery, alcoholism and loyalty all feature. Gripping & original.
Fiction. Only available in Australia.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson (2018)
Set in Sydney in the 1960s while the controversial Opera House was being built, this is a lush literary novel about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs.
Fiction. Widely available

‘Well-behaved Women’ by Emily Paull (2019)
A tightly written collection of 18 short stories, which are mostly framed around women who are, as the title suggests, less inclined to rock the boat.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘There Was Still Love’ by Favel Parrett (2019)
A gorgeous tale about the impact of the Cold War on a family. Set in Prague & Melbourne in 1980, it’s as much a love letter to grandparents as it is to the places we leave behind. A total balm for the soul.
Fiction. Widely available

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany (2019)
Strangely hypnotic story about a teenage girl in the 1970s plotting to get the better of the stepfather who is sexually abusing her.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies elsewhere.

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu (2020)
Shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, this debut novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies elsewhere.

‘Elizabeth and Her German Garden’ by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Charming semi-autobiographical novel about an upper class woman establishing a garden of her own at a time when this was definitely NOT the done thing. Of its time, but a gorgeous read.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch (2019)
Multi-award-winning, multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but gently teases out what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.
Fiction. Widely available. Hardcover due for publication in UK on 21 January.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch (2006)
Beautiful, heartfelt coming of age story about a young Aboriginal woman trying to find her indigenous identity told in lush, poetic prose.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

You can see all my wrap-ups for previous years of the Australian Women Writers Challenge as follows: 2019 here, 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here.

I have signed up to do this challenge all over again in 2021 and will aim to read at least 10 books. You can sign up too –  you don’t have to be Australian or live in Australia to take part. Visit the official website for more info. The more participants, the merrier!

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.
Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2018

19 books by women: completing the 2018 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

For the past couple of years I have been participating in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, which essentially means reading a self-imposed target of books written by Australian women over the course of a year and then reviewing them online. The idea is to redress the balance in terms of the number of female authors who are reviewed and to raise awareness of their writing.

It’s a fun and enjoyable thing to do and has introduced me to an interesting and varied bunch of women writers from my homeland, people who may not necessarily fall under my readerly radar.

In 2018, I set myself a target of reading 10 books by Australian women writers, but without even really thinking about it I managed to achieve that fairly easily and by year’s end had found I’d actually read 19. They’re an intriguing mix of literary novels, crime fiction, memoir, true crime, suspense stories, classics and speculative fiction.

Here is a list of all the books I read. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review):

My Mother, A Serial Killer

My Mother, A Serial Killer by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
Horrifying true story of a woman who murdered three men in the 1950s but was only brought to justice when her daughter turned her into the police.

The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton (2018)
Heart-breaking true crime tale of an impoverished Scottish immigrant convicted of the murder of her three-week old baby in Sydney in 1923.

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna
No More Boats by Felicity Castagna (2017)
Literary novel about a postwar Italian migrant railing against foreigners arriving in Australia.

Too Afraid to Cry

Too Afraid to Cry by Ali Cobby Eckermann (2012)
Brave and beautiful memoir about what it is like to be taken from an aboriginal family and raised within a white one.

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman (2017)
Speculative fiction, with a surprising twist, that paints a damning portrait of colonial settlement in Australia.


The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (2018)
Award-winning novel about contemporary life, the connections we make and the values we hold, which is written with a biting, satirical wit.

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

The Donor by Helen FitzGerald (2011)
Engaging, if slightly over-the-top, story about a man who has to decide which of his twin daughters to save when they both develop kidney disease.

The Lost Man

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2019)
Soon-to-be-published (in the UK) murder mystery set in the Far North Queensland outback.

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower (2014)
Claustrophobic tale set in 1950s London about a young Australian woman who falls in love with a narcissistic man.

The Last Garden by Eva Hornung (2017)
Otherworldly story of a boy growing up in a repressive religious community following the murder-suicide of his parents.

the well

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley (1986)
Slightly disturbing Australian classic about an eccentric woman who invites a teenage orphan to live with her on a remote farm — with unforeseen consequences.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Thought-provoking tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show the environmental impact over four centuries.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (2018)
Fictionalised account of a Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz who became a tattooist for the SS and fell in love with a fellow prisoner.

Soon

Soon by Lois Murphy (2018)
Deliciously creepy novel, part horror, part dystopian, set in a country town threatened by an unexplained mist.

