Book reviews

A selection of my book reviews, published in The Advertiser, Adelaide’s metropolitan daily newspaper:

love-terror-on-the-howling-plains-of-nowhere
Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere
Poe Ballantine,
Transit Lounge Publishing,
$29.95

This is a writer’s writer, a man whose uncanny ability to transfer raw honesty from brain to page elicits awe – and envy – from others not blessed with such talent. He is a self-confessed failure whose self-loathing aimlessly steers a sad, nomadic existence from town to town and menial job to menial job. Memoirs usually airbrush their subject’s less flattering angles, but Ballantine shines a pitiless light on his life, unashamed of his journey, which ultimately brings him to Chadron, Nebraska. He marries a Mexican dentist and they raise their apparently autistic son. When a local college professor is found dead, Ballantine turns detective, determined to solve the mystery. This is a riveting parallel journey through one man’s life and small-town America.
****

kingsKings of the World
Matt J Pike,
Self-published,
$2.99 (Kindle)

The galaxy is on the brink of war and four dysfunctional, hormone-driven teenagers are Earth’s only hope. Adelaide writer Pike’s twisted and colourful imagination straps the reader in and blasts off on a wild intergalactic ride. The humour is sharp and witty and the story is peppered with clever pop culture references, particularly from the world of gaming. From the AC/DC cameo to unexpected teenage fatherhood, the plot twists are utterly unpredictable. The boys find themselves thrust into a position of power in the intergalactic power structure, and, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, they are forced to make difficult choices. A fantastic debut book that is targeted at teenage boys but which will entertain a much wider audience.
****

ifitellyouIf I Tell You I’ll Have To Kill You
Edited By Michael Robotham,
Allen & Unwin,
$24.99

A Who’s Who of Australian crime writers lift the coffin lids on their dark worlds, sharing their own back stories, inspiration, motivation and insight, along with invaluable advice for budding writers. It isn’t necessary to be a fan of crime fiction to enjoy this collection, since each essay is in itself a superb piece of writing and many contain fascinating and sometimes hilarious anecdotes. Each writer also offers up their rules for writing (Shane Maloney baldly states “There are no f … ing rules”, before listing a dozen priceless pieces of advice) and five “must-reads” from their own experience as readers. This is an incomparable showcase that allows readers to appreciate the breadth of talent among Australia’s crime writers.
*****

brad40The Passion of Bradley Manning – The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower
Chase Madar,
Verso,
$19.95

This is a timely examination of how a young, gay atheist soldier had the courage to follow his conscience, sending almost half a million confidential US military documents to Wikileaks and almost certainly dooming himself to life in prison. Civil rights lawyer Madar crams an enormous amount of evidence into a short book, pointing the finger squarely at the US bureaucracy and its compulsive and hypocritical culture of secrecy. There is a brief biography of Manning, his unlikely entry into the military and his struggle to cope with life in Iraq. But as the chatlogs of conversations with a confidant show, Manning’s motivation for the leaks was entirely political, not personal. Ultimately this book exonerates Manning and puts the US government itself in the dock, but in reality, that, sadly, will never happen.
****

Detective Piggott’s Casebook
Kevin Morgan
HardieGrant Books
$24.95
It lay hidden in the back of his grandson’s wardrobe for decades, but when Detective Frederick Piggott’s personal files were finally discovered, so to was an important chapter in Australian police and forensic history. Morgan brings to life nine of the cases that the Victorian detective investigated in the early part of the 20th century, including the murder of two schoolgirls, a decapitated boy and the Yarra River baby killer, as well as documenting the detective’s life, which had its own share of tragedies. Piggott’s approach to criminal investigation and his use of forensic science was decades ahead of his time. While his intelligence, skills and acumen were well regarded by his contemporaries, Morgan makes a compelling case for Piggott being worthy of the title of Australia’s Sherlock Holmes. ****

