Rough Justice: Unanswered Questions from the Australian courts examines the question at the heart of our criminal justice system - what happens when our courts get it wrong?
ROUGH JUSTICE comes from that section of True Crime books which include telling the story of particular cases, and then analysing aspects of those cases.
As with all these sorts of books whether or not it will work for the reader depends on a number of highly subjective elements - whether you agree with the issues raised by the author (either that they exist or they are issues); whether you agree with the outcome or the methodology of that analysis; and whether or not you like or dislike either the tone of book, the raising of the case, the author or any combination of these and/or any other elements you want to raise.
Makes this sort of book a tricky read for a lot of people and you'd have to be silly not to think that True Crime, in particular, is an easy path for either author or reader.
What I appreciated in this book in particular is that the cases that were raised were raised, that the issues that were highlighted were highlighted, and the analysis that was undertaken was voiced. No idea if I agree or disagree or even came up with my own conclusions in the main. But the justice system in this country has to be robust enough to stand up to scrutiny, which is part of the reason that I read these sorts of books - regardless of the cases, the author, the issues or the period of time that has passed.
GANGLAND AUSTRALIA - James Morton and Susanna Lobez
"Gangland Australia" is a book about organized crime and the professional criminals who have recklessly cut a swathe through Australia over the last 200 years. It is a book with accounts of murder, robbery, standover, prostitution, drugs, great escapes, revenge, betrayal, corruption, police, lawyers, doctors and politicians.This is a forensic investigation of criminal gangs in Australia, from convicts and bushrangers right up to the recent gangland slayings in Melbourne.It is written in a very accessible style, with a narrative flow which reads as part history, part-thriller.
I bought this book at last years Crime & Justice festival, and at the time Susanna Lobez was kind enough to sign it with me including the inscription "Stay curious!".
And that is the best way I can recommend this book - staying curious, reading this sort of historical true crime fiction, reminds you that nothing is ever really new. And nothing is ever "the worst it has ever been" or "never before in the history...." or whatever else the media feeds you (obviously I'm thinking of the "Underbelly Wars" here).
Commencing at the beginning of the arrival of the British in Australia, this book takes you right through to the 1990's, outlining the various criminal gangs, crimelords and warlords, as well as their lesser and greater known exploits. So much is touched on - the drug dealing, prostitution, stand-over merchants, infights, murders, and bashings.
And it ranges over a range of different cities, nationalities, groupings, allegiances, loyalties and disloyalties.
This is a great book to read through, or to dip in and out of. And it is a tremendous book to remind you that there's very little new under the sun.
TAKE OUT - Felicity Young
You take my girls and I take you: Skin for Skin
A deserted house. The remains of an unfinished meal. An unexpected find. And a routine police investigation going nowhere.
Fremantle Press have just released the third DSS Stevie Hooper book by WA based writer Felicity Young, TAKE OUT, following on from HARUM SCARUM and AN EASEFUL DEATH.
Starting off with a prologue that is obviously telegraphing something awful in the future of Mai, a young Asian girl, the action moves to Perth. Stevie is working in the Sex Crimes unit, but it's in her capacity as friend that she steps into the strangely deserted Pavel house that morning. The house is luxurious, big, beautiful, yet it's contents are sparse, scruffy, untidy. The remains of an unfinished meal are on the table, and in one of the back rooms, a young child has been deserted - alive, but strangely it seems he has been fed and looked after until only recently. For days after his parents have both just vanished.
The only reason the baby is discovered in time is because Stevie knows Skye - a young visiting nurse, who has been alerted to something wrong at the Pavel house by one of their neighbours. Unfortunately that elderly neighbour has had a severe stroke affecting her speech patterns, which makes them garbled and nonsensical. A simple disappearance isn't really a case for a DSS in the Sex Crimes squad, and the local police are keen to move her out of the way when they show up, but Stevie's not one that's easily distracted and there are things at this crime scene that don't quite add up. Mind you, Stevie would do well to leave it alone, especially as she and partner Monty are up to their elbows in house renovations, and he's about to undergo major heart surgery.
When the investigation into the father's background quickly reveals a very sinister connection to human trafficking and sexual enslavement Stevie's concern is vindicated and despite worrying about Monty, their house, her daughter, Skye, and her own safety, finds herself ultimately on the trail of a shadowy Madam and her son.
