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.

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.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper

The Australian edition

Non-fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 272 pages; 2018.

Ten years ago, on 7 February 2009, in unprecedented hot weather conditions, a series of bushfires — 400 separate fires giving off the heat equivalent of 500 atomic bombs! — raged across the state of Victoria, wiping out everything in their path, including whole townships and hundreds and thousands of hectares of farmland and bushland. One-hundred and eighty people lost their lives, making them the deadliest fires in Australian history.

On that particular Saturday — which later became known as Black Saturday — the Central Gippsland fires in and around the Latrobe Valley (just a 45 minute drive from where I grew up) burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people. It later transpired that the Churchill fire, which started in a pine plantation, was deliberately lit and a 39-year-old Churchill man was arrested on suspicion of arson.

That man, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison three years later, is the subject of Chloe Hooper’s extraordinary new book, The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.

The UK edition

A true crime story

The book, which is essentially a true crime tale, is divided into three parts covering the police investigation into the fire, the defence lawyers’ case and the court proceedings.

It’s written in a clear but lyrical style with a journalist’s eye for detail. Hooper’s descriptions of the fire, taken from witness statements, are particularly powerful.

One man saw his beehives combust from the sheer heat. ‘Trees ignited from the ground up in one blast, like they were self-exploding.’ Burning birds fell from trees, igniting the ground where they landed. ‘Everything was on fire, plants, fence posts, tree stumps, wood chip mulch, the inflatable pool. I put water on it, but it melted slowly to nothing.’ The aluminium tray of a ute [pick-up truck] ‘ran in rivulets on the ground’.

Likewise, her “picture” of the arsonist, Brendan Sokaluk, is even-handed and compassionate. She unearths his back story to find out how this single, unemployed man living on a disability pension had become a social outcast long before he lit the fire.

He was bullied at school and ostracised at work (he was a groundsman for 18 years, took stress leave and never went back). His odd behaviour as an adult, including the inability to make eye contact, poor interpersonal skills and his penchant for watching Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, marked him as “different”, never more so than on the afternoon of Black Saturday, when:

Brendan climbed onto his roof in Sheoke Grove and sat watching the inferno in the hills. His neighbours saw him and noticed that his face was streaked with dirt. He was wearing a camouflage-print outfit and a beanie. One hand shaded his eyes. All around, the sky was dark with smoke. Ash was falling. Tiny cinders burnt the throat on inhaling. Brendan glared down at the neighbours, then went back to watching his mother earth burn.

Firestarter motives

As per the book’s title, Hooper examines what makes an arsonist, in general, and why they do it. (Across Australia it is thought that 37 per cent of all vegetation fires are suspicious and that those that light them deliberately are usually “male; they are commonly unemployed; or had a complicated work history; they were likely to have disadvantaged social backgrounds, often with a family history of pathology, addiction and physical abuse; and many exhibited poor social or interpersonal skills”.)

And then she turns her focus on Sokaluk, who claims he accidentally lit the fire by throwing cigarette ash, wrapped in a serviette, out the window of his car when he was driving past the plantation. (The evidence suggests the fire was most likely started by a match or a cigarette lighter. It does not explain why there were two fires, one of either side of the road, which the police believe were both started by Sokaluk.)

This extraordinary case is brought to life by Hooper’s interviews with Selena McCrickard, Sokaluk’s Legal Aid lawyer, who comes across as being kind and compassionate but who is frequently frustrated by her client’s behaviour. When she has him mentally assessed, Sokaluk is diagnosed with autism, a condition that was practically unheard of in the 1970s when he was a kid and which goes some way to explaining his difficulties growing up and fitting into society.

Interviews with Sokaluk’s parents also help paint a much fuller picture of his childhood and day-to-day life and how they had always been worried about him but were unable to do much more than check up on him, take him on outings and ensure he paid his bills on time.

Fine reportage

The Arsonist is a fine example of true crime reportage. As well as examining this particular shocking crime in forensic detail, Hooper puts it in a much larger context — how common arson is in Australia, why it occurs, who commits it, the difficulties associated with investigating it and the hatred such a crime generates in the public — to provide a well-rounded picture of pyromania.

The book does not come up with any clear-cut answers as to how to prevent people becoming firebugs. “If arson is an expression of a particular psychology, there will always be arsonists,” Hooper writes.