Deception
Allen & Unwin
Charles Miranda
$27.99
Mark Standen was a cheating husband with a serious gambling problem.  He was also the highly respected assistant director of the New South Wales Crime Commission, a 30-year veteran who knew all there was to know about the underworld – including how to become part of it. When journalist Miranda began investigating the flow of synthetic drugs from The Netherlands to Australia, he stumbled on to the most secret of police operations, gathering evidence of Standen’s part in a plan to import more than 300kg of drug precursors, used to make speed and ice. Police later gave Miranda unprecedented access to their investigation, which involved a complex global web of criminals and mind-boggling modi operandi. Secrecy was paramount for Standen and his pursuers, both going to extraordinary lengths to minimise the daily risk of discovery by the other side. Miranda combines exhaustive research with a natural flair for storytelling, creating an utterly absorbing account of one of the most unlikely crimes in Australian history. ****

The Sting – Australia’s plot to crack a global drug empire
Nick McKenzie
Victory Books
$29.99
Drug crime has well and truly gone global and on a scale that governments can barely comprehend. But they lack the political will to take the action required to end it. That is the conclusion of this extraordinary book, which is a real-life,  high stakes international thriller. Australian Crime Commission manager Mike Purchas is the politically incorrect, no-nonsense veteran investigator who can see a way to make a real difference in the fight against drugs. But as a results-driven cop with no time for political niceties (his standard argument-ender is the phrase “Get fucked”) he is always butting heads with the bureaucracy of law enforcement. Somehow, he convinces his bosses that by setting up its own money laundering operation, the ACC will be able to track the money and do much more than bring down a handful of low-level pawns. The groundbreaking work of one of his team, criminal intelligence analyst Patrick Vikingsson, leads to the discovery that local bikie groups have been transformed into the tentacles of an international Triad network prepared to work with anyone, anywhere – as long as they can deliver money or drugs. While partly fictionalised for legal reasons, most of what is here is the disturbing truth.  Along the way we meet Hux, the cunning and narcissistic local connection in the triad-bikie enterprise, his minions, Dylan Welch, the investigative journalist trying to make sense of the bikie violence and Senator Steve Hutchins, the politician trying to help the cops.  McKenzie gained unprecedented access to a gold mine of the most secretive of criminal intelligence.  He has used it to create a gripping story that also mounts a compelling case for a new approach to drug rings that grow richer and more powerful by the day. ****

Partners & Crime
Rochelle Jackson
Allen& Unwin
$29.95
This is a long-overdue book that tells the stories of women who loved some of the nation’s most feared and dangerous men. Jackson’s profiles a diverse range of women, including Chopper Read’s former wife Mary-Ann Hodge, illegal casino king George Freeman’s wife Georgina Freeman, organised crime boss Bob Trimbole’s girlfriend Ann-Marie Presland, Melbourne gangland killer Nikolai “The Bulgarian” Radev’s ex-wife Sylvia Bruno and Tania Herman, who conspired with lover Joe Korp to kill his wife. The women are portrayed sympathetically, but there are no excuses or apologies for the decisions that led each of them into their relationships. Jackson has clearly earned the trust of her subjects and this is reflected in the intimate portrayals of these women’s lives, and in some cases, their darkest moments. ****

The Double Life of Herman Rockefeller
Penguin
Hilary Bonney
$29.95
It was a mystery with the most titillating ingredients – a missing millionaire who created a secret life to mask his insatiable sexual appetite and a pair of swingers who were dead ringers for Fast Forward’s Bob and Cheryl Ugly. Respected church-goer Herman Rockefeller’s disappearance in 2010 sparked immediate fears for his safety, but the story behind it turned out to be utterly inexplicable. How did he end up in the home of a depressed, alcoholic, single mother and her rubbish-collector boyfriend? And why did they kill him? Bonney does an excellent job answering these questions and piecing together his killers’ sad lives. But it is Rockefeller’s secrets which are most fascinating, and the story only scratches the surface of a man whose life was as compartmentalised as the filing cabinet which held the only clues to his dual existence.
***1/2