The subject matter of TAKE OUT is sleazy and unpleasant, but it is handled carefully. The sexual exploitation of young people (in this case female) is difficult to comprehend and TAKE OUT makes it that more difficult by letting the reader get to really know one of the (now) women - Mai. Along with Mai's story, and the disappearance of the Pavel husband and wife, there are a number of other lesser, but connected threads, and there is a sprinkling of personal stories - triumphs and sadness as well.
TAKE OUT has a busy plot, but the focus remains on a number of aspects of enforced prostitution, making the novel possibly quite challenging for some readers. There is a very strong concentration on the victims of the sexual exploitation - working on making them human, real people that can be sympathised with. Combine that with Stevie, her work colleagues, her personal life and the increasing complications in both and it does mean that the villains of the piece are little more than bit players for quite a bit of the book. The perpetrators, whilst eventually identified, remain shadowy, almost strangely incidental and there's little if no explanation of the inexplicable attempted - which may intrigue some readers and frustrate others. TAKE OUT does, however, balance the personal angst and professional responsibilities of Stevie a lot better than in the earlier novels, and the complexity of the plot is handled well, believably and with sensitivity. TAKE OUT really does take on a difficult subject with sensitivity and insight, making the victims a point of focus, delivering a realistic (and therefore not all neatly wrapped up and sealed off) resolution. For added measure, there's a bit of a kick in the tail at the end of the book as well. For this reader at least, that alone went miles towards demonstrating why some things remain utterly inexplicable.
BLOODY RELATIONS - John Kerr
It can take years for love to turn to murderous hate - or it can happen overnight.
What drives a man or a woman to commit the ultimate betrayal - to take the life of a parent, a child, a sibling, a lover?
BLOODY RELATIONS is an unflinching exploration of fourteen well known and not so well known murder-in-the-family cases. Taking readers inside the life and mind of both killer and victim, John Kerr unfolds the gripping stories behind some of Australia's most sensational and shocking crimes.
There are quite a lot of collections of true crime stories floating around, and more than one that uses the theme of murder in the family as it's connecting fibre. BLOODY RELATIONS, however, touches on a number of family murders that are less well known - as well as some of the better known cases in Australia.
Starting off with the startling case of the death of Maureen - wife of Dr Rory Thompson in Hobart in 1983, the book then heads to a more well known case in the death of Jennifer Tanner at Bonnie Doon in 1984. Next up the death of Chris Hatfield in 1985, asleep on his couch in Sydney's Southern Beaches he was shot in the head. Then the strange and complicated Waters family goings on when the live-in man of the ex-wife of Ces Waters was shot dead outside their home in 1988. From there the death - originally thought to be of SIDs of four of Kathleen Folbigg's children starting in 1989, which dogged police work and expert testimony finally revealed as something considerably more disturbing. Then the New Zealand case in 1994 where originally it was thought that Robin Bain had shot his wife, three of his four children and then himself. Until the police had a closer look at the only surviving son - David. In 1997 the body of Svetlana (Lana ) Rana was discovered in a vat of acid in Sydney, when she was supposed to have gone missing from Crown Casino in Melbourne, and in 2000 the family of Jack van Krevel finally imploded completely and he died, horribly. In 1994 the simple life of Lindsay Jellet was ended, run down by a car on the roadside just outside Ararat - in one of the saddest stories in the entire book. Around the same time as the highly publicised Wales-King murder in Melbourne, Gaetano and Maria Russo were killed in their home in North Altona. Similar circumstances - not as much notoriety. In 2000 Katherine Knight killed her lover John Price - the way that she opted to dispose of his body, well even in a careful telling of the story like the one in this book - it's not pleasant to think about. In 1991 the investigation into the death of 22 month old Harry Manley has some chilling similarities with the Azaria Chamberlain case, and finally, in 2001 the violent deaths of the mother, father and sister of Sef Gonzales seems to have left him distraught - for far too short a time.
The author of this book has continued with his almost conversational, slightly wry tone in BLOODY RELATIONS which actually really helps the reader come to grips with many of these stories. Not just a chronology of events, there is some commentary and analysis in many of these accounts of some of the more notorious, sad, bad, horrific and just simply pathetic murders in families in Australia in the past couple of decades. Whilst you may have heard of some of these cases, there are some that are less well known - but the style of the book makes it's a very enlightening insight into all of them.
