Review - Certain Admissions, Gideon Haigh
In a leadup event to the 2016 Bendigo Writers Festival, Gideon Haigh came to Dunolly for a discussion with Rosemary Sorensen about CERTAIN ADMISSIONS. A true crime book that I'd been aware of for quite a while, this was the prefect opportunity to sit in the wonderful surrounds of the restored Court House, with a glass of wine and listen to a fascinating session about a case that I'd never heard of before this book.
The research, including the employment of genealogists to investigate family trees and backgrounds, and the thought that has gone into this book is clear on every page. As Haigh discussed the genesis of the book, from the conversation that started it, through to the incredible levels of research and detail he looked into, it became clear that not only is this a most fascinating case, it's one that, at the end of the book, readers will most likely still be divided as to John Bryan Kerr's guilt or innocence.
It's also a timely reminder of how badly victim's have, it seems, always been treated, particularly when they are female and, most especially, when they are young and pretty. Newspaper reports of the time are breathtaking in their disrespect, and the "celebrity" built up around the young, handsome and quite debonair chief suspect just flat out odd.
There's also a circus aspect to the trials and a weird sort of celebrity bad-boy image built around Kerr - to be fair not all of his own making at that time - that might be put down to the lack of entertainment options in those day, but really seems like a sad indictment of the worst of voyeuristic human nature. There are also chilling reminders of the difference in policing styles - the idea that the police made up their minds of who was guilty and then a case was "built" to suit that decision - as opposed to current day investigation principles.
Haigh digs through a wealth of materials about John Bryan Kerr - from the trial records to current day newspaper reports, and the recollections of people who knew him. He also does this with the full knowledge and support of the woman he married after having served his time, and their daughter. Haigh's respect and care of their feelings and sensibilities is palpable within the narrative - this is an author whose touch is respectful but thorough, careful and considerate of all sides of what is, after all, the story of the death of a young woman, and a man who lived his life protesting his innocence until the end.
All of which makes CERTAIN ADMISSIONS an excellent true crime novel. It's beautifully constructed and written, engaging, involving, and never resorting to sensationalism. Respect for the subject, and the participants is palpable, as is the struggle that the author had in constructing the story in a fair and accurate manner. It's a considered and careful progression through the facts, always ensuring that the reader is aware when the author is extrapolating or drawing conclusions (done sparingly). It highlights the difficult position the author of this sort of work, without overtly inserting themselves into the narrative. It personalises everyone as much as possible - the victim, the convicted, the police investigator and the family, in particular, of John Bryan Kerr. It's also one of those books that comes to an ending which allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about what happened the night that Beth Williams died.
Certain Admissions is Australian true crime at its best, and stranger than any crime fiction. It is real-life police procedural, courtroom drama, family saga, investigative journalism, social history, archival treasure hunt - a meditation, too, on how the past shapes the present, and the present the past.
On a warm evening in December 1949, two young people met by chance under the clocks at Flinders Street railway station. They decided to have a night on the town. The next morning, one of them, twenty-year-old typist Beth Williams, was found dead on Albert Park Beach. When police arrested the other, Australia was transfixed: twenty-four-year-old John Bryan Kerr was a son of the establishment, a suave and handsome commercial radio star educated at Scotch College, and Harold Holt's next-door neighbour in Toorak.
Police said he had confessed. Kerr denied it steadfastly. There were three dramatic trials attended by enormous crowds, a relentless public campaign proclaiming his innocence involving the first editorials against capital punishment in Australia. For more than a decade Kerr was a Pentridge celebrity, a poster boy for rehabilitation – a fame that burdened him the rest of his life. Then, shortly after his death, another man confessed to having murdered Williams. But could he be believed?