Call Me Cruel
Michael Duffy
Allen & Unwin
$29.99
Aboriginal police liaison officer Paul Wilkinson was a good-looking man with a young family and a wandering eye. He was also a manipulative and obsessive liar who lived in a fantasy world that would take years for police to unravel. During his four-month affair with naïve newlywed Kylie Labouchardiere, they exchanged more than 20,000 text messages. But when she announced she was pregnant and wanted to be with him, Wilkinson ended their relationship – and her life. In his quest to remain free, he destroyed the lives of many others who were close to Kylie and even tried to frame a police officer with her murder. Duffy methodically traces the  police investigation and Wilkinson’s trail of outrageous lies, which manipulated the justice system but ultimately led to his downfall.
***1/2

The Frankston Serial Killer
Vikki Petraitis
Clan Destine Press
$29.95
Paul Charles Denyer was a dull, chubby 21-year-old no one gave a second glance. There was nothing to mark him as dangerous but he’d been fantasising about killing women since he was 14. When he finally began acting on those impulses in 1993, Petraitis was joining local police patrols for research on another book. Denyer’s brief reign of terror in Melbourne’s Frankston claimed the lives of two teenagers and a young mother who had given birth 10 days earlier. Unlike the stereotypical highly intelligent serial killer, Denyer remained free through nothing more than dumb luck. The police investigation is well framed and the personal stories of the victims are heartbreaking. But this “revised and updated” edition is poorly edited and riddled with spelling errors.
***

City of Evil
Sean Fewster
Hachette
$22.99
The Advertiser’s senior court reporter expertly dismantles Adelaide’s murder capital myth, then establishes the disturbing truth – that the very bad things that do happen here are in a league of their own. In this expanded edition, Fewster handpicks an Aladdin’s Cave of depravity from his decade spent covering our justice system. A compelling essay on the history of Adelaide crime introduces the 11 stories, which are told in Fewster’s crisp, colourful and uniquely entertaining style. Their characters range from murderers, child pornographers and a serial rapist to the incomparable case of the lesbian prostitutes who decapitated and dismembered a transvestite pro-wrestling truck driver. This edition contains a new chapter pinpointing the truth about the confusing murder case against Rajini Narayan, the scorned woman wrongly dubbed the “penis-burning wife”.
****

Don’t Shoot
David M. Kennedy
Bloomsbury Publishing
$29.99
This book’s sub-title, One man, a street fellowship and the end of violence in inner city America, seems a ludicrous statement. But Kennedy, a hands-on, self-taught criminologist, has every right to make it, succeeding where so many government authorities have failed. He spent decades on the streets with the police and the drug crews, who were equally suspicious of a bearded, long-haired outsider, but were ultimately won over by his unrivalled knowledge and analysis of how they behaved. He developed a homicide-reduction program – and later, anti-drug program – that was so successful, its first deployment was dubbed “the Boston Miracle”. It brought gang members into meetings with people they respected, social services who could help them and law enforcement officials who were prepared to try something completely different. They meant it, the gangs believed it and it worked. A brilliantly written memoir of a streetwise academic who believed he could change the world, and did.
*****

Clarence Darrow – Attorney for the Damned
John Farrell
 Scribe, $39.95
Clarence Darrow was a giant of the American legal and political landscape, a rebel with a cause. He was a lawyer who stood up for the underdog – the poor, negroes, women, children and anyone facing the gallows. Today, Darrow’s courtroom presence would have made him a movie star, president or both. But he was full of contradictions – a man of great humanity pursuing the least popular causes, yet also an incorrigible womaniser who took money from ruthless killers. Farrell does not flinch as he sifts through the myths and lies, revealing the truth even when it is unpalatable. In mining a rich vein of newly uncovered sources, he has created what is arguably Darrow’s definitive portrait.
* * * * *