THE WATER'S EDGE - Karin Fossum
Walking through the woods one warm September day, Reinhardt and Kristine Ris pass a man who is in a state of agitation. Unusually in a small town, he does not return Kristine's smile and drives off in a hurry. As the couple continue on their walk they make a terrible discovery: lying in a cluster of trees is the lifeless body of a young boy. It is a moment that will change their lives forever.
One of the things that I particularly love about really good crime fiction is the way that it highlights the human condition - warts and all. The thing I particularly love about Karin Fossum's books is the way that she explores the notion of the sad, the stupid, the moments in which things go awry. To my mind, there's something profoundly more sobering about the notion of momentary mistake or misjudgement - rather than the automatic presumption of evil.
THE WATER'S EDGE tackles the difficult subject of the death of a child (and the disappearance of another). When Reinhardt and Kristine Ris briefly pass an agitated man at the start of one of their regular walks, they have no idea that they will need to remember that man, his appearance, his state of mind and his vehicle. They only realise that after they discover the body of a young boy in the woods, and Inspector Sejer starts asking a lot of questions. The circumstances of the boy's death appear to be indicating a dreadful fate for the little boy, although the exact cause of death remains a mystery for quite a while. Sejer's investigation takes on an even more sinister overtone when a second little boy disappears.
Whilst the death of the little boy and the search for his attacker is paramount to Sejer, there's some interesting psychological exploration going on in THE WATER'S EDGE. Reinhardt and Kristine's marriage is a fragile affair to start off with, although Reinhardt's bull-headed stubbornness and self-involvement means he probably had no idea that Kristine has been having second thoughts about the relationship for a long time. As Reinhardt's voyeuristic reaction to the discover of the little boy becomes more and more extreme, it simply confirms for Kristine that her marriage has been a mistake. Add to that Reinhardt's refusal to have children and Kristine's increasing yearning for a child, and this is a relationship which is destined for problems. The portrayal of the affects of the boy's death in such a personal thing as the relationship of the hapless discoverers of the body poignantly draws a picture of how profound and unexpected the affects of murder can be.
The other side of the story - the perpetrator is equally telling. As strange as this may seem, there's some room for compassion for the perpetrator of these acts - these moments of misjudgement. Lifelong damage, instant mistakes, the sad, the pathetic, the inexcusable, the stupid, the unwittingly cruel, shame and personal loathing. It applies equally to the death of a poor little boy, his body laid out with some care and reverence in the woods, as it does to another little boy - overweight, over-indulged, different, ashamed and shamed against, who has gone missing.
MEANER THAN FICTION - Lindy Cameron (ed)
Just where is justice in Australia hiding? This brilliant new collection of true crime stories takes us into the Australian courts of the 1980s and '90s, back in time to the goldfields of the 1860s and out to the island nation of Nauru in 2006 to explore how the scales of justice are unabalanced. This is a world in which the innocent still get locked up and the guilty too often go free.
One of the principles of a strong democracy (and hence a strong justice system) has to be the right to scrutinise decisions made in our collective name.
MEANER THAN FICTION is one such book - with a series of individual writers looking at a range of cases over the years that desperately call out for such scrutiny. There are a range of viewpoints and issues discussed in this book - from the victim's point of view in the case of Dr Andrew Taylor, to the perpetrator whose extenuating circumstances are simply not acknowledged (despite later cases that have been treated very differently). There's analysis of the anguish of families and loved ones in the event of an inexplicable disappearance / mrder and the role that crime writers can play in redressing a miscarriage of justice. There's historical perspective, as well as a range of cases from more current times. It's not just murder that's discussed either - the tragedy of the so called "Pacific Solution" is starkly outlined, as is the "whole truth" of some expert testimony. There are some things worth highlighting as well - such as the Innocence Project, but there is the other side - the difficult situation faced by victims of a flatmate peeping Tom.
This anthology is as relevant now as it was when it was originally published. It's a stark reminder of the need for scrutiny and was instructive, saddening, uplifting and fascinating.
AFRICAN PSYCHO - Alain Mabanckou
Gregoire Nakobomayo, a petty criminal, has decided to kill his girlfriend Germaine. He's planned it for some time, but still, the act of murder requires a bit of psychological and logistical preparation.
When AFRICAN PSYCHO by Alain Mabanckou arrived in my book stack, I really wasn't sure what to expect. I've finished it now and I'm still not sure what I got. But I do remember it!