The Fish Girl

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe (2017)
Set in Indonesia, this coming-of-age story is about a young village girl who becomes a servant for a Dutch merchant.

The Secrets in Silence by Nicole Trope (2017)
Domestic suspense novel about a teenage girl and a middle-aged woman whose lives become entwined in a strange and unusual way.

Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic (2018)
Dark and violent crime novel starring a deaf protagonist investigating the brutal murder of his policeman friend.

Pieces of a girl

Pieces of a Girl by Charlotte Wood (1999)
Highly original debut novel about a married woman recalling her childhood in which her mentally disturbed mother tried to pass her off as a boy.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share a great read by an Australian woman writer? Or any woman writer, regardless of nationality?

I have just signed up for the 2019 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge, so expect to see more reviews by Australian women writers to feature on this blog over the course of the year.  If you want to participate, you can sign up via the official website.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Hachette Australia, History, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tanya Bretherton, true crime

‘The Suitcase Baby’ by Tanya Bretherton

Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 327 pages; 2018.

I do like a gruesome true crime book, especially one that is well researched and uses the device of the novel to tell the story in a compelling and authentic way. Tanya Bretherton’s The Suitcase Baby, the bulk of which I read on a 3.5-hour domestic flight between Melbourne and Perth earlier this month, ticked all the right boxes for me.

This is the story of an impoverished Scottish immigrant convicted of the murder of her three-week old baby in Sydney in 1923. It is, by turns, a heart-breaking and eye-opening read, not least because it is a timely reminder of what happens when society imposes one set of rules on women and another on men.

In Sarah Boyd’s case there were so few options open to her that she took the gruesome decision to kill her own baby.  She strangled and suffocated her daughter, wrapped her up in cloth, placed her in a suitcase and threw her into Sydney Harbour. Days later the suitcase washed up on a Mosman beach and was discovered by a party of children, on a Sunday School excursion, who alerted authorities.

The crime and its outfall

Bretherton, who is a sociologist and historian, charts the criminal investigation and murder trial that follows. She also looks at the family history of Sarah Boyd and her accomplice, best friend Jean Olliver, a flapper, whose life as a single woman scandalised society at the time. (Flappers, the author points out, were on the rise and often viewed as nothing more than prostitutes because they weren’t to be trusted leading lives independently from men.)

The author takes care to put the case into context, to show how gender played a role in the crime and its subsequent judgment and media interest.

The most astonishing thing about this story is that it was not an isolated incident. In the 1920s “water babies”, as they were dubbed, frequently washed up on the shore or were spotted bobbing in the harbour. Others were found in public places, such as lavatories, train stations and parks, showing the desperate lengths women would go to avoid public humiliation and condemnation for bearing an illegitimate child.

Poverty, too, played a crucial part in this situation. If you were a woman with a child to look after it generally meant you could not work. Sarah, who was an immigrant, had no immediate family to offer support, financially or otherwise. (She already had a toddler, whose father had deserted her, so with a newborn to look after she was obviously in a desperate bind.)

The historical context of a crime 

The Suitcase Baby reads very much like a crime novel. It’s not particularly fast-paced and the crime is solved within a matter of chapters, but this isn’t so much a who-did-it police procedural, but a why did she do it and was her trial and subsequent punishment fair?

It’s this look at the historical context of the crime that makes the book such an intriguing one. I very much appreciated the ways in which Bretherton carefully examines the social, economic and political frameworks of the time and the often alarming ways that men tried to control women and women’s bodily functions because “they knew best”. (Bretherton highlights some “scientific” studies that looked at the size and “floppiness” of a woman’s vagina to indicate her likelihood of going insane — yes, really.)

My only quibble is that there are no footnotes in the text and yet the back of the book has them listed — I hadn’t clocked they were there until I got to the final page. They would have been super helpful to read as I went along, because I often wondered what Bretherton was basing her statements on.

The Suitcase Baby is currently only available in the UK as a Kindle edition, but it will be published in paperback on June 28.

This is my 3rd book for #AWW2018.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage by Mark Tedeschi: an astonishing true crime book about Eugenia Falleni, a woman who had been living as a man for 22 years, who scandalised Australia in the 1920s when she was charged with the murder of her wife. The case is actually referenced in The Suitcase Baby because they shared the same Crown prosecutor.