Blacklands by Belinda Bauer


Blacklands was Belinda Bauer’s first book, through which she became an accidental crime writer. *

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book she writes:

Blacklands was never intended to be a crime novel. I thought it was going to be a very small story about a boy and his grandmother.

12 year old Steven Lamb’s life is dominated by his uncle Billy, even though the two never met. Billy didn’t live to enter his teens. He fell victim to a paedophile serial killer long before Steven was born.

Steven’s small family lives with his grandmother who regularly stands at the window, looking through it as if still waiting for her son Billy to come home.

Steven reasons that the dysfunction within his family, the lack of expressed love and warmth, has been caused not only by grief over Billy’s murder, but because his body was never discovered.

Steven is determined to put things to right by finding his uncle’s remains. He sets out with map and spade onto the nearby Exmoor, but it’s a project hampered by scale, having no clue where it would be best to dig.

That’s something only one person knows for sure, Arnold Avery, the man guilty of Billy’s murder.

Steven starts a surreptitious correspondence with Avery, trying to learn the secret of Billy’s grave, instigating a disturbing interaction between the two.

Bauer tells the story from the points of view of Steven and Avery. Each of them have far different reasons for continuing the correspondence, but the shared focus on Billy’s murder and burial has consequences Steven couldn’t have imagined.

One piece of writing advice that I picked up from somewhere regarding the construction of a short story, was that if you include a description of a gun early in the story, that gun has to be used before the end of it. In other words, particularly in short form writing, don’t clutter the story with unnecessary detail – make everything is pertinent.

Blacklands is not a short story, but Bauer seems to follow that advice throughout the book. There are so many colourul little details introduced that could have been  legitiamtely put aside after they’ve added dimension to a character, but instead they become vital, active elements later .

I didn’t need to find yet another author to follow, but this book has made me add Bauer’s work to my growing list of books to read.

Her most recent novel Snap has been longlisted for this year’s Man-Booker Prize.




It wasn’t until a lunch to sign a contract with her publisher, Transworld, that Bauer learned she was all set for a career as a crime novelist. “We were sitting in this posh restaurant with a contract between us and [her editor] hands me a pen and says: ‘Just tell us what your second book is going to be about.’ I said: ‘It’s going to be about these two children in a spaceship,’ and she took the contract away, whoop, like that tablecloth trick. And she said: ‘No, it has to be a crime novel.’ I was floored – I had no idea how publishing worked, because I’d always done such diverse scripts as a screenwriter. I literally had to make it up there at the table,” says Bauer.

So, having “never read anything that was actually marketed as a crime book”, she started out as a crime writer on “possibly a different footing to someone who was immersed in the genre”.

The Stranger You Know (prelude)

strangerI’ve placed an order for this book after considering it for some time. I made the decision after watching a TV documentary about the murder of Kim Barry in my former home city of Wollongong.

It seems like the show was part of Crime Investigation Australia, a series made over 10 years ago, something I didn’t realise until I looked for more  information about it. I wonder whether it has been updated in some way with a new presenter because it didn’t look like an older show and the show’s  original presenter (Steve Liebman) is not the man who was on the episodes of the show I’ve seen.

Kim Barry a 19 year old, was murdered and mutilated in early 1981. Her headless and fingerless body was found dumped in bushland near Jamberoo, a village south of Wollongong. Her skull and fingers were later found in a separate bushland location also near Jamberoo.

Suspicion fell upon a local miner, Graham Potter, who was charged and later convicted of the murder. He served only 14 years for the gruesome crime. Potter is now one of Australia’s most wanted men – for later crimes unrelated to his original conviction. I suspect he’ll be mentioned again when I write about other books that have relevance to those alleged later crimes.

There are several reasons for my interest in this case:

  1. My dad worked at the same mine as Potter and knew who he was.
  2. A friend worked within the same department as Kim Barry’s father at a local industrial complex.
  3. My parents knew the man who discovered Kim Barry’s skull
  4. Gloria and I crossed paths with Potter soon after his release from jail. He was walking into a local K-Mart store as we were walking out.

Around 20 years after his release from jail for that murder, Potter is now stated to be Australia’s most wanted man, after skipping bail related to serious drug charges and being associated with a proposed contract killing.

