Pitcairn Island, remote and wild, home to descendants of the Bounty, a South Pacific Shangri-la, shrouded in myth...
But also, as the world would discover, a place of sinister secrets.
In 2000, police descended on the British colony to investigate disturbing reports of rape. What they discovered was a shocking trail of child abuse dating back generations. Scarcely a man was untainted by the allegations, and barely a girl had escaped, yet most residents feigned ignorance or claimed it was their ′way of life′.
I confess that my knowledge of the history of Pitcairn was sketchy to say the least. I hope I knew slightly more of the history of the place than would have been gleaned from movies about the Bounty, but certainly I knew close enough to nothing about how the community was faring in the current day world, how it functioned for all those years, the nature of the life on Pitcairn, the difficulties in getting onto and off the island and so on. I remember reports of the child rape trials that were conducted at the time, but again, my knowledge was minimal, so this book came as an absolute revelation.
PITCAIRN was written by one of the few journalists allowed to live on the island during the conduct of the trials, with a number of defendants still residing on the island at the time they were charged with multiple child rape / sexual abuse offences. The book covers the trials themselves as well as life on Pitcairn during that time in a lot of detail. It also discusses many of the events that led to the placing of charges, as well as, much later in the book, providing some attempt at analysis of how on earth a community in a "tropical paradise" ended up with such a skewed moral compass.
PITCAIRN gives you an astounding picture of a small, enclosed world that has developed on a small island, borderline inaccessible to the outside world. The nature of the society on the island is a very strange combination of a feudal hierarchy, based on the family that you belong to, complicated by an interdependence on each other that obviously causes considerable tensions in a place where the outside world has had very little effect or more than a passing interest for many many years. A colony of Britain, Pitcairn was in some ways completely neglected, and in others an absolute paradise for its residents - particularly if you "belonged" to the controlling groups. They led a semi-self sufficient lifestyle, bolstered by government money and tourism dollars. Getting on and off the island was only possible via the longboats - run by the men of the island. The same men who had been accused of systematic and brutal child abuse. Whilst initial protestations of a Polynesian lifestyle were used to attempt to explain away the abuse that had occurred, this also created tensions within and without the community. And away from the island itself, within the ex-pat community and in amongst a large community of supporters of the island and the people - the existence of the abuse was explained, denied, decried.
PITCAIRN is an absorbing book - it covers all of the events that are reported in a relatively clinical manner, although the author obviously found the treatment that she and other reporters were subjected to disappointing and even distressing. Ultimately what the book is going to give you is a real feeling of what it is like to live in a completely enclosed community, and the impact that has on human relationships. What the book doesn't - and probably can't do - is explain how on earth this situation was ever allowed to continue for as long as it did.
FATAL FLAW - Roger Maynard
On Easter Sunday,2002, Janelle Patton was murdered on Norfolk Island. it was the first murder on the island in 150 years.
The hunt for the killer and the attendant media scrutiny threw a spotlight onto the small, insular community which perhaps changed it for ever. The suspicions created during the investigation will perhaps linger for many years.
FATAL FLAW follows the investigation, the inquest and the trial which convicted New Zealander Glenn O'Neill.
Although the record shows that O'Neill was the killer, his conviction was based on an early confession which was later recanted by him. The rest of the evidence was largely circumstantial and there were many unanswered questions which haven't completely closed the matter.
Norfolk Island is a somewhat hierarchical community, with descendents of the Bounty mutineers and Pitcairn Islander at the top. it is also a community which is very protective of itself, where the smallest conflicts can result in decades long feuds and rumours run riot.
Roger Maynard looks beneath the seemingly picture-postcard exterior of Norfolk Island and uncovers what lies beneath the surface. What it shows is that life on Norfolk Island is perhaps darker and less idyllic than the tourism publicity would lead us to believe.
KILLING JODIE - Janet Fife-Yeomans
Drug user and part-time prostitute, Jodie Larcombe disappeared from St Kilda in December, 1987. It would have been easy for police to shrug their shoulders and put it down to her lifestyle. However, the detectives assigned to her case refused to give up on her.
They were certain she had been murdered. They knew who did it, but they just couldn't prove it to the satisfaction of the Department of Public Prosecutions.
This year I have read true crime books about crooks, books about crimes and books about the personalities involved, but this is the first book I've read that tells the story from, the perspective of the investigating officers.
KILLING JODIE is an in-depth nuts-and bolts look at the investigation. Because there was no body, not only did the detectives have to collect evidence proving the Suckling had commited murder, they also had to discount the inevitable claims that Jodie was still alive.
The author, Janet Fife-Yeomans became intrigued with the case when covering the story for The Australian newspaper. In her acknowledgements she states that "I have tried to take the reader inside the investigation so the evidence unfolds for the reader as it did for the police" and she has succeeded. KILLING JODIE reads like a police procedural. We share the ups and downs of the case with the investigating officers who refused to let go, the relationships formed with Jodie's family and other witnesses during the case and the impact it had on all their lives.
