Review - A COMPULSION TO KILL, Robert Cox

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

A COMPULSION TO KILL is one of those true crime books that reads like a ripping great yarn. It's an engaging method of delivering history, telling the stories of (in this instance) a range of Tasmania's earliest serial killers, setting them in a vivid example of the landscape in which their actions played out, creating a chillingly realistic version of early white Australia.

As outlined in the blurb it covers a series of cases beginning in 1806 with the first documented serial killers Brown and Lemon, finishing with the unresolved Parkmount case in 1862. The cruelty and ruthlessness of many of these cases defy belief, but in a strange way it's a relief that even then, even with large tracts of wilderness in which to disappear, many of these criminals were either arrogant or stupid. They were, in the main, identified, located, and punished, despite the chance to keep out of the hands of the law. It is striking how little regard was paid to the way the indigenous people had survived in the landscape. 

It's difficult to call a book like this enjoyable, but you could easily use the words engaging page-turner. The style which is almost conversational and lively makes the awfulness of these killers even more apparent. The level of detail and therefore the amount of research that went into knowing these stories must be extensive, but that detail is sparingly employed providing something that is interesting, measured and informative without being overly detailed or complex to follow. Sources are provided to give the characters (witness and perpetrator) their own voices where possible, with this author pulling off the balance between knowing their subject matter extremely well, and not turning the book into a dry list of facts and figures.

An interesting example given recent debates about the teaching of history reverting to a significantly drier style, this is history that really worked for this reader. A COMPULSION TO KILL is engaging, shocking and sobering but never uninteresting. 

Year of Publication

The latest work from acclaimed historical author Robert Cox, A Compulsion to Kill is a dramatic chronological account of 19th-century Tasmanian serial murderers. Never before revealed in such depth, the story is the culmination of extensive research and adept craftsmanship as it probes the essence of both the crimes and the killers themselves.

Beginning in 1806 with Australia’s first serial killers, John Brown and Richard Lemon, A Compulsion to Kill recounts the stories of Alexander Pearce, ‘the cannibal convict’; Thomas Jeffrey, a sadist, sexual predator, cannibal, and baby-killer known as ‘the monster’; Charles Routley, who burnt one of his victims alive; cannibal convicts Broughton and McAvoy; Rocky Whelan, who in twenty-four days slew five men in cold blood; and John Haley, who killed three people in fits of rage. The final chapter investigates the still-unsolved Parkmount murders, three killings for which the two probable culprits twice faced court, only to be discharged due to faulty police investigation and neglected evidence.

Most of these stories have never been told before, and none has previously been related with such detail and verifiable accuracy. A determined storyteller, Cox delivers a supremely dramatic page-turner in the true crime genre.

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