The Price of Life
Nigel Brennan, Nicole Bonney and Kellie Brennan,
Penguin, $29.95
Rookie photojournalist Nigel Brennan and Canadian colleague Amanda Lindhout blundered into Somalia in August 2008 and promptly landed a huge story – their own kidnapping. He tells his story in diary style, intertwined with his sister’s and sister-in-law’s harrowing accounts of the family’s bid to save his life. They sold homes and scraped together every last cent – but it was not enough to secure his freedom. It takes several chapters to come to grips with the alternating diary entries and family dynamics, but then it all falls into place and develops into a gripping tale. The Department of Foreign Affairs emerges as a bungling bureaucracy that forces the family to take matters into their own hands.
* * * *

Brothers: Justice, Corruption and the Mickelbergs
Antonio Buti
Fremantle Press, $32.95
This book’s release has been overshadowed by a feud between the lawyer-turned-MP who wrote it, the millionaire social justice campaigner who funded it but did not want it published, and the two surviving Mickelberg brothers, who say it glosses over key issues and was supposed to be an “academic book”. It recounts the police investigation into the 1982 Perth Mint swindle and the 30-year battle by the brothers to prove they were victims of police corruption. There are many twists, including murders, suicide and the confession of a corrupt detective, as well as the wider story of injustices in other infamous WA cases. Buti’s style may be lawyerly and factual, but this is a compelling story.
* * *

Blood Brotherhoods
John Dickie
Sceptre, $35
It is almost certainly the most ambitious true-crime assignment ever: to lift the veil of myth, mystery and silence – omerta – shrouding Italy’s notorious criminal organisations. The result is a stunning success; a sprawling, powerful historical narrative that is the definitive story of Sicily’s Mafia, the Camorra of Naples and Calabria’s Ndrangheta. Crucially, it pinpoints exactly why Italy has never been able to rid itself of the scourge of organised crime. As Dickie explains: “The best way to divulge its secrets, to reconstruct those intrigues, and in doing so to provide more satisfying answers to the questions surrounding the mafias’ origins, is to begin by simply telling stories.” And that is what this book does best.
* * * * *

The Murder Room
Michael Capuzzo
Penguin True Crime, $29.95
As a general rule, the very best true crime reads like fiction, as though it has been plucked from the writer’s imagination rather than interviews and transcripts. These tales from the Vidocq Society, a team of the world’s finest forensic investigators whose monthly lunches lead to justice in cold-case murders, are a stunning example of this tenet in action. They are led by an ex-FBI agent, a sculptor and ladies’ man who speaks to the dead, and an eccentric profiler. There are amazing tales here, not least of which are the investigators’ own stories. But it’s the murder of a boy found in a box in Philadelphia in 1957 that is the heart of this story, which is crafted by a writer who is a match for his brilliant but flawed subjects.
****

Betrayed
Clive Small & Tom Gilling
Allen & Unwin $27.99
Young and idealistic, Joe and Jessie are plucked from the NSW police to go undercover, immersing their personal and professional lives in a potentially deadly game with major drug dealers and crooked cops. They eventually become a couple and spiral out of control after their superiors turn on them in the most extraordinary manner and brand them criminals. Former top cop Small’s insight and knowledge is crucial to the story and he is withering in his criticism of the upper echelons of the NSW police force in the supposed new era of policing that followed the Wood Royal Commission. It takes several chapters to get to the heart of the couple’s story, but it’s worth the wait for the shocking twists and the eventual outcome.
***

Murderer No More
Colleen Egan
Allen & Unwin, $32.99
The 1994 Perth murder of Pamela Lawrence was an open-and-shut case. Mentally ill local man Andrew Mallard was quickly arrested, charged, convicted and jailed. If not for journalist Colleen Egan, he would still be in prison today. She took on the insular world of WA’s police and judiciary and hit brick walls, including Mallard himself, who descended into near-madness in prison. But Egan’s tenacity and impeccable journalistic skills drew others to the investigation, which became a crusade for justice that ended in the High Court 12 years later. Simultaneously appalling and inspiring, this is an important Australian true crime book.
*****