Fife-Yeomans had the co-operation of both police and family in writing KILLING JODIE and has written it in such a way that it is almost impossible not to become emotionally involved while reading the book.
KILLING JODIE is a must-read for true crime devotees. If you're not, perhaps this book will change your mind.
MR SIN (The Abe Saffron Dossier) - Tony Reeves
He was known as "Mr Sin", yet despite his involvement in illegal gambling, sly grog, prostitution and money laundering for nearly sixty years, Abe Saffron faught the nick name most of his adult life. He spent hundreds and thousands of dollars on defamation suits trying to disprove what everyone except himself accepted. He was a crook.
MR SIN: THE ABE SAFFRON DOSSIER chronicles Abe Saffron's life as a major underworld figure in Sydney.
The most fascinating part of MR SIN is not the corruption. It is the extent of it and how blatant it was. Many involved made little or no effort to cover up the fact they were taking payments from Saffron and his enterprise.
Saffron's strange obsession with defending his "good name" in the courts is also explored.
Reeves isn't afraid to name names either. Some of Australia's best known identities are named in the book; Sir Peter Abeles, Sir Frank Packer, former Attorney General, Lionel Murphy and of course former Premier of New South Wales Robert Askin.
I did find the quotes from various court cases to be extremely dry reading. The rest of the book is a fascinating expose of just how corrupt things were in New South Wales for several decades.
UNDERBELLY THE GANGLAND WAR - John Silvester
They called Carl Williams 'The Truth' but the truth was he was just a fat kid with a pill press and a taste for fast food, women and bucks. He got lucky the day Jason Moran shot him in the belly instead of the head. Carl didn't return the favour: one by one, Moran, his family, and friends were shot dead during an underworld war for extermination.
Nearly everyone has heard of the Underbelly tv series. You've either watched it, or can't wait to see what the fuss was about if you live in Victoria.
Not everyone knows that the Underbelly tv series is based on the John Silvester and Andrew Rule book, Leadbelly. (A reference to the whole thing being kicked off by Carl Williams being shot in the stomach by the Moran brothers).
Underbelly: The Gangland wars is a revised and updated version of Leadbelly, released to tie in with with tv series. One of the major differences between the books is Underbelly: The Gangland War features photos of the major players in the gangland war placed next the actors playing the characters - some of the resemblences are quite remarkable.
If you haven't read any of the numerous Underbelly books, they are a no-nonsense account of the doings of the underworld liberally laced with irreverent humour. A must for anyone with even a passing interest in those events.
UNDERBELLY, THE GANGLAND WAR - John Silvester and Andrew Rule
First he got lucky.
Then he got life.
They called Carl Williams 'The Truth' but the truth was he was just a fat kid with a pill press and a taste for fast food, fast women and fast bucks. He got lucky the day Jason Moran shot him in the belly instead of in the head.
UNDERBELLY - THE GANGLAND WAR is probably a compilation book of a lot of the sections previously covered in the earlier Underbelly books by journalists Silvester and Rule. The book, interestingly, is freely available and openly publicised in Victoria - the state where the TV show Underbelly is banned from airing on TV here. I've no idea what that says about the way that the Supreme Court ban worked, but the book is going to be some way of a consolation to those who are keen to see the TV show.
The book takes you back through the majority of the murders and lunacy that is / was Melbourne's Underworld war. The style is typically laconic and frankly laugh out loud at points - which makes you feel just a bit odd really. These guys were killing their way to the top and you can't help thinking about Chopper Read's defense that he only ever killed bad guys. Still, it's an interesting stroll through the alternative side of Melbourne and it's certainly extremely entertaining.
THE PYJAMA GIRL MYSTERY - Richard Evans
The Pyjama Girl was an unknown woman, found dumped by a road near Albury in 1934. She had been brutally murdered. Who she was, and who killed her became Australia's great unsolved crime for decades.
THE PYJAMA GIRL MYSTERY is less about resolving who killed her, and more about how the police investigation at the time proceeded. The book lays out all of the circumstances around the location of the body; the steps taken to try to identify the body; and ultimately the trial and manslaughter verdict against Antonia Agostini.
The body had been ultimately identified as Agostini's wife - Linda. But was that a valid identification (and I've got to say from the photos included I'd have to have my doubts), and did Agostini really kill his wife (whose body has never been found), and who is the Pyjama Girl.
Fascinating for the analysis of the police investigation; enlightening about crackpots through the ages; one of the really interesting things about this book is the glimpses into 1920's / 30's and 40's Australia.
NO TURNING BACK - Joanna Lees
In mid July 2001 Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees were fulfilling a backpacker's dream. Both English, the young couple had spent a large portion of their six years together budget holidaying around the world and had come to live in Sydney as a kick-off to exploring Australia. Both were seasoned travellers and confident that in each other's company they would remain safe, continuing to enjoy the adventure holidays that most people never get to experience.