Gregoire is a neglected child - an ugly child - an anonymous child - abandoned by his parents - he's raised in an increasingly haphazard manner really by himself mostly. He vows he will be different. He will be remembered. He vows to escape his humdrum reality and commit a spectacular murder. Just like his idol - the serial killer Angoualima. Angoualima is Gregoire's guide, his mentor, his hero. He's dead, but that doesn't mean that Gregoire is separated from him, often sharing his plans when sitting on Angoualima's grave.
Told in Gregoire's own voice, AFRICAN PSYCHO is a journey into the macabre, the funny, the sad, the desperate and the disturbing. At the same time, there are great sweeping vistas of the absurd - not the least because the author uses the most bizarre names for places - "He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot" is where Gregoire lives. The novel isn't set in a real place, just as Gregoire's life is somehow not quite real.
AFRICAN PSYCHO isn't a book that fits into any "category" that's for sure. It's frequently weird, it's often confusing, but at the same time it's compelling, intriguing and just a little sad. Gregoire's an unreliable narrator in some ways, not by artifice or to manipulate. He's fragile. He's very damaged. The world he lives in isn't anywhere near where the rest of us lead our lives.
It's not an easy book to read, partially because it doesn't fit into any particular pattern or mould. It's also not an easy book to read as Gregoire's somebody who despite everything, that you could very well find yourself caring about - a lot.
BORDERLANDS - Brian McGilloway
A well written police procedural is one of the reasons I'm so addicted to crime fiction. A good police procedural will introduce you to the police,take you by the land and lead you through their investigation as they unearth clues by interviewing people, sifting the evidence and following leads. There will be a careful balance of detecting and learning about the lives of the detectives. If the author has done the job properly s/he doesn't deliberately hold back clues or have the the detectives catch the culprit in the act, just two pages before the end.
In his first novel, BORDERLANDS, Brian McGilloway has succeeded in all of the above. He has also avoided producing a door stop of a book. At just 227 pages, BORDERLAND doesn't muck about. You're straight into the story with no unnecessary padding. It's something I wish more authors would try to achieve.
If, like me, you enjoy police procedurals, you can't go wrong with BORDERLANDS. I look forward to reading more of McGilloways' writing.
BROKEN SKIN - Stuart MacBride
BROKEN SKIN is Stuart MacBride’s third Logan Macrae novel. The first, COLD GRANITE had him working with DI Insch. In the second, DYING LIGHT, DI Steele was the officer in charge. In BROKEN SKIN, MacBride seems to have gone for a bet each way and had Macrae working for both at the same time. It’s not a plot idea that does not seems to work terribly well. Rather than concentrating on a single investigation, Macrae is pushed from pillar to post, grumbling all the while and becoming impatient himself. Macrae and his colleagues moan, groan and whinge their way through the book. We know this because these adjectives are used often; to the point of annoyance on my part.
The issue of the over-used adjectives aside, BROKEN SKIN is entertaining enough. However after the wonderful debut novel, COLD GRANITE, BROKEN SKIN is a bit of a disappointment. I only hope this was a glitch and subsequent novels will be of the standard of MacBride’s first
DEVIL'S PEAK - Deon Meyer
What makes a book special for you? For me it’s when the characters and the story stays with you after you’ve closed the book. All too often once the book is finished , the details begin to fade almost immediately. Not so with DEVIL’S PEAK by Deon Meyer
The alcoholic detective is something of a staple in crime fiction; to the extent that it frequently becomes a cliché. Not so Benny. Meyer writes about Benny’s struggle , self-recrimination and the realisation of the full impact of his drinking on his life, his family and his colleagues with a great deal of sensitivity . We feel Benny’s pain, guilt and despair as struggles through “one day at a time.”
DEVIL’S PEAK was written in Afrikaans and translated by K.L. Seegers. Not only is the translation spot on, but Seegers has retained enough of the Afrikaans slang and dialect for the reader to easily imagine an Afrikaans accent.
The sense of place and culture are also very strong. There is no way this book could be set anywhere but South Africa. DEVIL’S PEAK is not only well written with a nicely honed plot, but the author has also seamlessly incorporated a history lesson, a clear idea of diverse cultures and characters you won’t forget in a hurry. These all combine to make DEVIL’S PEAK a memorable read on many levels.
The second week of 2009 isn’t over yet and already I feel I’ve read one of my top books for 2009