King of Thieves – The Adventures of Arthur Delaney and the Kangaroo Gang
Adam Shand
Allen & Unwin, $32.99
Shand takes a refreshing detour from the contemporary underworld to pursue the tantalising legend of a loose network of Australian shoplifters known as the Kangaroo Gang which plundered Britain and Europe in the 1960s. Charismatic “King” Arthur Delaney and his merry band of expats lay siege to London’s finest department stores, jewellers and banks. The ease with which they stole millions of pounds worth of goods, cash and cheques is quite extraordinary. There are anecdotes which reveal the gang’s techniques, escapes, codes and biggest successes, including the theft of gems worth 6 million pounds.
* * * *

The Informant
Kurt Eichenwald
Scribe $29.95
In 1992, the FBI stumbled upon Mark Whitacre, an executive at grain trader and food processing giant ADM, who was willing to testify to a vast international price-fixing conspiracy. The company’s in-house motto was: “The competitors are our friends, and the customers are our enemies.” Enigmatic Whitacre risks his own safety but also misleads the FBI, ending up in more trouble than the targets. Eichenwald leaves no plot twist or tape transcript unexplored. Unfortunately, this makes for a convoluted story with too many characters rather than the fastpaced tale that Hollywood has drawn from this book.
* * *

Lambs to the Slaughter
Debi Marshall
Random House $34.95
Derek Percy committed a single crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt in court. That one unspeakable act, a brave little boy and the persistence of two generations of police and grieving families has finally led to the circumstantial but compelling conclusion – that a snowdropping loner who grew into a sadistic paedophile is Australia’s worst child serial killer. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the links drawn between Percy and the Beaumont children, the Wanda Beach murders, the Simon Brooks murder and the Linda Stilwell disappearance. But the whole truth is frustratingly out of reach – hidden behind the blank, piercing eyes of a man who must never again be allowed to walk among us.
****

Blood Brother
Robin Bowles
The Five Mile Press $29.95
University student Jeffrey Gilham inexplicably slaughters his parents and brother at their Sydney home, then stages an audacious cover story, claiming his brother killed  their parents and he then killed his brother in an act of revenge.  But when his uncle’s suspicions of the terrible truth were finally believed, justice caught up with Gilham. In March, a judge branded him a cold-blooded killer and a consummate liar and sentenced him to life in prison. This account, a blend of interviews with key players and much of the evidence from the second trial, has been rushed to the shelves and reads like it. Incredibly, the judge also claims Gilham is not a danger to the community and is unlikely to reoffend.
**

Chemical Cowboys
Lisa Sweetingham
HarperCollins $27.99
Drug Enforcement Agent Robert Gagne was one of the first officers to recognise in the early 1990s that the pills dismissed as “kiddie dope” would be the world’s next great drug scourge. Sweetingham skilfully weaves Gagne’s obsessive pursuit of ecstasy kingpin Oded Tuito through the wider story of the drug’s global spread and the slow response by authorities. From comical scenes of DEA agents dressed as gay ravers to international covert operations that reveal the drug’s pandemiclike spread, this is a meticulous and definitive account of law enforcement’s best – and worst – efforts to stem the potentially deadly party drug.
* * * *

The Crimes of Josef Fritzl
Stefanie Marsh and Bojan Pancevski
HarperElement $32.99
Elisabeth Fritzl endured 24 years of rapes, beatings and psychological torture at the hands of her sadistic father. She also endured six pregnancies and then battled to raise her children in a mildewy, rancid cellar. The incomprehensible crimes of Josef Fritzl were ripe for a rerun of last year’s tabloid frenzy when the case went to court. But the authors instead conduct a forensic examination, delving deeply into the history of the man, his town and Austria itself. Their legwork delivers significant insight into what drove Fritzl and also raises serious questions about the authorities who blindly accepted his fantastic stories, and their extreme reluctance to conduct any self-analysis in the aftermath.
* * * *