The Falconio case held the attention of the entire country in 2001 right up to and beyond the successful prosecution of Bradley John Murdoch. Lees tells of her story in a somewhat detached manner, beginning from the early days in which she first met Peter back in England through to present day as she re-builds her life without her boyfriend and hopefully, with less media attention. Peter's body was never found, and is never likely to be considering the sheer size of outback Australia, a fact Lees acknowledges in her book. A prosecution was not the end and failing the occurrence of a complete confession from Murdoch, the questions regarding what happened to Peter Falconio will remain unanswered.
Common to many true-crime books is that the relation of the police investigation with all its failings overwhelms everything else. Lees was treated appallingly by both the police and the media, effectively left to cope on her own in a situation she believes no one could ever be effectively prepared for. The press and the public were highly critical of just about everything Lees did, and the devastating impact this had on a young woman (who only had the occasional well-meaning assistance from a large group of casual friends) it seems, could never be under-stated. The minutiae of Lee's life was laid open for all to comment upon, and Lees conveys this impression of living under public scrutiny as like living your whole life in front of critical strangers – people who hold the firm belief that they are entitled to comment and judge upon events they have little or no real knowledge of.
There are many books out there covering the Lees/Falconio case. This is the only account sanctioned by Ms Lees and is written entirely in her own words. There will always be questions and there will always be gaps and doubts, but commons sense prevails that people under stress do not have perfect recall of their terrifying situations, and that this is probably something of a self-protective mechanism that kicks in when needed. Lees has done a credible job of telling her side of a story which has become one of those cases in Australia that continues to divide opinion even after legal resolution. This is fascinating reading from the only witness there ever truly was to a murder and attempted abduction, carried out in one of the most isolated places in the world.
SEARCHING FOR THE BEAUMONT CHILDREN - Alan J Whiticker
Many Australian's of a "certain age" will have a distinct memory of the Beaumont Children case - either by remembering the events as they occurred, or dealing with the change in how our childhood lives were lived. 40 years on the Beaumont Children are still missing - what happened to them totally unknown.
When the 3 children seemingly vanished from Glenelg Beach the police had very little information to go on, and all these years later the story is no clearer. No bodies have ever been discovered, nor have the 3 children been found living elsewhere. One of the major complicating factors (and possibly the cruelest, most vicious thing of all) is the number of people who had a piece of the case - either as an investigator with a total loss of perspective; clairvoyants holding out all sorts of false hope; people judging the parents for their actions in letting the children go to the beach on their own, and for their supposed reactions afterwards; malicious hoaxers sending letters supposedly to the parents; and finally however took those 3 kids - 40 years on and not a word or even a hint since about what happened to them.
SEARCHING FOR THE BEAUMONT CHILDREN is a fascinating book in that it draws out the timeline of the investigation - from the moment the children were missed to the current day. It covers all of the hoaxes; all of the sheer stupidity that went on around the hunt for the children; all of the false hopes and leads; all of the frequently seemingly thoughtless behaviour of so many people.
Fascinatingly there is a final chapter in the book talking about a number of possible suspects - one of whom hit the headlines in Victoria the day after we won a copy of this book in the Ned Kelly awards at the 2007 MWF. All those years and no idea of what happened to the 3 Beaumont Children; the two young girls taken from the Adelaide Oval in 1972; the 10 year old taken from her Adelaide home in 1983; and a lot of other children who have simply vanished all over Australia.
BIG SHOTS - Adam Shand
There's something - possibly it's car crash fascination - but ultimately there's something nigglingly alluring about True Crime books about the recent ructions in Melbourne's Underworld. Maybe it's the proximity of the goings on, maybe it's the sheer unbelievability of the world that people - who don't live a million miles away from me - live. It's a lifestyle that doesn't have any similarity with my own, yet it goes on in the same city that I live in. And Melbourne's not a humongous metropolis... it's Melbourne.
Adam Shand's Big Shots is, I guess, in that style that they call narrative non-fiction. It rolls out the story of the underworld war that led to a massive amount of publicity in the media, concern in the police, and frankly probably a lot of curiosity in other denizens of this city. As the bodies piled up and the ructions between the various camps increased Adam Shand, a finance journalist who seems to be openly admitting in this book was massively out of his depth, found himself with unexpected access to a number of central characters from both sides of the argument. Although the Carlton Crew were adamant that this was not a war of their making, and a considerable number of their members died, the war was more complicated and considerably more multi-faceated than just a war for territory. It seems to have been partially about territory, partially about long-held grudges, partially a lot of willy-waving and ultimately an exercise in power and what sort of mayhem bucket loads of money can buy you.
If you're even vaguely interested in the story behind the gangland wars - then this book is worth reading. It's certainly not glamorising either the events or the people involved, and it doesn't do a lot for talking up the life of a local gangster.