Its possibly not only the police who list him as “most wanted”. When he was awarded bail a co-defendant, an alleged senior mafia figure was given a significant jail sentence. The implication was that Potter was allowed bail as a reward for services rendered. He could therefore also be on a mafia “most wanted” list.

Those latter details were added to the end of the show mentioned above, so I think that confirms that the series has been given an update.

One part of the documentary that I found went too far, was its use of several crime scene (and possibly mortuary) photographs of Miss Barry’s naked remains. There was a token attempt at light pixilation but barely enough to give her even the slightest degree of modesty, or to protect the viewer from the gruesomeness of the atrocities she suffered.

Surely Kim Barry deserved so much more respect than that in death after enduring so much at the end of her life.


Kim Narelle Barry 1961-1981


Trace by Rachael Brown

trace.jpgI first came across Trace as a Radio National podcast on the ABC.

Recently this book was published.

Rachael Brown has been investigating the 1980 murder of Maria James. That investigation led into some very dark places with disturbing implications.

Maria James was found murdered in her home, with multiple stab wounds. Several leads and witness reports led to dead ends, and her killer was never found, leaving her young sons with no answers about why they lost their mother.

Brown tries to follow up surviving witnesses to see if she can find anything that was missed in their stories.

Possibly the biggest breakthrough comes about when a witness ignored by the investigating police finally has his story heard. That witness is Adam James, the victim’s youngest son, who reveals he was subjected to sexual abuse by local Catholic priests.
Just before she was killed, Adam had told his mum what had been happening to him and she planning a confrontation with the abuser(s).

One of the priests later became implicated in earlier child sex-abuse cases, including allegations of conducting satanic rituals involving murder. As far-fetched as that may sound, what can be made of this? :

Melbourne’s Catholic Church has paid $33,000 to a man who says he was abused by a Melbourne priest who took part in satanic rituals in which three people were killed… the independent sexual abuse investigator for the Melbourne Archdiocese, barrister Peter O’Callaghan QC, ‘substantially accepted’ the victim’s claim…(Age, 27 May 2006).

In addition to the possible involvement of a priest in Maria James’s murder, other disturbing questions are raised about police action surrounding the case. A mix up of evidence from the murder site compromised investigation for decades. Rachael Brown also found that documents related to interviews associated with the case could not be located.

Incompetence or conspiracy

Again the far fetched implications of the latter don’t seem so unlikely when events from the past are taken into account – when there was “a conspiracy to cover up the crimes [of priests that] went right to the top” of the police force in the 1950s. (also see * below)

Maria James’ sons are currently hoping for a new inquest into their mother’s death.


The ABC Podcast of Trace can be found here:

Guardian review here:


When the Bough Breaks, by Matthew Benns

when-the-bough-breaksI found this book in a charity shop, costing only 50 cents. I’m not sure that I would have bothered with it if it hadn’t been so cheap. At that stage I wasn’t really interested in “true crime”.

After buying it I moved onto other books and left this one untouched on my book shelves. And then about a week ago I saw a short documentary related to the case being advertised on TV.

I recorded the doco for future viewing and put this book at the top of my reading list.

Kathleen Folbigg and her husband Craig seemed to be the unluckiest of parents. Over the years, their four infant children each succumbed to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). But was it bad luck, a dark quirk of fate – or something more sinister?

Eventually Folbigg was investigated and convicted for the murder of her children.

When the Bough Breaks is a fascinating account of the events, making Kathleen Folbigg’s guilt seem certain. But I can’t help holding onto a degree of scepticism. It’s easy to be swayed one way or the other by a single version of events and the angle from which that version is presented.

I recall too well the many accounts of an earlier case, where Lindy Chamberlain was imprisoned for the murder of her daughter Azaria after a prolonged trial by media, with most newspapers publishing all manner of wild accusations against Chamberlain and her husband. It took a few years before the powers that be acknowledged their mistake and Chamberlain was freed.

The case against Folbigg, while compelling, was entirely circumstantial, based on things like this:

  1. Her four infant children all died under very similar “unexplained” circumstances.
  2. Folbigg was the last person to see those children alive, and was the one to discover their lifeless bodies very soon after death (some were still warm).
  3. Her diaries had entries expressing strong “hints” of her guilt.
  4. Paediatric “experts” were adamant that the odds of losing four infants in the same way to natural causes would be about a trillion to one.  *

As a contrast to Folbigg’s case and the evidence against her, in particular the “expert” opinion, a similar case in Britain, around the same time, had a completely different result. The case of Trupti Patel receives a brief mention in the last chapter of When the Bough Breaks. She was acquitted after being tried for the murder of three infant children.