Infiltration – The true story of the man who cracked the Mafia
Melbourne University Publishing
Colin McLaren $32.99
Undoubtedly one of Australia’s best undercover cops, the author is a man driven to become everything his violent alcoholic father was not, embarking on a police career while juggling the demands of being a single father. This memoir tells vivid and engrossing stories of law enforcement in Victoria in the 1980s. And what stories they are – the Queen St massacre, the pursuit of the Pettingill crime family, the Walsh St police murders and the pursuit of Mr Cruel. They are all gripping, first-hand accounts from an investigator who saw it all.
Curiously, his two years infiltrating the Griffith mafia, touted as the book’s centrepiece, occupy only a handful of chapters, but are no less fascinating.
*****

Crime and Punishment
G.F. Newman
Murdoch Books $32.95
This sex and violence filled gangster novel is a fictional history of London crime from the 1950s to the1970s, weaving the story of a dodgy East End family with real life events and villains. Unburdened by the moral dilemmas of its Russian namesake, this is more about the flourishing of crime and the absence of punishment. It focuses on the lives of the psychotic Brian Oldman and his uncle, Jack Braden, angry and disillusioned men who slip happily into the underworld. Robberies, protection rackets, gangland vendettas, cops on the take, lurid sex and unholy communions abound in an engaging tale.
* * * *

Crims in Grass Castles
Keith Moor
Viking $32.95
Updated and reissued to coincide with the second Underbelly TV series, this 1989 book was the first to join the dots between drug lord Robert Trimbole, Griffith’s drug trade and its links to international syndicates. In the 1970s, Trimbole and the Calabrian Mafia ruled Australia’s marijuana trade. The business expanded to heroin when Trimbole joined Terry Clark and Mr Asia, and then to murder when Donald Mackay blew the whistle. This new edition includes excerpts from the memoir of Mackay’s widow and a dossier on former federal minister Al Grassby. While the TV series focuses on the sleaze, this book is grounded in facts; the only flesh is Trimbole’s corpse after his ignominious death in Spain.
****

The Killing of Caroline Byrne
Robert Wainwright
Allen & Unwin $24.95
Too many true crime tales are, sadly, simply cut-and-paste accounts of stories already in the public domain. The best, like this book, ferret out untapped sources, new angles and tackle the unanswered questions. In documenting the heart-wrenching ordeal of Tony Byrne, the father who fought for years to bring his model daughter’s killer to justice, Wainwright has created a gripping account that sheds new light on the case’s many mysteries. He also paints a compelling portrait of Gordon Wood, Caroline Byrne’s enigmatic and utterly creepy boyfriend. His behaviour and explanation of how she came to be pitched over The Gap in Sydney are bizarre to say the least.
***

Public Enemies
Bryan Burrough
 Penguin $26.95
Acclaimed Vanity Fair contributor Bryan Burrough brings to life the most spectacular crime wave in American history: the two-year battle between J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and the Barkers. Years of research, including a review of recently disclosed FBI files, translate into a gripping narrative which rightly claims to be the definitive account of the 1930s War on Crime. The battle unfolds amid an epidemic of bank robberies, but it was the Kansas City Massacre in June, 1933 that touched off the war. The book exposes bumbling on both sides and debunks many popular myths, including the one that a jigsaw-loving grandmother dubbed Ma Barker was the head of a family of violent crooks. Later this year, the book will get the Hollywood treatment from director Michael Mann and an all-star cast, including Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.
****

Inside Their Minds
Rochelle Jackson,
Allen & Unwin $29.95
It’s an intriguing premise – select a group of the nation’s most notorious and enigmatic criminals and try to find out what makes them tick. Investigative journalist Jackson recruits a forensic psychologist, Ian Joblin, to delve into the lives and minds of an eclectic group which includes serial killer Ivan Milat, female sex offender Karen Ellis, Port Arthur mass murderer Martin Bryant and bank robber Brenden Abbott. While there are no simple, definitive answers to the question of what motivated these criminals, Jackson and Joblin do reveal genuine insights into their lives. Joblin, who interviewed Bryant at length, adds crucial analysis while Jackson is a thorough researcher who crams every conceivable detail into her writing. She contacted all her subjects as well as many people in their lives to create credible and disturbing portraits of the criminals and the darkness that lurks within. ***