But it’s clear that just like social outcast Martin Bryant, who shot dead 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996 (see my reviews of Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, and The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard, two books about this case), we ignore children’s mental impairments and interpersonal difficulties at our peril.

The message I took from this book was the sooner children can be diagnosed and given appropriate support the better, not just for society as a whole but for those children who might otherwise be bullied and ostracised as Brendan Sokaluk was for his entire life.

Added extras

Other Australian bloggers have reviewed this book including Lisa at ANZ Litlovers and Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The UK edition of The Arsonist will be published in paperback by Scribner UK on 30 May.

To find out more about this case, including an interview with Chloe Hooper and footage of Brendan Sokaluk’s police interview, please check out this edition of Australian Story:

 

Note, I have also read and reviewed Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island and highly recommend it.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2019  

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.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Hungary, memoir, Miranda Doyle, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Quercus, Sacha Batthyány, Setting, Sigrid Rausing, Sweden

3 memoirs by Sacha Batthyány, Miranda Doyle and Sigrid Rausing

Three memoirs

‘A Crime in the Family’ by Sacha Batthyány

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Quercus; 224 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A crime in the familyA Crime in the Family is a compelling memoir that looks at two of my favourite subjects: moral culpability and intergenerational guilt.

Written by Swiss journalist Sacha Batthyány in an engaging but forthright tone, it combines autobiography with family history (the Batthyány family is so distinguished it has its own Wikipedia page) and explores what it is like to discover that one of your ancestors has carried out a horrendous war crime that has remained secret for decades.

The book’s main focus is one particular night in the spring of 1945 when Sacha’s great aunt, Countess Margit Batthyány, threw an extravagant party for German aristocrats and Nazi SS officers in her ancestral home —  a castle — in the Hungarian village of Rechnitz. Part of the “entertainment” included the “sport” of shooting 180 Jewish workers dead and burying them in a mass grave.

Batthyány uses family diaries from the time to tell the story and marries this with accounts of his own therapy sessions and journalistic research. At times the book reads like a travelogue, as Batthyány, often accompanied by his father (with whom he has a troubled relationship), visits landmarks associated with his dark family history, including the gulags of Russia and the extermination camp at Auschwitz. He also travels to South America to meet the descendants of some of the Jews who were killed in the massacre.

This is a tragic and moving memoir about complicity, reconciliation and shining a light on the truth. Highly recommended.

‘A Book of Untruths’ by Miranda Doyle

Non-fiction – memoir; hardcover; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A Book of Untruths is an unusual but thought-provoking memoir that raises more questions than it answers.

Structured around a series of lies — 70 “untruths” in total — Doyle explores not only the complicated nature of her family (her parents had a troubled marriage and her father was a larger-than-life unpredictable character), but also the unreliability of memoir writing as a whole. How dependable are our memories? Where does fact become fiction? How does storytelling help us make sense of our own lives and the world we live in?

Doyle’s desperate need to understand the complicated nature of her parent’s marriage and her own messy, tangled upbringing (including her complex relationship with her three siblings), lends this memoir a ring of authenticity. Written in exquisite but punchy prose, A Book of Untruths isn’t a misery memoir, but it is fuelled by a deep anger and is undercut with enough self-deprecating humour to make it an enjoyable if somewhat curious read.

‘Mayhem: A Memoir’ by Sigrid Rausing

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Penguin; 224 pages; 2018. 

Many people may know Sigrid Rausing as the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books, but she is from a wealthy Swedish family which made its fortune from food packaging (her grandfather co-founded Tetra Pak). Curiously, this memoir isn’t about Rausing’s life; instead it is about her sister-in-law’s death.

Eva Rausing, one of the wealthiest women in the UK, died of a drug overdose aged 48  in the summer of 2012. Her body was found in the London mansion she shared with her husband, Hans (Sigrid’s brother), under a pile of clothes in a barricaded bedroom. Hans was charged with preventing the lawful and decent burial of his wife and later sentenced to 10 months in jail.

Mayhem: A Memoir looks at the outfall of this death on the Rausing family, but much of its focus is on the years preceding the tragedy, for both Hans and Eva were drug addicts (they met in rehab) and were so entrapped by their respective addictions they had given Sigrid and her husband Eric custody of their four children.

Heartfelt, searing and deeply reflective (but occasionally tinged with self-pity), the book emphasises the collateral damage that drug addiction wreaks on entire families and shows that being born into immense wealth offers no protection against tragedy.

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