Basic details can be found here:

Considering the expert claims about the astronomical odds against Folbigg losing four infants to natural causes, the following excerpt of the article about Patel’s case is very interesting. In particular note the statements I’ve emphasised with bold type.

The case, which was heard at Reading crown court, was one of a number of famous court cases in Britain in which mothers who reported more than one cot death were accused of murder. It was one of a number of cases in which evidence was given by Roy Meadow, a controversial pediatrician whose testimony helped to convict Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, and Donna Anthony of murdering their babies. Meadow’s claim that the likelihood of two babies dying from natural causes in the same family was one in 73 million prompted the Royal Statistical Society to write a letter of complaint to the Lord Chancellor, stating that the figure had “no statistical basis”; other experts said that when genetic and environmental factors were taken into account, the figure was closer to one in 200

Taking into account what I’ve read in Matthew Benns’ book as well as the information contained in the following video, one thing that I’m very sure about is that our justice system is susceptible to serious error. The result of a trial seems too reliant on which side presents the most appealing case – whether the Prosecution or the Defence put on the better, more convincing show to sway a jury’s perception of the case at hand.

Faced with expert opinion expressing the astronomical odds against the chance of four similar “unexplained”  natural infant deaths in one family , how could a jury ignore the likelihood of homicide?

But as the Royal Statistical Society said regarding the similar Patel case, the stated figure of 73 million to one had “no statistical basis” (see quote above), and yet the figures suggested regarding the Folbigg case were even more extreme (trillion to one). *

Which expert opinion should a jury believe, and do they really get exposed to plausible alternatives? I recall from the Chamberlain case, that an “expert” had identified a blood spray in the Chamberlain’s car, proving that their daughter had been murdered in the car. What conclusion could a jury make when faced with evidence like that? And yet, later the spray pattern was “…found to be a ‘sound deadener’ sprayed on during the manufacture of the car” and NOT blood.  **

In the Folbigg case, police spent years trying to build up a case against her, including overseas trips to consult with amenable experts. But how long in comparison did the defence have to build their case? The video below shows that alternative expert opinion is available, but to what extent were those views presented (if at all) in Folbigg’s trial?

With the case of the diary entries, while Folbigg’s statement seemed to be self-incriminating,  they don’t necessarily express a categorical “confession” of criminal guilt – they could equally express feelings of self-condemnation about her perceived failings as a mother who had already experienced the death of multiple infants. But presented selectively, could the possibility of  ambiguity be hidden?

A major contributor of evidence for the prosecution was Craig Folbigg, Kathy’s husband and father of the dead infants.

Difficulties in their marriage (particularly as parents) can be seen in Kathy’s diary.

I can’t even trust or depend on him to look after [Laura] properly. He refuses to bother to learn anything about her. He doesn’t pat attention when feeding her, hasn’t changed a nappy, doesn’t do washing or ironing, only washes up once in a while. His life continues as normal. Work, come home and I look after him. He doesn’t even cook tea every now and then unless I ask him to. And then it is begrudgingly.

Craig’s testimony against his wife was given at a time when she had walked away from the marriage. He withdrew his accusations and suspicions when she returned to him, then when the relationship failed again he returned to his original story, once again incriminating his wife.

From what I’ve read and seen it’s easy to believe that Folbigg was responsible for the deaths of her children, but I find there are also things that make me question or even doubt that conclusion.

Overall, who can really know whether or not Folbigg is guilty and rightfully convicted?

Only she and God know for certain.




*   [Detective] Ryan spent two years collecting evidence and assembling a case that he believed would result in Kathleen Folbigg’s murder conviction. On April 19, 2001, police arrested her at her home, took her into custody, and charged her with four counts of murder. At her hearing, prosecutors claimed that she had deliberately smothered her children to death, and they produced the diary as the most incriminating evidence. They also presented a statement from forensic pathologist Janice Ophoven who said that the chances of all four children dying of SIDS “were a trillion to one.”



“Professor Cameron and Dr Jones concluded that the blood spray pattern found under the dashboard of the Chamberlain’s car could have been produced by a cut in a small artery.