Outside the Law 2
Edited by Lindy Cameron
Five Mile Press $29.95
The problem with anthologies is that the quality can vary wildly, as it does here. The opening story, about the senseless murder of a teenager by two of her friends, contains factual errors, is poorly researched, badly structured and answers few likely questions. But then forensic pathologist Shelley Robertson writes with authority and insight, posing the “mad or bad” question about a man who shot an abortion clinic guard. In another story, she tells of her frustration with the legal system’s inability to deliver justice for a little girl who died a terrible death. Elsewhere, Robin Bowles examines the treatment of Joe D’Alo, a Victorian detective ostracised for writing a book about the murder of two officers. D’Alo made serious errors of judgment in revealing police procedures and the names of informants in his book, but as is spelt out here, his motives were admirable. **

McMafia – Crime Without Frontiers
Misha Glenny
Bodley Head $34.95
Tony Soprano should have emigrated to Bulgaria and joined the Communist Party. The ruthless manner in which organised criminals used the political system to transform Eastern Europe into their own cash machine would have impressed the TV gangster. They are part of a much bigger picture painted by Glenny, who studies gun runners in Ukraine, money launderers in Dubai, drug syndicates in Canada, cyber criminals in Brazil, racketeers in Japan and many more. Glenny’s analysis of the shadow economy that has thrived in the wake of globalisation is likely to be one of the most complete and insightful undertaken. He concludes that without some form of global governance, “organised crime and corruption will combine with protectionism and chauvinism to engender a very unstable and very dangerous world”. ****

Crime Scene Investigations
Vikki Petraitis
The Five Mile Press $24.95
As much as TV’s CSI has glamorised the world of forensics, the reality can be complex and mind-numbingly slow. But in the hands of Vikki Petraitis, a consummate storyteller, there is rarely a dull moment as she weaves the forensic intricacies of four Australian homicide cases into thoroughly researched narratives. Most impressive is the opening story on the 1986 Russell St bombing, in which she recounts how police and crime scene experts had to literally piece together the events leading up to the horrific crime which claimed the life of a policewoman. Petraitis, a primary school teacher turned true crime writer, who has built an impressive backlist of seven titles, also includes an author interview at the end of the book, an FAQ-style grilling in which she explains why she was compelled to “ditch fiction” in favour of the real thing.
***

Wasting Police Time
David Copperfield
Random House $24.95
PC “David Copperfield” is a self-described ordinary working copper who spends his days filing, stapling and writing endless forms, reports, statements, emails and exhibits. Frustrated that his ambition to “put baddies in jail” was thwarted by red tape and bureaucracy, Copperfield started a daily blog about police life. It struck a chord with his fellow officers and millions of Britons, and was adapted into this book. He is honest, funny and insightful but also right-wing, cynical and sarcastic – although he can almost be forgiven once the enormity of the police bureaucratic mindset becomes clear. Even a single threatening text message generates a mind-boggling amount of red tape that leaves precious little time for real police work. Copperfield has since been unmasked as Staffordshire bobby Stuart Davidson, who has now moved to Canada.
***

Court in the Middle
Andrew Fraser
Hardie Grant $29.95
Disgraced Melbourne lawyer Andrew Fraser had a redemption of sorts this year when he gave evidence that helped to convict serial killer Peter Dupas of a murder. He should have stopped there. Jailed in 2001 for his role in a $2.7 million cocaine deal, Fraser insists this book is not a whinge about how hard done by he was. But as the title’s bad pun suggests, he can’t help but cast himself as a victim. He promises to lift the lid on police corruption and blow the whistle on Victoria’s jail culture, but delivers little not already known. And born-again fervour over drugs and corruption is a bit rich from a lawyer who defended the underworld’s lowest forms of life, and whose cocaine habit took dumb arrogance to celebrity levels. Fraser believes he’s a brave survivor badly treated by a corrupt and vengeful system. It does not appear to have crossed his mind that he got what he deserved. *

