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.