“Subsequently, Joy Kuhl’s forensic report claimed to have found evidence of foetal haemoglobin in stains on the front seat of the Chamberlains’ 1977 Torana hatchback (foetal haemoglobin is present in infants six months and younger).

“She claimed to have identified foetal blood in 22 areas of the car, including the camera bag, floor, towel, console and scissors.”

There was so much conflicting evidence from witnesses and experts who both disputed and supported the Crown’s scenario and who questioned Joy Kuhl’s testing.

“The questionable nature of the forensic science evidence in the Chamberlain trial, and the weight given to it, raised concerns about such procedures and about expert testimony in criminal cases,” Ms Brown told the AFP recruits.

“The foetal haemoglobin in the Chamberlains’ car was later found to be a ‘sound deadener’ sprayed on during the manufacture of the car.”

Salt Lane by William Shaw

salt laneA woman’s body is found floating  in coastal marshland weeks after she was killed. The circumstances make it clear she’d been murdered, but why can’t the autopsy determine the cause of death?

And when DS Alex Cupidi notifies the woman’s son about the death of his mother, he insists that his mother had been at his house, only a day or two earlier, and very much alive.

Salt Lane is an intriguing follow-up to The Birdwatcher, in which Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi  had been introduced, almost as a secondary character.

Her relocation to Kent, after an ill-considered affair with a married colleague in London, isn’t going smoothly. The distance between her and her teenage daughter is growing, echoing the fraught relationship she had with her own mother. The demands of her job complicate her  attempts to heal those bonds, and too often her investigations touch raw family nerves, bringing her work very close to home.

Like William Shaw’s earlier books this one weaves real events into the story. The Greenham Common protests of the 1980s provide some background context to a plot addressing the present day issue of refugees, “illegal migrants” and how their legal vulnerability makes the susceptible to exploitation. All of Shaw’s books use a political or social situation relevant to the time, as an integral part of the crimes being investigated.

The first William Shaw book I read was The Birdwatcher. After that I went back and read his earlier books,  the Breen and Tozer series.

That series had a late 1960s setting, and I loved the portrayal of the period, as well as the many references to real events of the time .

I was disappointed when the Breen and Tozer series came to an end, so was excited to find a link in Salt Lane between that older series and this new one, but I’m not sure whether someone reading Salt Lane first would experience the same “wow” moment that I did when that connection was made.

While I strongly recommend this book, my recommendation would be to read Shaw’s books in the order they were written, coming to this one last. Each book has its individual story, but there is an ongoing story line across them all. I think cross-references between each book would be better appreciated by someone who had read the preceding ones.

William Shaw’s work is one of the best discoveries I’ve made this year and I’m impatient for his next book. According to The Book Depository, Dungeness is due for release in May 2019.



Killing Juanita by Peter Rees

Killing Juanita is about another murder case from the 1970s that has stuck in my memory.

I became familiar with some of the locations associated with it a decade after the events, when I occasionally visited Teen Challenge, a Christian group working in the Kings Cross area of Sydney.

Juanita Nielsen was last seen alive when she attended a meeting at the Carousel Cabaret to supposedly discuss advertising for one of their events in NOW, the local newspaper she owned. That meeting seems to have been arranged as bait to draw her to her death.

I remember the venue still being there at the time of my visits in the early 1980s. I don’t recall whether it still had the same name but its purpose hadn’t changed much, remaining the home of the Les Girls “all male revue”.

Juanita Nielsen was a prominent campaigner against planned redevelopment along Victoria Street, Kings Cross and became an expensive irritant to powerful people, like businessman Frank Theeman, who were losing a lot of money because of the resistance to their plans. Despite her disappearance being so obviously linked to a particular small group of people, no one was ever seriously investigated for her murder. Instead lesser charges of conspiracy to kidnap, relating to events a few days before her disappearance, led to the imprisonment of bar manager Eddie Trigg, the man she met at the Carousel – the last man known to see her alive.

Peter Rees places Nielsen’s story within its context of organised crime, and police and political corruption. within a similar time frame to the events I’ve referred to recently in The Griffith Wars and Crims in Grass Castles.