Big Shots
Adam Shand
Viking $32.95
Adam Shand is a finance reporter who set out to penetrate Melbourne’s underworld and get to the bottom of its bloody war. Hitting brick wall after brick wall, he gets an inexplicable break – drug kingpin Carl Williams invites him to McDonald’s; Mick Gatto grants him an audience and even Chopper Read plays emeritus professor on his various theories. Soon, Shand is enmeshed in the dangerous politics of the underworld, trying to unravel the feuds while striving not to offend the wrong colourful identity. The story centres on Tony Mokbel’s falling out with “old-school” crooks and his alliance with Williams against the Moran faction. In his bid to move from naive newcomer to informed observer, Shand blurs the lines of journalistic neutrality. But his gangland gonzo adventure is engrossing, and his relationship with, and analysis of, Williams before he was jailed for life is fascinating.  ***

The Child Who Never Was
Allison Langdon
Park Street Press $27.95
Three hidden pregnancies, two secret adoptions and a missing baby no one knew existed. Olympic water polo aspirant Keli Lane spent years weaving a web of lies to keep these facts from those closest to her. Years later, authorities start asking questions and it emerges that only two hours after she fled a Sydney hospital with newborn Tegan in 1996, Lane arrived at a friend’s wedding, unruffled and alone. But when her deception is exposed, she continues to create and revise elaborate tales. The coroner admits it is the most frustrating case of his career and he can only recommend measures to ensure such a tragedy never occurs again. TV reporter Langdon does an excellent job dissecting Lane’s duplicity, but she, like the coroner, is unable to explain Keli Lane’s bizarre behaviour nor reveal the fate of her newborn daughter. ***

Mr Sin
Tony Reeves
Allen & Unwin $24.95
Tony Reeves’s 40-year fascination with Abe Saffron began in 1965 when a film projector he owned was seconded for an eye-opening Saffron “movie night”. It was his first experience with a “cunning, calculating manipulator, driven by greed, sex, lust for power and an ego that required reassurance to ensure the world would see him as a gentle family man”. Such a statement would once have cost the author millions, but the death of the notoriously litigious Saffron last year means the truth can now be told. Mr Sin details the extraordinary reach of Saffron’s tentacles into the highest echelons of authority, from his earliest days as a Sydney hotel baron. Reeves leaves no stone unturned examining the life of a man feted by the corrupt but reviled by those who recognised what he was, summed up in the book by journalist John Silvester: ”He was scum. He will not be missed.”  ****

Fatal Flaw
Roger Maynard,
Random House $29.95
IT was the geography of hotel worker Janelle Patton’s 2002 murder that initially captured public attention, the first known murder on a remote island with a dark past. There were only 3000 people on Norfolk Island that day, but as the investigation and inquest passed without a genuine suspect emerging, it developed into a compelling whodunit. The book traces the background and final movements of the feisty Patton, whose abrasiveness was suggested as a murder motive. It also follows the inquest and examines the ”persons of interest” who were identified, before a single piece of DNA evidence finally put the investigation on track. But Maynard labours over the island’s ”dark underbelly” without delivering evidence of it. The glaring lack of quotes not only makes the narrative hard work, it also suggests the author had trouble penetrating the island’s code of silence. **

Meaner Than Fiction
Edited by Lindy Cameron,
The Five Mile Press $24.95
Readers get more than “just the facts, ma’am” in these Australian true crime stories of failed justice, by women crime writers venturing beyond the borders of fiction. Cameron frames the collection using the outrageous treatment of Andrew Taylor, a doctor who survived a depressed man’s hail of gunfire, to draw distinctions between the genres; the most obvious being that in crime fiction readers get answers or at least an ending – while these are rare luxuries in true crime. Kathryn Deans examines the evidence and the questions that remain in several controversial South Australian cases, including that of Henry Keogh, convicted for murdering his girlfriend, Anna-Jane Cheney. Forensic pathologist Shelley Robertson’s personal insight into “the whole truth” is a highlight of this intriguing collection, which raises serious questions about justice in this country. ****

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One thought on “Book reviews

  1. Pingback: TGIF: Links, reviews, and playing Law and Order on your iPad | Crime City After Dark

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