Murder made clear
THESE four books share a number of characteristics, some of which at first glance may seem relatively unimportant. They all claim to be telling a, or the, true story about a significant crime. They each have a snappy title, followed by a catchy subtitle. They have short chapters and are simply written, so that their plots can be followed without too much effort on the part of the reader.
With the exception of No Angel , which is set in the US, they boast coloured photographs of the prominent players, so that readers can see what these characters look like. Significantly, none of them has an index, which makes it difficult for the litigious and self-important to look themselves up.
Thus these four books can be seen as part of a genre that neither pretends to offer high literature nor to provide serious, in-depth social, political or psychological analysis.
Again with the exception of No Angel , all involve reflecting about true crime stories that have been reported widely in the mainstream media, yet the authors claim to be offering new insights and often hitherto unpublished facts.
Clearly The Killing of Caroline Byrne , Lady Killer , Crims in Grass Castles and No Angel are aimed at a large and relatively educated general audience that has a hunger for true crime. In my opinion, these books, in the main, successfully meet this aim, although whether they will be primarily read as crime novels or history is moot. My guess is that they represent a crossover between the two, with the latter taking precedence, and that at least the three books set in Australia will sell well and be widely read.
The most accessible and informative of the four is Robert Wainwright’s inside story of how the dogged determination of 24-year-old Sydney woman Caroline Byrne’s devoted father, Tony Byrne, led to the conviction, 13 years after his daughter’s murder, of Gordon Wood, her obsessive partner and a former employee of rogue financier Rene Rivkin.
Wainwright’s deceptively simple writing style gathers momentum as the enthralling but complicated tale unfolds. The easy reading of The Killing of Caroline Byrne is the result of the author’s hard work and narrative persistence. Although the case was covered widely across Australia, he reveals fascinating snippets of previously inaccessible information. And then there are facts that are not well known.
How many readers know, for example, that Byrne had a psychology degree from the University of Sydney and that Wood boasted a degree in economics?
And how many realise that, courageously, Sydney’s grand dame of good manners, June Dally-Watkins ( or Miss Dally, as she prefers to be known to her charges), refused to countenance for a second, that Byrne, who was one of her brightest girls, had committed suicide?
Byrne’s mother had committed suicide by an overdose of tablets four years before her daughter’s murder and Tony Byrne was so distraught in both cases that he could not bring himself to attend either his wife’s funeral or that of his daughter.
Senior NSW prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC, who had successfully prosecuted serial killer Ivan Milat, not only secured Wood’s conviction for the 1995 murder of Byrne, but also the conviction of Bruce Burrell for the 1997 kidnap and murder of Kerry Whelan and the murder, two years earlier, of 74-year-old Dorothy Davis. In a bold move, Allen & Unwin, who published The Killing of Caroline Byrne , decided to release Lady Killer before Burrell’s appeals against his murder convictions had been heard.
A common thread in both books is the doggedness of key members of the NSW police, despite a number of mistakes made early in the cases by junior colleagues; and the persistence of Whelan’s husband, Bernie Whelan, for whom