In an interesting parallel, the only convictions made in the Donald Mackay murder examined in those two books were also “conspiracy” charges, which included  the man alleged to have killed him. To this day no one has been charged with either of the Mackay or Nielsen murders, and there were indications that investigations into both cases were not a vigorous as they could have been. Of the Nielsen case, Peter Rees notes:

…it is now clear that in the critical early weeks the enquiry was hamstrung from above – with, at least, the knowledge of [NSW Police] Commissioner Fred Hanson – when they took the first steps to explore the Frank Theeman Victoria Street connection.

Frank Theeman had connections to Jim Anderson, the manager of the Carousel nightclub where Juanita Nielsen was last seen. Anderson’s subordinates were those convicted and jailed on “conspiracy to kidnap” charges and they had also been the last known to have been with Nielsen.

Of Jim Anderson, Rees writes:

At the time of Juanita’s murder, few people in Kings Cross were in a more dominant position than Jim Anderson. While to [investigating police] he was a prime suspect in Juanita’s disappearance, they never reached the stage where they contemplated an arrest. The evidence was considered, but there was just not enough there to charge Jim with any offence. Jim’s history shows he has always managed to stay Teflon clean. By various means, he has beaten counterfeiting, receiving and manslaughter charges, as well as suspicion of arson and conspiracy…He has no convictions despite a lifetime among Sydney’s underworld. As Eddie Trigg puts it “Jim was a great one for keeping his hands clean and letting others do the dirty work”.

Many years after the disappearance, a witness came forward claiming to have seen a man with a gun standing over Nielsen’s dead body in one of the club’s storerooms. By the time of that testimony, there had been major changes to the club building so there was no likelihood of any corroborating evidence being found.

The case remains officially unsolved.

The following video gives a highly recommended overview of Nielsen and her murder.

Scrublands by Chris Hammer

“He stands and looks back along the highway, wiping sweat from his brow. The horizon is lost in a haze of dust and heat, but he feels he can se the curvature of the earth, as if he’s standing on a headland looking out to sea.”

The initial appeal of this book was its setting. Publicity for this new release mentioned the story was based in a small Riverina town, and for me that set the book apart from countless others.

Maybe the last thing I needed was yet another book, considering I already have so many waiting to be read, but that Riverina connection was too much of a temptation.

I live alongside the Riverina region, and Gloria grew up in an area very much like the town at the centre of this book. The landscape (as briefly described in the opening quote above) is very familiar and reflects my own immediate impression when I experienced it during my first visit more than 25 years ago.

Riversend is a struggling drought-stricken small town, thrown into the national spotlight when its priest shoots five of the locals outside the church prior to a Sunday service.

Approaching the anniversary of the tragedy, city journalist Martin Scarsden is given the job of discovering how the town is coping a year later. After arriving in the town he discovers there may be a more important story to tell.

He soon finds one seemingly straight forward crime becomes increasingly complicated when previously unknown crimes, with possible connections to the church-side murders, come to light. The formerly closed case has to be revisited to address the new discoveries.

I loved the build up of complexity within this story; that the author could bring in several new plot strands, without creating confusion, before bringing them all together into a coherent and plausible  conclusion, that makes sense of the original shooting.

Most of the crime novels I’ve read to date have told their stories through the perspective of the police investigation. Scrublands varies this approach by giving a journalist’s eye view, touching on the difficulties faced when reporting a currently active investigation. That journalist, Martin Scarsden, needs to make decisions on the spot to make sure he meet news deadlines before competitors get in first.

… in his copy, the ambiguities of the real world are banished, all is black and white, there are no shades of grey. The words flow in a torrent, almost writing themselves: the evidence, the summation, the conviction. Guilty as proved.

Those decisions, made in inevitable haste, aren’t always the wisest, potentially muddying the investigative waters, and alienating the reporter from those he needs to trust in a town full of secrets, rumours and ill-founded assumptions.

I think I must have heard about this book from the publisher’s newsletter. Having worked for that publisher for a short time back in the 90s, I like to keep an eye on their output. This book alone has repaid that ongoing interest. It gave me one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year so far.

The only caution I would offer to anyone who might take my comments as a recommendation to read it for themselves is that the book includes occasional very strong coarse language, but nothing more extreme than what I frequently hear at work. Others, not exposed to that kind of thing on a regular basis might find its usage in the book a bit confronting.


Publisher’s website with book blurb and author details: