Mur­der made clear

Ross Fitzger­ald

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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